The Accidental Reader

When it comes to books, serendipity often trumps my usual fussy inclination toward list-making and order and the sternly beckoning Should-Reads. I’d heard about John Banville’s novel The Sea, because it won the Booker Prize for fiction in 2005. For English speakers other than Americans, the Booker is the pre-eminent literary prize in the world. (American writers aren’t eligible, and in any case they have their Pulitzer Prize, which I’ve heard carries a bit of heft in the excited States.) I hadn’t read a Booker winner since 2002’s Life of Pi (Yann Martel, one of two Canadians to win*) and 1998’s Amsterdam (Ian McEwan). The Sea jumped into my view as I passed the Express Read shelf of my fine local library (Only seven days ‘til $5 daily fines!).

Banville, an Irishman, has the reputation of being a writer’s writer, a maker of quiet but exquisitely told stories with craftsmanship abounding. Several of the blurbs of praise on the back cover testify that it is not a “page-turner”, that the admiring reader is compelled to read slowly, and often to re-read especially delicious phrases. It’s the “how did he do that?” factor, familiar to devotees of Michael Jordan or Stevie Ray Vaughan. As an avid student of writing, this factor has steadily slowed down my reading pace since my early twenties. (I’m trying to re-teach myself how to read quickly so I can get through sports pages and other journalism more efficiently.)

It took me some time to warm to Banville. It was clear immediately that he’s awfully good – he’s been Booker-nominated before, and I doubt he sells hugely – but I wasn’t swept into The Sea until about midway through. (Of course, this might have been due to my giving it only my tired moments, or to coming at it after an extended period of reading only non-fiction.) The narrator is not an awfully sympathetic character, at least not initially, and his story flips relentlessly from his elderly present to the recent past to one epochal adolescent summer. Banville also attempts the difficult feat of giving voice to a man who comes to self-awareness only late in life, and we realize things often at the same time as the narrator does. He’s diffident, often unsure, bitterly self-critical and even dismissive, and despite the beautiful turns of phrase he is often a hard guy to spend time with. But I found the challenges – including the experience of coming across entirely unfamiliar words in fiction (the narrator is an academic), which most of us don’t do much after the age of 19 or so – more than worth it. The book is less than two hundred pages long, and the first three quarters compellingly prepare the ground (but not the reader) for the revelations of the home stretch.

I want to read it again. I wanted to start right away, but the library was beckoning. If I am to follow the wisdom of the “read it before you own it” school of book buying, The Sea is a great candidate, besides containing writing that any writer is likely to want to experience again. On the other hand, I now have the complete list of the Booker short lists and winners since 1969, and there are many MUSTS included on that list. I’ll approach them systematically, at least until the next bout of accidentalism strikes.

* The other was Margaret Atwood for The Blind Assassin, one of her four nominations. You can collect your prize at any good bookstore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *