Travis Elborough talks to John Banville about his Man Booker winning novel, The Sea.
Max Morden is such a fascinating creation. Like two of your earlier, and equally compelling fictional narrators, Freddie Montgomery and Victor Maskell, he also has a professional involvement with art. What attracts you to the first person? And art historians for that matter? With The Sea did you begin with the character and voice, the profession, or the situation?
First-person narration seems to me the most credible, or perhaps I should say least incredible, form in which to write fiction. We live inside ourselves, necessarily, and our consciousness is a process of evidence-gathering. I can only say what I see. Painting is the most ‘evidential’ of the arts, being wholly superficial – all is surface – which of course does not mean it is incapable of plumbing the depths. One of my mottoes as a writer is a little jotting from Kafka’s journals: ‘Never again psychology!’ But alas, humankind is obsessed with its psychological workings, and since the novel can only treat of humankind . . . You see my predicament.
The title is extremely evocative. Max is quite obviously at sea in the wake of Anna’s death, sinking with grief and drunk for most of the novel (his tipple is brandy but ‘the sea’ for Homer was frequently ‘wine-dark’). Was that there early on? Or did you, like Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby, go through several different titles first?
I think I had the title before I had anything else, and I like to think an oceanic rhythm through every page.
The book, it strikes me, moves in threes. Max’s story revolves around the childhood holiday, his life with Anna and his return to Ballyless, and throughout he encounters and is involved in a series of triangles, first as an only child himself and finally when he is forced to go and live with his daughter and her partner. Max also refers to Rose, Mrs Grace and Chloe as ‘that summer’s salt-bleached triptych’. Did that structure and motif emerge while you were writing the novel, or that did that mimicking of a painterly form come with Max, as it were?
I suppose the triple form was vaguely present in my mind. A book at the very start comes to me as a nebulous geometric form, a kind of tension in space that has to be resolved. The resolution is effected by fleshing out the form with character, plot, dialogue, etc. But the original structure perseveres throughout, even when, or perhaps especially when, I am not conscious of it being at work. Art is a mysterious business.
You grew up in Wexford and have described your parents as ‘small people; small, good, decent people, who lived very circumscribed lives’. Max, similarly, comes from quite a humble background and what attracts him to the Grace family is that they represented a more cultured life, a life of mint sauce and French roadmaps that he himself will go on to enjoy as an adult. One of the many things the novel does so well is to convey a sense that escaping from one’s origins is not always a painless or easy process. It seems so deeply felt that I wondered if that mirrored your own trajectory of becoming a writer?
The book is not concerned with class or anything of that kind, but of course there is something of me and my history in Max – there has to be, since I am the only material I have to work with. Really, all the characters are me, that is, aspects of me. What can I know of other people? – though of course, the itch to know is what drives the novelist. Certainly in The Sea, as in all my other books, I have no interest in writing about my ‘trajectory’ – indeed, although it may seem paradoxical in the light of the foregoing, I have no interest in writing about myself at all. True art is always impersonal.
Max betters himself through education and by marriage, he also has to leave Ireland – he goes overseas – to obtain the latter, at least; how much, if at all, was this a comment on the fate of the Irish of his (or indeed your) generation?
As I’ve said, I had no intention of making a ‘comment’ on anything. A work of art is not about something, it is something, in the same way that life is not something that has meaning, only significance. And art’s intentions are entirely innocent – no comment, no opinion, no attempted coercion. All – all! – art attempts to do is to quicken the sense of life, to make vivid for the reader the mysterious predicament of being alive for a brief span in this exquisite and terrible world.
The allure of nostalgia and the impossibility of recapturing the past, as well as the loss of childhood innocence (along with life itself), are among the major themes of this book and have preoccupied many earlier novelists. How far did you see this book in the tradition of Proust, L. P. Hartley and, even, Orwell in Coming Up for Air, say?
No doubt my book has its place, however lowly, in the grand tradition. All art is to some extent shaped by what has gone before. But that is an organic process, not a conscious intention. Novels are made out of novels as much as they are out of life.
There’s a brilliantly impish strand of dark humour running through so much of your fiction – here I especially liked Max’s complaints about the consultant’s name, Mr Todd, being a bad joke, when Anna does indeed lose first her hair and then her life. While his own surname is Morden, which could be a play on ‘mordant’ or possibly an allusion to a stop at the end of a London tube line. For that reason, some reviewers compared this novel in particular to Samuel Beckett’s work. How much of an influence did he have on you?
There are two main paths that the modern Irish fiction-writer can take, the Joycean or the Beckettian. I have followed the latter way, for good or ill. Yet in many ways I am not a Beckettian at all. Influence is always pernicious, tainting as it does the individual voice. No one ever seems to notice, or at least they do not mention, the true influences on my work, particularly since the 1980s, which I should say are Yeats and Henry James. I take from Yeats the grand rhetorical flourish, though I try to leaven it with humour – Yeats was utterly humourless – and from James I take a version of modernism which is derrière-garde but no less revolutionary, I think, than anything Joyce or Beckett did.
You’d previously been nominated for the Booker Prize with The Book of Evidence, how did feel to win it with The Sea?
It was a great thrill, great fun. When my name was announced at the Man Booker dinner that night in 2005 I immediately recalled Philip Larkin’s lines in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ on the fathers-of-the-brides who had ‘never known / Success so huge and wholly farcical.’ One must try to keep a sensible perspective and not take oneself too seriously. There is no doubt that the prize is very influential. It sells many books, and attracts a certain number of new readers to a writer’s work. It is also important for publishers and, in particular, for editors, whose hands are strengthened when a writer such as myself, who is not a household name but whom they have championed, wins the plum prize.
At one point in the novel, Max refers to Pushkin’s belief that October was a good time for work. Do you have any seasonal superstitions when it comes to writing?
Yes, autumn is my time to work.
Elsewhere, Max mentions Valery’s view that a work of art is only ever abandoned not finished and also recounts a story about his hero Bonnard sneaking into the Musée du Luxembourg to touch up one of his old paintings. Do you share Bonnard’s compulsion to go back and improve your works?
I have a fantasy, which I’ve often spoken of, that I am walking past a bookshop and click my fingers and by magic my books on the shelves inside all go blank, so that I might start over and rewrite them. Impossible to go back, of course. One writes what one writes, and is stuck with it.
Given that you’ve said you hate all your novels, how do you regard The Sea now?
My friends tell me I must stop saying in public that I ‘hate all my novels’. What I mean is that I am profoundly dissatisfied with everything I have done simply because it is not good enough by my standards. But my standard is perfection, and as we know, perfection is not allowed to such as us. On the other hand, I begin every new book in the complete conviction that this time, this time I shall get it right. Rationally I know this will not be so, but art has its reasons.
An interview with Travis Elborough for this special 40th Anniversary Edition