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Bookclub - The Sea by John Banville

Thursday 3 April 2014, 13:44

Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub on BBC Radio 4

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Editor's note: This episode of Bookclub is available on Sunday 6th April and will be available to listen online or for download.

John Banville - The Sea

John Banville quoted Nietzsche to this month’s readers on Bookclub: every man is an artist when he sleeps. He was making the point that he believes that dreaming is like writing fiction - a good thought for the start of our talk about The Sea, the novel which won him the Man Booker prize in 2005, because it is a book with the quality of a dream. Time shifts like the sands on the seashore, and Max, around whom the story revolves, is conscious of the past and the present at the same time. So is the reader, listening to a mysterious story that isn’t pieced together until the end of the book, and taken into a world that seems to obey the rules of the sea itself - calming and disturbing in equal measure.The Sea tells of childhood memories and loss and regret in later life, and conjures up for every reader the power of simple recollections from a young age - when the world seems to be full of hidden secrets and dangers, as well as excitements. In the case of Max, he’s come back to the seaside at Ballyless which he knew as a boy, and there are secrets he holds back as he tells his story. What did he see at The Cedars, the house to which he has returned?


John Banville and James Naughtie take questions from the audience John Banville and James Naughtie take questions from the audience

John spoke of the intensity of childhood experience, and the way in which much of his writing has been a process of inventing the past. He has, of course, a style that is poetic, and anyone who enjoys his writing will know the power that he summons up in his language. We spoke about his craft and he described rather movingly the way that he writes. How, for example, did he deal with time in The Sea? ‘Precisely by not trying. I trust my instincts, I trust the sentence. I write by the sentence, not by the paragraph or the chapter. There have been civilisations who lived without the wheel but who had the sentence – like the Incas. The sentence makes us human. It’s the essence of us.’

He also spoke of poetry, and how the story needs to be able to carry it. But poetry, he said was an unexpected business. He told a story about Seamus Heaney. ‘Joseph Brodsky [the Russian poet] came to the west and asked Seamus what rhymed with love. And Seamus said - “shove”.’ John liked that grittiness in a great writer - poetry, he says, isn’t a case of ‘moon and June’.

Our readers, as ever, asked penetrating questions about the mysteries in Max’s life, about the death of his wife Anna, and about his unhappiness - he wrestles like a slug that’s had salt put on its tail, says John.

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John Banville - I had many letters from people who said 'I was bereaved and this is exactly how I felt'

But although we talked a good deal about the characters in the book, it was a conversation that also probed the spirit of the writer himself. And he revealed his devotion to the mystery of the whole business of creation. One of the problems in meeting his own readers, he says, is that he no longer feels as if he is the person who wrote the book. ‘The person who wrote the book ceased to exist at 6pm when I stood up, and left. A strange ghost remains there all night to think up things to write tomorrow. I have little contact with the person who writes.’

He’s not a mystic, he says. No, but he understands the inexplicable - and he loves it.

I hope you enjoy the programme with John Banville as much as this month’s readers did.

And the book you should read for next month is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.

Happy reading.



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    Comment number 1.

    Ever since The Sea was first published I have had the following extract on my kitchen pinboard:

    "Happiness was different in childhood. It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things - new experiences, new emotions - and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvellously finished pavilion of the self."

    Hmmm! [I'm 68]


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Find out about this year's panel and theme