Friday, April 29, 2016

The Sea, The Sea and The Sea

The sea. My favorite, most favorite place is the seacoast. I love how the sea changes. I love the smell of the sea air and the feel of the biting wind. I can never get enough of sea gazing.

A friend is traveling to Ireland later this year. She is reading Irish writers for the culture, history, geography, and to take the pulse of the country. She mentioned that she was reading The Sea by John Banville. At the time of our conversation I was reading one of my 2016 Reading Challenge TBR books, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. Both Irish writers, both winners of the Booker Prize for these books. I had read Banville's book several years ago but hardly remembered it. We agreed that we would get together soon to talk about our respective books. I decided to re-read The Sea and have just finished it.

The books are quite different, but also eerily the same. Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea is a chunk at 495 pages. Banville's is a quick read at 195 pages. I say "quick read" with tongue firmly in cheek. He packs a lot into one sentence. Both books are about memory and its vagaries. The protagonists are both men approaching old age. The setting of both is by the sea and the sea is a main "character" in each.

In The Sea, The Sea Charles Arrowby, recently retired from the theatre, has moved to an isolated house somewhere in coastal north England. His property includes an old Martello Tower, a remnant of the Napoleonic Wars. The house has no electricity or central heat. He is a lifelong bachelor who cooks hideous meals from canned goods, and he hints at a grand romantic disappointment in his early years. Charles intends to write his memoirs, but the book is barely begun before he is frantically writing about current events, of his own making, as they spiral out of control.

Here is Charles' proud description of one of his meals:

"Spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil; spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill; boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soy oil and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in; with these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef; a bottle of retsina."

Sounds good, eh?

Charles is self-regarding, manipulative, jealous, obsessive, treats people very badly, and thinks his house might be haunted. He has delusional visions which he ascribes to possible LSD flashbacks. He swims in the sea daily and is eventually visited by many of the old acquaintances he is meant to write about in his memoirs. Due to an obsession about his lost love, he commits a crime and finds himself in the middle of a horrible mess.

I could not put this book down. Murdoch's writing compels the reader to find out what crazy thing Charles or one of his visitors is going to say or do next. But it is not only Charles who is a main character. The sea, the sea is ever present. Murdoch's descriptions (written by Charles) of the sea are simply breathtaking. Rather than describing the sea in relation to someone or something happening at the time, it stands alone as its own separate entity, never just background for the action.

"There was nothing upon the luminous faintly-wrinkled expanse except wavery yellow replicas of the evening star and the low crouching moon. The sky was still a dimmed glowing blue, not yet sunk into the blackish blue of night."

"The sea was a choppy dark blue, the sky pale, with a smooth gleaming buff-coloured cloud just above the horizon like a long tatter of silk."

"Cool summer weather had come back with a misty sky and a calm sea. The water was a very pale luminous grey-blue almost white the same colour as the sky, shifting with a quick small dancing movement, and scattered by the misted sun with little explosions of metallic pale-gold light. It had the look of a happy sea..."

"The sea had regained its bejewelled purplish look, inlaid with spotted lines of emerald."

Sounds idyllic doesn't it, this deadly, beautiful sea?

Murdoch is known to be a difficult writer to "get". I have read several other works by her, and found them to be a bit inaccessible. Not so with The Sea, The Sea. She was a moral philosopher and this comes through in her writing.

"Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted."

Agree or disagree? Worth pondering. Personally, I think we are all actors most of the time.

Without giving away spoilers, I will leave it at that. Charles lands on his feet but is left with the prospect of aging:

"That is a dreadful land, old age."

I could not help thinking of Iris Murdoch's own "dreadful land" as she slowly succumbed to Alzheimer's disease.

 Moving on to John Banville's The Sea. What a treat! I am so glad I decided to re-read this book. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Banville either unconsciously put in bits he gleaned from The Sea, The Sea or he was paying homage to Iris Murdoch. She won the Booker in 1978, Banville in 2005.

Both books include the word "plimsoll", a type of rubber-soled canvas slip-on leisure or sports shoe. The usage of this word is not very common nowadays so it seemed funny to me that both Murdoch and Banville would choose it to describe a pair of shoes.

In The Sea, The Sea Charles visits a churchyard cemetery. He finds a headstone with no name, just the word "Dummy" on it. Apparently a deaf-mute sailor from the 1800s is buried there. In The Sea Banville has given the nickname "Dummy" to one of the characters, a young boy who is mute and also has webbed toes.

As I said earlier, both characters are late middle-aged men, both remembering their lives, and dealing with those memories in their own way.

After his wife dies of cancer, Max, an art historian, moves to a lodging house called Cedars to grieve. The house is located on the seacoast. Max has been there before. As a young adolescent he stayed nearby with his parents in a lower-class beach shack for a few weeks each summer. Cedars (the entire house) was being rented by an upper class family called Grace. Max was befriended by the Grace twins, Chloe and Myles, who were about his age. He was swept into the family life of the Graces and referred to them as "the gods" because of their carefree, grand style of life.

Max worshipped Mrs. Grace. He watched her, relaxing on the beach:

"She lifts a hand up high to brush a clinging strand of hair from her damp forehead and I fix on the secret shadow under her armpit, plum-blue, the tint of my humid fantasies for nights to come."

Max is a complex character. He is from the lower classes but he marries the only child of a well-to-do businessman so he moves up in society. He had aspired to move up after his summer with "the gods" but has always thought of himself as a fraud in that world. He has had a career as an art historian and is supposed to be writing a book on the French artist Bonnard, but it is languishing, and Max thinks of himself as a dilettante. His daughter Claire has given up the pursuit of an art history degree for social work and Max is determined to steer her back on course because he expects his daughter to be a serious scholar, not half serious as he considers himself to be. Max shows us glimpses of his cruel side. As a boy, he used to beat his little dog so he could enjoy how it came cowering back to him for love and affection in spite of the beating. He bullied a village boy in the presence of one of the Grace twins so as to appear "better" than the low class boy. Max's version of events in the book make him seem like a good person, but memory is unreliable and the cruelty in some of his actions and his sudden anger at his dead wife belie his belief in his own goodness.

The Sea bounces back and forth between the present and the past. Max recalls his wife's last year as she is dying. He remembers that long ago summer when he was first introduced to death but it is not until the end that we find out how. As with Murdoch, the sea is also ever present in The Sea. However, not as a character, but more as a setting for the action. The writing is, like Murdoch's beautiful:

"...air like scratched glass..."

"...last spikes of sunlight..."

"...the water racing in over the flats, swift and shiny as mercury, stopping at nothing..."

"A breeze smacked down on the beach and swarmed across it slantwise under a skim of dry sand then came on over the water, chopping the surface into sharp little metallic shards. I shivered not from the cold now but as if something had passed through me, silent swift, irresistible."

"The mud shone blue as a new bruise..."

Overall, The Sea is, as reviewed by the NY Times, "about grief, the misery and confusion the narrator feels on losing his wife." It is also about memory and how we view the past through a small lens, in bits and pieces, usually static, and not necessarily as events actually unfolded.

Finally, from another reviewer:

"...Banville's prose is sublime. Several times on every page the reader is arrested by a line or sentence that demands to be read again. They are like hits of some delicious drug, these sentences. One has to stop for a while, and gaze smiling and unseeing into the middle distance, before returning to the page for one's next fix. For a shortish book, it takes a long time to read."

As I said, Banville packs a lot into one sentence.

I can highly recommend both of these books. Not light reads, either one, but good reading to take with you if you are planning a long visit to the seacoast. Just the descriptions of the sea are enough to keep one gazing out over the water for hours and hours.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Spotify and Desert Island Discs

Do you listen to music while reading? I do. Sometimes because I find it easier to concentrate without random noise, or because I am in the same room where television is on and cannot read otherwise. My favorite way to listen is Spotify. I subscribe to the ad-free premium version.

I first heard of Spotify when listening to the podcast Books on the Nightstand. Ann Kingman, one of the pair of publisher reps who created the podcast, was talking about listening to music while reading. She said she uses Spotify to find music to suit the mood of the book she is reading. This idea intrigued me, so I went looking for Spotify.

Now, several years later, I have many playlists that reflect my taste in music and I go to for enjoyment, background, or to set the mood for reading a particular book or author.

While reading Virginia Woolf, I play my "Woolf" playlist which includes Wagner, Beethoven, and Mozart (so far). I built this playlist from mentions of London concerts attended by the Woolfs in Virginia's diary.

Rainier Maria Rilke came from an old Bohemian aristocratic family. His letters and poems are accompanied by music from "old Bohemia", now part of the Czech Republic. I have downloaded Czech and Slovak folk music for my "Rilke" playlist.

A fun way to learn about an author's taste in music is to listen to BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. I love this podcast! There is a treasure trove of programs in the archives on the website. I am a big fan of Ian McEwan. He was interviewed on Desert Island Discs and his favorite music includes jazz, Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Donizetti, and Van Morrison. If I am reading one of his books, I might create a "McEwan" playlist including some or all of these. Just to set the mood.

Spotify has become part of my reading life. Not for everything, but today as I work my way through John Banville's The Sea, I am listening to music about the sea, like:

La Mer

Now I need to go find some more quiet sea music for my playlist "The Sea". Thank you, Ann Kingman, for introducing me to Spotify.

I will be back soon with a post on two books, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch and The Sea, mentioned above. Both Irish writers, both Booker Prize winners for these particular books.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Leopard

I finished The Leopard last week and have waited to write about it so I could gather my thoughts a bit. I share this book with the LibraryThing Legacy Library of author Robert Graves and it is one of my 2016 Reading Challenge books. It is a treasure, and I will definitely read it again. In fact, when finished, I was tempted to turn back to the beginning and start over. Beautifully written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and a fascinating glimpse back in time to old Sicily when Princes ruled their isolated estates like Kings.

Our Prince is Don Fabrizio. He is based on the author's great-grandfather, Don Giulio Maria Fabrizio Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa. Set mostly in 1860 at the time of the "Risorgimento" led by Garibaldi, when Italy ceased to be two states, "...and the whole Italian peninsula would soon be one state for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire". Don Fabrizio realizes this means the end of his way of life, and probably much of his fortune. He chooses to embrace it all hoping, as his nephew Tancredi tells him, "...everything must change so that everything can stay the same."

For an excellent review, go to

Also, here is a link to the 1963 movie starring Burt Lancaster: The Leopard

I highly recommend the original version of this beautiful movie. It is long and slow-moving, but a feast for the eyes.

My copy of The Leopard is a TIME Reading Program Special Edition, published in 1966.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa