Briny Banville

The Sea, a novel by John Banville, is disappointing and full of wordy affectation. Archaic and obscure words are sprinkled throughout this unconvincing, meditative tale, which was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2005, in what one judge considered a worthy example of high Modernism. So, a free-flowing inner monologue, with sour candy sprinkles?

By way of introduction, I’ve had a go at throwing some of the sprinkles together in my own mix: this cinereal shrift of eructations of bosky verbiage is my anabasis of this refulgent ziggurat of an anthropic tale about anti-hero Max Morden; I’ve indulged recreant and costive thoughts about taking up my knobkerrie to assegai his pretentious use of non-vulgate bon mots and scurfs of language dropped like gleets from a mephitic inamorato. Waddyareckon?

Our man Morden (Murder in German) meets Dr Todd (Death in German), who pronounces a medical death sentence on Anna, Max’s missus. Apparently the names are not meant satirically, and it certainly doesn’t help make his characters credible, which is normally essential in fiction.

Old Max goes on a soul searching pilgrimage to the coastal summer holiday spot of his childhood, in Ireland, where he stays in a boarding house, with a caricatural retired colonel, and hostess Miss Vavasour. She remembers the classy Grace family, that held such sensual promise of love for young Max back in the day. The story flashbacks to that boyhood era, with Max considering the eternal questions of loss, grief, memory, etc., and the passing of Anna.

Banville’s fictional style has been lauded and compared with Nabokov, or Beckett, and of course Martin Amis is a fan. But, starting with the character credibility gap mentioned above, I didn’t develop any sympathy for unlikeable Max or interest in his dubious, over-worked tale, which is like a bad Julian Barnes. 

The only fun I’ve had with this book is exploring all these new words, which may indeed be indicative of a significant vocabulary lacuna or educational deficit on my part. Is Briny in fact a phonetic Aussie spelling of Brainy?

Using more sprinkles, I’m wondering why Banville didn’t come up with a verbal scumbling of a flocculent, velutinous succubus who could have sorted poor Max out, or some such. But this still leaves more eccentric words unused: minatory, vernal, caducous, ichor, maja, ramify, levitant, horrent, glair. Yeah, I noted all of ‘em, and blenched with irritation each time.

While looking for the meaning of cracaleured, which doesn’t seem to exist as a word, I stumbled across this original review by David Thomson, which more eloquently makes my points, and finds Banville’s Irishness to be a partial explanation of his cerements (last one!) of fiction. 

Finally, dear reader, please accept my half-hearted mea culpa for cavorting with Banville sprinkles, but he started it.

* Briny Banville lexicon is provided below for the motivated reader.

Anabasis  – a military advance into the interior of a country

Anthropic (perfume) – from/of humans 

Apotropaic – having power to avert evil influences or bad luck

Assegai – a spear or kill with it

Blench – go pale or flinch

Bosky – wooded

Caducous – sepals (plant part enclosing petals) shed after bud opens

Cerements – wrapping for corpse

Cinereal – re/of brain grey matter

Costive – stingy, constipated

Cracaleured – ???

Eructations – belching

Flocculent – resembling tufts of wool

Glair – adhesive for book binding or egg white

Gleet – watery discharge from urethra from gonorrhoea

Horrent – hair standing on end, or, feeling/expressing horror

Ichor – God’s blood, watery discharge from wound

Inamorato – male lover

Incubus – male demon who seeks sexual intercourse with sleeping women

Knobkerrie – short stick with knob used as weapon by indigenous South Africans

Levitant – one who thinks they can levitate (spiritualistic)

Maja – goddess of springtime, warmth and increase

Mephitic – foul smelling

Minatory – expressing threat

Ramify – spread, new insights

Recreant (thoughts) – cowardly, or unfaithful to beliefs, apostate

Refulgent – shining brightly

Scumbling – (in painting) to apply light shadow to soften effects

Scurf – dandruff flakes

Shrift – absolution from priest, confession

Succubus – female demon who seeks sexual intercourse with sleeping men

Velutinous – velvety pubescence

Vernal – of/in, appropriate to Spring

Vulgate – common or colloquial speech, Catholic bible

Ziggurat – pyramidal tower in Mesopotamia, maybe inspired Tower of Babel


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