Chapter One Focalizations as Approaches to Review Life
A. The Protagonist as Narrating-I to Reinterpret the Past
In The Sea, Banville employs the first-person narrative to tell the story of Max Morden, an aging art historian. This technique showcases Banville’s tendency to give voice to elderly characters and make them the subject of discourse. The novel can be classified as an aging Bildungsroman, focusing on one character’s life but from the perspective of his/her older self.15 According to the Sunday Times, Banville’s The Sea explores the themes of coming-of-age and coming of old age, rites of passage that encompass both awakening and dying.16 From a narratological standpoint, the narrating-I (the older character) is growing old while the experiencing-I (the younger character) is growing up. In most cases of retrospective first-person fiction, it’s logical to identify the narrating-I with the present self and the experiencing-I with the past self.
Max’s reflections on his age further illustrate this point. For instance, during his visit to Anna’s doctor, Mr. Todd, Max becomes aware that he is older than the doctors. “Since when did doctors start being younger than I am?” (15-16).17 Max says “younger than I am”, not “younger than I was”. It is Max as narrating-I who disengages from the reminiscence and inserts his comment on the past scene. In addition to this, as Max begins to search into the memories about his parents, he still has a sensitive consciousness of his senescence: “She was still young then, they both were, my father and my mother, younger certainly than I am now. How strange a thing that is to think of. Everybody seems to be younger than I am, even the dead” (35). Max sees the past event through his present eyes and juxtaposes memory and reality, which causes the strangeness of his thoughts. In the novel Max’s father left him in his childhood and his mother died not long after Max’s wedding. Hence when Max mixes the past and the present together, he draws such conclusion that everyone seems to be younger than he is. In fact, it is his present self who is older comparing to his once young parents and their life spans.
B. The Protagonist as Experiencing-I to Relive the Youth
Experiencing-I is the first-person reference character in a first-person narrative; specifically, in retrospective first-person narration, the earlier self who underwent the experiences recounted by the older ‘narrating-I’.25 In case that the narrating-I abandons the transcending perspective at the discourse level and restricts himself to the more limited internal focalization of the experiencing-I at the story level, the first-person narrative gains a higher resemblance to the original events. It is noteworthy that there is a separation of voice and perception in experiencing-I. The voice discusses who speaks or narrates, and the perception is about who sees or observes in the fiction. Therefore, in the internal focalization of experiencing-I, the voice of the narration still belongs to narrating-I, while the perception the first-person narrator chooses belongs to the experiencing-I. When the first-person protagonist gives up his present external focalization and turns to see the past from the experiencing-I, there will be more suspense and dramatic effects in the fiction.26 When it comes to the old narrator who recounts his own past, the internal focalization of experiencing-I he chooses also endows himself a kind of sensation of being personally on the past scene, which enables the narrator to get rid of his senescence temporarily and live in the world of past. Such rhetorical effects can explain why the aging protagonists in The Sea and Ancient Light tends to retrospect their past, for they can shake off the cruelty of senescence and relive the impressive moments of youth again. An article about the aging music cultures concludes that reliving one’s youth through involving oneself in a pastime once undertaken in youth can be understood as a method of maintaining and supporting the aspects of his personhood and selfhood informed and constructed via that involvement.27 This viewpoint can also be applied to analyze the aging protagonist’s involvement in his past events.
Chapter Two The Unreliability of Aging Narrators
A. The Misremembrance as Indicator of Aging
Both Max and Cleave have the experience of wrong remembrance, which becomes more pronounced as they age. In The Sea, Max comes back to the farm where Duignan lived fifty years ago, and there he finds that his memory is flawed. “A rusted harrow leaned where Duignan’s cart used to lean—was the cart a misremembrance?” (54). Max doubts if there is a cart, showing the unreliable feature of his reminiscence. Likewise, when Max recalls the scene of Strand Café where he had a date with Chloe, he also makes a mistake about the time. “But wait, this is wrong. This cannot have been the day of the kiss” (162). As a narrator, Max acknowledges his own inaccurate reporting of the time, which makes the reader question the reliability of his entire narration.
Max’s self-awareness of his own mistakes suggests his recognition of mental decline due to aging. This decline is evident in his confusion over the identity of Avril. For an elderly individual like Max, calculating the relationships between unfamiliar people is a taxing mental exercise. Therefore, Max’s cognitive decline is responsible for his unreliability. Max’s recognition of his mistake regarding Avril’s identity offers valuable insight into the cognitive decline that is commonly associated with aging. He struggles to make clear Avril’s identity but only gets more confused. His confusion is highlighted when he states, “My mind balked in its calculations like a confused and weary old beast of burden” (56). This simile illustrates how the cognitive burden on his aging brain is comparable to the burden on an old tired animal. Moreover, the fact that Max recognizes his mental decline is significant. It shows that he is aware of the impact that aging has on his cognitive abilities. This self-awareness is a sign of his insight and wisdom, which is often associated with aging. It is also a reflection of his honesty, as he does not try to hide or deny his struggles with memory and reasoning.
B. The Details as Impossible Element of Aging
The unreliable protagonists in these two novels not only struggle with misremembrance, but also with the loss of memory details. In The Sea, Max frequently forgets important details of his past events, which are crucial for the reliability of his memory. When recalling his first encounter with Mrs. Grace, Max is puzzled by the lack of details, stating that his memories are like “riotous fantasies, vivid and at the same time hopelessly lacking in essential detail” (88). As a result, his reminiscence becomes unreal, resembling more of a fantasy rather than an accurate retelling of events. Scholar Costello-Sullivan argues that Max’s inability to remember details is indicative of traumatic memory.32 That is the part of the reason, and another one should be the memory decline resulting from Max’s senescence, for he cannot remember so many details in such an old age. This is exemplified by his failure to remember the name of the coffeehouse landlady. “What was her name? What was it. No, it will not come - so much for Memory's prodigious memory” (161). It is no doubt an irony of Max’s declining memory. The memory capacity required by a name is not much as Max describes; on the contrary, Max plays the word game of memory to deny its reliability of restoring past events. Overall, the loss of memory details is a significant factor that contributes to the unreliability of Max’s memories.
Chapter Three Narrative Time as Resistance against Aging .................... 35
A.Rearranging Temporal Order against Aging as a Linear Decline Narrative ........... 35
B.Pausing Story Time for Deeper Reflection in Aging Years ............... 44
Chapter Three Narrative Time as Resistance against Aging
A. Rearranging Temporal Order against Aging as a Linear Decline Narrative
The Sea and Ancient Light are narrated by respectively Max and Cleave in their sixties, and their retrospections take up the main parts of the fictions. However, they do not recall their pasts according to chorological order, that is, from the childhood to the old age. In fact, there are various juxtapositions between the present and the past, and different timelines always shift back and forth during their narrating. Tóibín argues that for a writer the blurring of time present and time past is a way of freeing the imagination.38 The vagueness of two different timelines is the hallmark of The Sea and Ancient Light. Banville juxtaposes time present with time past to free his imagination while composing fictions in his aging years, which is also his way to create meaning against the monotonous aging narrative. Before the analysis of the novels, I’d like to explain some terms related to the temporal order. If the story is not narrated from a chorological order, there shall be an anachrony. Anachrony is a deviation from strictly chronological storytelling.39 It is discordance between the order in which events to occur and the order in which they are recounted.
There are two main types of anachrony: prolepsis and analepsis. Prolepsis means the anticipation of a future episode that results in a non-chronological presentation of events, namely, a flashforward.41 Analepsis is to go backwards in time to cover an earlier episode, namely, a flashback.42 Every anachrony constitutes, with respect to the narrative into which it is inserted—onto which it is grafted—a narrative that is temporally second, subordinate to the first in a sort of narrative syntax.
In today’s society, aging is often seen as a negative process, associated with declining physical and cognitive abilities. However, Banville’s novels The Sea and Ancient Light challenge this conventional view by exploring the complex and nuanced experience of aging through his choice of narrative strategies.
The retrospective first-person narration of the aging protagonists Max and Cleave allows for a dual focalization of their reminiscence of past events. The external focalization enables Max and Cleave to reinterpret their pasts and form a deeper understanding of life in aging years, while the internal focalization leads the aging narrators to a closer perception of reliving their lost youth. Through this narrative technique, Banville demonstrates that aging is not simply a decline in physical abilities, but also a time for reflection and gaining wisdom.
However, the unreliability of the aging narrators’ recollection also highlights the memory decline caused by aging. Their misreporting of past events becomes prominent as they age, and their lost details of reminiscence proves that the fragmentary memories resulted from aging can change the way they review their past experiences, making themselves less reliable while recalling. Despite this, Banville also explores how imagination and invention can be used to reconstruct the past, demonstrating the potential for creativity and innovation even in old age.