January 2012 Reading: The Sea, On Beauty, Austerlitz, The Accidental

The Sea by John Banville (2005)
Aging art historian Max Morden returns to the seaside town he used to spend his summer holidays in and reminisces in a way that nicely illustrates The Complicated Nature of Memory in Books That Win Prizes. There is no denying the beauty of Banville’s prose. His sentences are perfect little poetic gems:
“What a little vessel of sadness we are, sailing in this muffled silence through the autumn dark.”
But while the individual sentences are almost painfully beautiful, the languid pace of the story and the distance between the reader and the highbrow, über-articulate narrator meant that the emotional connection which, as I have mentioned before, is almost essential for me as a reader, was lacking. If and when I decide to try my hand at poetry (at the moment , I’m thinking it’ll be a good mid-life-crisis activity if the toyboy thing doesn’t come off), I could do worse than reread this book as a starting point, but while my focus is on learning how to write an engaging story, I am not sure Banville is the best place to look for inspiration.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)
I think I am one of the few people who admit that I really, really liked White Teeth. It was bold and bright and lots of fun (and the TV adaptation was surprisingly good as well). Then I tried to read Autograph Man and couldn’t get beyond the first few pages. So I had mixed feelings about starting On Beauty, another one on the reading list for my Contemporary Fiction course (they are mostly big fat novels that make me despair of ever having time to read anything else until the course is done, but ho hum, it’s not as if I am being forced to read account ledgers or legal documents so I shall not complain. Much.) Actually, for such a thick novel, it’s a pretty quick read. Although it deals with profound issues like love and family and knowledge, it felt quite slight to me, as if Smith was going for the gag rather than the story more often than not.
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (2001) Translated by Anthea Bell
Zadie Smith’s gags, come back, all is forgiven. This book is Complicated. And Important. And Very, Very Difficult To Read. In all honesty, I think any attempt I make to summarize the novel will just reveal my ignorance, so I am not even going to try. But if anyone read this and can tell me what the story is, I’d appreciate it. There are pictures, though. That’s something.
The Accidental by Ali Smith (2005)
Shortlisted for the Booker the year that Banville won it for The Sea, this novel is the first work by Smith that I have read, and I am converted.  The story revolves around a family who have gone on holiday, or perhaps more accurately, taken refuge, in a rented house in Norfolk. They spend the summer there, and are joined by a mysterious woman, Amber, who forms a strange friendship with each of them in turn.  Smith excels in her characterization of the two teenage children, particularly the daughter, Astrid, whose quirks and obsessions are both bizarre and believable.
In the middle section of what is already quite an experimental book (I hate that term, but it seems applicable to a novel which starts chapters in the beginning of sentences and flits through time and space with playful ease) Smith almost pushed me a little too far with her sudden shift into verse, followed by a disintegration of structure, which luckily only lasts a page. I’m not a huge fan of that kind of thing (I used to be, but I am apparently becoming more curmudgeonly and traditional in my old age) but if anyone can get away with it, it’s Ali Smith.