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The sea: Tony Tanner

Joseph Conrad was without doubt the greatest writer of the sea. In an essay he wrote in 1898 called ‘Tales of the Sea’ he looked back fondly on the two sea novelists who had thrilled him as a boy, and who, in effect, initiated the genre of the sea novel. The novels of the Englishman Captain Marryat are ‘the beginning and embodiment of an inspiring tradition’. But there is something primitive and ‘unartistic’ about his work. ‘To this writer of the sea the sea was not an element. It was a stage, where was displayed an exhibition of valour, and of such achievements as the world had never seen before.’ A good example is Mr Midshipman Easy (1836). More importantly for Conrad,

At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, another man wrote of the sea with true artistic instinct … James Fenimore Cooper loved the sea and looked at it with consummate understanding. In his sea tales the sea interpenetrates with life; it is in a subtle way a factor in the problem of existence, and, for all its greatness, it is always in touch with the men, who, bound on errands of war or gain, traverse its immense solitudes.

A good example is The Pilot; a Tale of the Sea (1824).

All the most interesting sea fictions explore and dramatize, in one way or another, how ‘the sea interpenetrates with life’. At the start of one of his own sea stories, ‘Youth’ (1901), Conrad has his narrator, Marlow, state ‘This could have occurred nowhere but in England, where man and sea interpenetrate, so to speak—the sea entering into the life of most men, and the men knowing something or everything about the sea, in the way of amusement, of travel, or of bread-winning.’ This is no longer true in our air-borne age, and most people's experience of the sea is limited to bathing in it. But it was the case in Britain and America during the nineteenth century and up to the First World War, when German submarines finally put paid to the use of sailing ships for other than recreational purposes.

It is an interesting fact that, while Britannia may have been ruling the waves, she was not producing the stories about the waves. For those we have to look, for the most part, to the Americans, chiefly Herman Melville, whose masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851), was written during the golden age of sail—and a Pole, Joseph Conrad (albeit a Pole who served in the British Merchant Service from 1878 to 1894). Conrad personally experienced and witnessed both the gradual decadence of the sailing ship and the inevitable shift to steam—which he disliked intensely. ‘The sea of the past was an incomparable beautiful mistress, with inscrutable face, with cruel and promising eyes. The sea of today is a used-up drudge, wrinkled and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers.’ Such feelings perhaps help to account for the elegiac strain in nearly all Conrad's writing about the sea. But it should be noted that he did serve on a number of steamships, and drew upon that experience for some of his finest voyage tales—Lord Jim (1900), Typhoon (1902), and ‘The End of the Tether’.

Western literature begins with a difficult voyage home (known as a nostos)—Homer's The Odyssey (eighth century BC); and the novel conventionally regarded as the first modern example of that genre, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), is based on a voyage out and a shipwreck. Exploration, discovery, the quest, and perhaps the return—these generate very elemental narrative lines; and in one form or another, however thwarted or incomplete, these lines run through sea stories. There is one crucial feature which differentiates the genre—you leave the land behind, and along with it the stable structures of society and civilization. W. H. Auden outlined four principles of the literary attitude to sea voyages in the nineteenth century:

1. To leave the land and the city is the desire of every man of sensibility and honour. 2 The sea is the real situation and the voyage is the true condition of man. 3. The sea is where the decisive events, the moments of eternal choice, of temptation, fall, and redemption occur. The shore life is always trivial. 4. An abiding destination is unknown even if it may exist: a lasting relationship is not possible nor even to be desired.

Such an attitude, a desire for the physical and mental freedom of open ocean experience—what Melville's Ishmael calls ‘landlessness’—animates many sea narratives.

When, in their restlessness, ambition, or curiosity, men do go ‘down to the sea in ships’, the narratives their voyages generate tend to centre on certain recurring themes or events. Men at sea find themselves alone with the primordial elements in a seemingly infinite vastness; at the same time, they are confined—imprisoned, it sometimes feels—with a number of other men (rarely women) in the constricted space of a ship. This produces stories in which the emphasis is on men's struggle with the elements, with each other, or with themselves (fear, self-doubt, loss of nerve, even madness). Of course, great sea stories contain all three, as, for example, Conrad's The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), a dazzling account of a perilous homeward voyage during which the men are in danger of being undermined both from without (bad weather) and within (cowardice, insubordination, threats to morale). The threats also produce heroism, endurance, and fidelity, which finally see the ship through. The two basic struggles with the elements are—the attempt to grapple with the destructive force of a great storm (as in Conrad's Typhoon); and the difficulties of coping with the poisonous stagnation of being becalmed (unforgettably described in Conrad's The Shadow-Line, 1917). We encounter men struggling with other men in Melville's Billy Budd (1924), and, set in the Second World War, Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (1951). In such books, the shipboard inhabitants form a microcosm of society, and I should include here Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools (1962), though her emphasis is more on the passengers. It is the story of a voyage from Vera Cruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1931 with German, Swiss, Spanish, Swedish, Cuban, Mexican, and American passengers on board. Porter's real subject is a human community heading toward the horrors of the Second World War.

In the category of stories focusing on men struggling with themselves I would place those stories—we may call them a kind of sea Bildungsroman—which deal with the theme of initiation, in which naïve youth is tested by the extremities of life at sea, and wins through to mature adulthood. At its simplest, this can be a boy's adventure story, of which the best example is Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous (1897). More complex versions of the pattern include Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840); Herman Melville's Redburn (1849); and Jack London's The Sea-Wolf (1904), in which the young dilettante hero finds himself on a hell-ship with a ruthless skipper. There is also William Golding's remarkable trilogy Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989), which chronicles a Royal Navy ship transporting passengers to Australia. This traces (among other things) the education in human nature of the young and pompous Edmund Talbot during an endless voyage on a slow and disintegrating vessel that should never have left port. It is set during the European wars between 1796 and 1815. This has proved to be a very fertile period for sea fiction, as may be seen from the enormously popular novels of C. S. Forester (featuring Captain Horatio Hornblower, hero of a series of novels starting with The Happy Return, 1937); and, more recently, the seemingly no less popular Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian—up to eighteen volumes at the time of writing!

I have saved till last a specific form of the quest narrative—namely, the hunt for a great fish. Arguably the greatest of all sea novels is Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which follows Captain Ahab's monomaniacal pursuit of the great white whale, and ends with the foundering of him and his ship, leaving one survivor (Ishmael) to tell the tale. A sort of echo, or coda, to this work is Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which tells of the poor Cuban fisherman, Santiago, who ventures far out into the Gulf Stream and hooks and pursues a giant marlin. After an exhausting struggle, he finally harpoons his catch and lashes it to his small boat. By the time he reaches shore, the sharks have reduced his trophy to a skeleton. A short work, this book is really a parable of man's struggle with the natural world. Moby Dick is massive, mythic, encyclopaedic. Written when America was at the peak of its maritime powers, and when whaling was still vitally important (for oil = light = civilization), Melville's vast work pursues not only the whale, but everything else in creation. It is the epic of America and there has never been a sea novel like it.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction