‘…all against the grave and tragic rhythm of the earth in its most timeless phase: the sea.’ William Faulkner
Authors tend to get serious when they portray the world’s oceans. They address the sea in reverent tones. It’s a mood inspired, at least in part, by the sea’s inhuman ancientness. The ocean reveals the brevity of humanity’s time on earth; that we’re just one of many short-lived species that primordially flopped out from its depths onto land. Yet perversely, while looking out to sea thinking of death, people have also marked it as a fine place to holiday. In light of this month’s vacation-orientated ‘Out of the Office’ theme, here are 4 great works on the sea:
‘I think that the book which I put down with the unqualified thought “I wish I had written that” is Moby Dick.’ (Faulkner again). Melville’s tale endures because of the unforgettable simplicity of its themes and characters: unleashed nature vs ‘baby man’, the revenge-frenzied Captain Ahab, and, of course, ‘the whiteness of the whale…(the) mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion’. The sea here is a watery Wild West (John Wayne’s dark crusader in The Searchers always reminded me of the Captain, albeit with opposite final fates) epic and homicidal, more than equal to bearing the mad quest: ‘for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him…man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.’
THE SEA INSIDE, PHILIP HOARE
Philip Hoare is one of Moby Dick’s most valuable servants. In 2011 he arranged the marvellous Moby Dick Big Read (still available on Sound Cloud), which saw a host of celebs reading the classic’s 135 chapters over 135 days. David Cameron was revealed as an admirer. (Cameron read chapter 30, the least ‘fraught with messages’ Number 10 could find). Hoare’s own work is similarly themed: his last 3 books have been entirely marine based. The first, Leviathan, is a modern masterpiece, mixing a biography of Melville with a love song to the whale. In The Sea Inside, Hoare widens his scope to encompass humans linked by the oceans themselves: ‘The sea defines us, connects us, separates us’. His luminous writing more than meets the challenge of conveying his fascinating obsession.
THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, ERNEST HEMINGWAY
The novella that revived Ernest Hemmingway’s reputation. The old man is Santiago, a Cuban fisherman who hasn’t caught a thing for 84 days, and has been marked as cursed by his fellow islanders. Hemmingway’s prose style is divisive. He seems sometimes to lobotomise the world’s complexity, to leave things unsaid just for the sake of his aesthetic. However, here his reticence is an asset: a vast iceberg of deep feeling cruises dignified beneath the surface of this story. As Santiago says, ‘it was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea’. The work’s title returns us to Faulkner again: the man is old, the sea just is, existing in a ‘timeless phase’. For Santiago, the sea is life-giver, a sublime beast not to be blamed for her reckless disposition: ‘if she did wild or wicked things, it was because she could not help them.’
THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER, SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE
A sailor (at least the literary ones I know about) needs wind; a dead calm, ‘the silence of the sea!’ as Coleridge names it, is just as disastrous as a destructive storm. More than anything, Coleridge’s longest poem is memorable for its general weirdness: the hypnotic meter; the ‘Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH’ who plays dice with ‘DEATH’ for the sailors’ souls; the infamous albatross hung from the Mariner’s neck like a noose, (to bear an ‘albatross’ has passed into idiom, as a ‘source of frustration or guilt; an encumbrance’). It’s all distinctly unearthly, and quite mad. I’ll end this 4×4 here with the most famous (often misquoted) lines from the poem, post-Albatross execution:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Words by Will Bedingfield
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