Philip Marsden on the Sea
FiveBooks interviews asks writers, academics, and experts to list recommended books on a given topic.
Philip, we’re talking about the sea and I notice that your list includes lots of different sorts of book. You’ve got a grand sweeping history of the British navy. You’ve got memoirs. You’ve got Moby Dick on the one hand and on the other a polemic against overfishing. Which would you like to start with?
Let’s start with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s an extraordinary novel in all sorts of ways, and the scale of it reflects the scale of the sea. Melville had this great wealth of experience from his own whaling days and he wanted to express that in some way, but came up against the same problem every writer who tackles the sea faces. You have this huge subject, but not a lot of contours; not a lot to differentiate it all, with which to forge a narrative. The sprawl of Moby Dick reflects that, the apparent randomness of the chapters, the jumble of fiction and non-fiction. Like all writers on the sea, he’s intrigued by the practical problems, seamanship, fishing techniques. But underlying it all is this great, undifferentiated mass. One of the interesting things about the sea as a subject is that it doesn’t hold history. As soon as a ship passes through the water the water closes up and that’s it, whereas the land, whether it’s urban or rural, has great layers of history visible to the eye…
Moby Dick is obviously a psychological drama too, isn’t it? The pursuit by Ahab of a white whale – a terrifying sort of ghost whale. Ahab is a very proud man and in a sense he seems to be attempting to destroy his own death. But is this a theme you see running through other books about the sea? A sense that man simply shouldn’t be there at all? That he’s out of his element?
Yes, Ahab pits himself against this infinite element which will never be conquered or changed by man. That’s what the story’s all about. I wrote a novel about the sea some years ago and watched it form itself into a shape similar in some ways to Moby Dick. I realised then that it was perhaps the only story you could write about the sea. A man is drawn to it, is seduced by it, gets a living by it but is eventually destroyed by it. That’s the basic plot structure of Moby Dick. It’s also that which Peter Benchley chose when he wrote Jaws – he famously took Moby Dick as a template. That’s part of the novel’s power – it established a great myth and that’s why it endures.
Let’s move on to your second book, which I suspect might be Conrad.
Yes, Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea – which again suggests the inscrutable blankness – in this case reflecting man back at himself. It was his first memoir, written in 1906, and a bit like Melville he was drawing on personal experience. Conrad was a sailor and of course the sea is the context for many of his stories, but I was particularly interested in this non-fiction book. He’s fascinated by the psychological patterns: departure, how a captain feels when he first goes out to sea, how he refers back to the land. It’s the only book I know that really addresses all those issues head on.
Conrad’s also very good on the language of the sea, which is endemic to sailing books. Anyone who’s read the Patrick O’Brian books always comments on the language and is either put off by it – this arcane nautical lexicon – or intrigued by it. I’m intrigued. In fact one of the great pleasures of the sea is that it requires a different language. A ship’s not just different to a land vehicle in shape, it’s different absolutely. And the language reflects that. There’s a phrase Conrad picks up when the anchor is dropped. The captain asks the man at the head, “how did it grow?”, referring to the way the anchor warp goes out from the bow of the ship – at what angle, at what speed. Conrad says no one who hasn’t actually seen the way an anchor warp goes out would understand why the term is used. It’s absolutely precise.
Precise because it refers only to one thing or because it’s a good metaphor for what’s happening?
Well, both. I mean, you can’t talk about a rope on a ship, because there are sheets and halyards and warps and hawsers and they all do different things. So it’s technically precise. But the reason Conrad’s interested in that particular example is that it has a certain poetry to it. It has the precision of experience. And of course the question itself – “how did it grow?” – has in it the anxiety of seamanship. Anchoring a ship is an anxious business. You’re close to the shore, you don’t know what ground you’re on. It’s a very difficult moment. It’s interesting that in “The Mirror of the Sea”, the concerns and the style are little different from Conrad’s fiction – he’s simply placed the sea and seamanship to the fore.