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I Must Go Down to the Sea Again

by Deborah Streeter




From Shipwreck to Lifeboat

The ocean has many neighborhoods, from shoreline to high sea.  Since June I’ve been reflecting here weekly on ocean novels, fictional tales of stormy seas, Gulf bayous, tidal rivers, and this week, Adriatic lagoons.  All salty and mysterious.

Cenzo, fishing in the dark Venice Lagoon in 1945, finds the lifeless body of a girl, hence the book’s title The Girl from Venice.  He hides it under a tarp on his small boat and plans to leave it at a Venice church on his way to the fish market, to stay out of trouble.  When the occupying Gestapo stop and search his boat, the body has disappeared.  Cenzo retreats back into a lagoon channel hideouts only he knows, to repair his boat they have trashed, and the girl suddenly reappears in the water boatside, now very alive. 

Turns out the mystery girl, a good swimmer and hider, is Giulia, from a wealthy Venetian Jewish family that had been hiding for some years from Nazis and Italian fascists, but the group had that night been betrayed.  Only she escaped.  Sailing now back to his village, the boat is sucked by currents to an island held by the Gestapo.  Together Cenzo and Giulia kill an SS officer with their own hands.  He takes her back to his fishing shack and hides her from the authorities and from his own snoopy mother and his brother’s hapless widow whom he is expected to marry but doesn’t want to, and more snoopy and possibly collaborator neighbors. 

This is all in the first night, the first 20 pages.

Later they together pursue and reveal the betrayer of her family and friends and cleverly drown him with a fishing net.  Cenzo figures out a family secret and a way to avoid marrying his brother’s widow.    His other brother, the film star and probable collaborator, Giorgio – is he trying to save or betray our hero and heroine?  When the war finally ends, they are all at Mussolini’s mountain hideout.   Mid huge explosions and betrayals and a pathetic attempt by Il Duce to escape with gold bars that weigh down the plane, our heroes hijack the plane to freedom.  They fly back to Venice.  (No! Go to Lisbon, get papers, fly to freedom with Ilsa and Victor!)   As the sun sets over the lagoon, we wonder, will Giulia, now without family or passport, stay with Cenzo the fisherman on the lagoon or pursue the more cultured worldly life she was raised in?

I was at the airport when I bought this book by Martin Cruz Smith, who wrote Gorky Park and 8 more detective thrillers featuring Russian Arkady Renko, and is now 75.  It was good travel reading, short chapters, wartime drama, family secrets, possible romance, Venice.  It seems well researched, lots of detail about the Lido and the Lagoon, many different Mediterranean fish and fishing methods.  As readers of my reports on 10 or so previous ocean novels know, I was particularly happy to find a map in the beginning of the book - Cenzo’s fishing village Pellestrina is ten miles south of Piazza San Marco. 

I continue to be entranced and surprised by the many different roles that salty water plays in fiction.  I should read more Mediterranean ones. So different from Atlantic and Pacific.  I have pondered rereading The Odyssey.  But for this week, a mysterious lagoon and dangerous wartime suffice to deepen our sail through ocean literature.

I’ve been to Venice and read various Venice fiction.  Visiting or reading, a constant theme is death; the beloved city built right on the water and pierced by canals will be damaged or destroy by the sea tomorrow if not today.  It’s a wet maze of confused streets and hidden alleyways where one is always lost.   Death in Venice, City of Falling Angels, Donna Leon murder mysteries, Brideshead Revisited, Othello – lots of cold and moldy death.

Cenzo and Giulia are natives, and they never seem lost even in the most dangerous situations.  Cenzo knows the lagoon like the back of his hand, and even privileged Giulia swims like a fish and quickly learns the many ways to catch them.  But the lagoon is like the city, protected from the wider sea only by a narrow sand bar shoal which shelters fancy hotels and homes on the Lido and ramshackle huts in the fishing village, both right on the edge.  It’s an edgy place where threats from the outside world, whether storm or Gestapo, are just over the horizon. 

By definition a lagoon is an “elongated shallow body of water separated from a larger body of water by a shallow exposed shoal, reef or similar feature.”  Lagoons form on smooth level coasts, not steep rocky ones, and are vulnerable to tides, rising sea levels, erosion.  As such they are “young and dynamic.”  Our hero and heroine are also young and dynamic, likewise living on an edge that is threatened by a dangerous and unpredictable outside world of sea and violence.  Through their deep (actually shallow) knowledge of the lagoon, they survive.  They know water’s unpredictability, coastal hiding places, many different ways to trap and net and kill both fish and people, as well as various fishing lore, like “Big fish eat little fish”- all of which comes in handy.

This previous paragraph indulges in many of the same ocean and fishing metaphors that Smith does, which means the book can be a bit of a slog to get through with all this very obvious imagery (like a muddy lagoon – ok, enough metaphors.)   Some reviewers panned the book as a predictable indulgence of an aging author.

I found the metaphors and story intriguing and refreshing, and I was pretty sure the main characters were going to make it.  I liked the boat metaphors; Cenzo says his early troubled wartime life, dishonorably discharged after refusing to spray poison gas on Ethiopians in the North African campaign, was a “shipwreck.”  But by the last page he seems ready to move onto a new life with Giulia, and he calls his beloved boat a “lifeboat that has served its purpose.”

But the most vivid role the lagoon plays is as a place to hide, literally a lifesaver in wartime. Giulia hides there from the start and others survive the long occupation only through their hiding and dissembling skills.  As fishers and trappers of other creatures, they know how to avoid being caught themselves. 

Unlike all the various invaders and complicit Italians, our two young and dynamic ones rarely lie when questioned, maintaining their sense of integrity, but often withholding and hiding the whole truth.  Which (just one more metaphor!) reminded me of the lagoon; it is truly itself, not a rocky coast or deep sea, and it is very good at hiding and surviving – it looks bare but it is full of enough fish to live on forever.  Wherever they end up, I’m pretty sure both will survive and thrive.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Hurricane, Typhoon, Cyclone, Maelstrom, Whirlpool, Vortex

After watching Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut ravage US and Asian shores, I looked this week for ocean fiction about dramatic storms at sea.

In his two classic “Tales of Imagination” about sea storms, Descent into the Maelstrom and MS. In a Bottle, Edgar Allen Poe writes with such detail and intensity about hurricanes and typhoons that the perennially unemployed author might have found work as a meteorologist. 

But he probably would have lost that job as well, because he got one thing wrong about sea storms.

Poe’s other story collections are called “Tales of Suspense” and “Tales of Deduction.”  These two “Tales of Imagination” are also full of suspense, and even some deduction.  Poe is called the father of both the short story and the detective story, and it was great fun to reread these and several more of his classics.  Highly recommended. 

(My daughter went through a Poe kick age 14 or so – this seems like a goth girl type thing.  When something smelled bad she would never fail to quote The Fall of the House of Usher – “It may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn.”  We detoured a trip to DC just to visit Poe’s grave in Baltimore.  She even rooted that year for the Baltimore Ravens because they were named for Poe’s famous poem, the only NFL team named for a poet, and their three raven mascots were named Edgar, Allen and Poe.   Her obsession must be why we have two collections of Poe’s tales on our shelves.)

In each of these sea tales a narrator recounts his personal experience on a boat caught in a deadly ocean hurricane.  As wind and rain and surge plough down inexorably on our heroes, both stories culminate in a deadly ocean whirlpool or maelstrom.

Descent into a Maelstrom is based on an actual famous deadly whirlpool off the coast of Norway.  Here’s a typical Poe description, this of the maelstrom as it grows with the tide.  “I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward.  Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity.  Each moment added to its speed – to its headlong impetuosity.  In five minutes the whole sea, as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury, but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main uproar held its sway.  Here the fast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly in phrensied convulsion – heaving, boiling, hissing – gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes, except in precipitous descents.”

The old salt fisherman, who is showing our narrator the whirlpool from a cliff, had skirted it for years on his way to fishing grounds.  But one day a hurricane whips up its speed and force, and only through some quick thinking and even quicker recollection of a lesson from Archimedes about cylinders (not sure I would have been able to recall high school physics in the face of a maelstrom) does he, but not his brothers, survive the whirlpool.

MS in a Bottle, written as if it were a note placed in a bottle at the last minute before losing the battle against a vortex, tells of a Jakarta boat swamped by a hurricane with only one survivor (our narrator.)  Without crew or masts, the boat relentlessly and mysteriously ploughs southward to Antarctica, until a massive ghost ship with a zombie crew picks him up and they all descend to their deaths in a southern hemisphere maelstrom. 

In both tales the deep open ocean is a remote mystery seen only by a few and so dangerous that almost everyone who see it dies.  The ocean’s force turns the skies black, ghosts and shipwrecks are roiled up from the deep, death is everywhere.  For a macabre kind of guy like Poe, this was a natural landscape and subject matter.  These two are not his only sea stories.

What does Poe get wrong?  It’s pretty minor - the names he gives to these sea storms.  I’ll cut him some slack, he was writing over 150 years ago, when writing style and weather language were very different.  But simply because I watched the news about Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut this week and then read Poe about these Norway and Antarctic storms, I learned something new about meteorology. 

Poe calls them all hurricanes, east or west.  I got to thinking - what’s the difference between a hurricane and a typhoon? 

When you look up “hurricane” in Wikipedia, there’s no entry.  Instead it takes you directly to “tropical cyclone,” the broader term.   Turns out they all tropical cyclones, but are only called hurricanes in the Atlantic or northwest Pacific.  Same thing with typhoons, they are location specific, only Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans.  But all the exact same storm. 

A tropical cyclone is a rapidly rotating storm system characterized by a low-pressure center, a closed low-level atmospheric circulation, strong winds, and a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms that produce heavy rain. Depending on its location and strength, a tropical cyclone is referred to by different names, including hurricane,  typhoon, tropical storm, cyclonic storm, tropical depression, and simply cyclone.  A hurricane is a tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and northeastern Pacific Ocean, and a typhoon occurs in the northwestern Pacific Ocean; while in the south Pacific or Indian Ocean, comparable storms are referred to simply as "tropical cyclones" or "severe cyclonic storms.”]  The primary energy source for these storms is warm ocean waters.

Am I the only person who didn’t know that? 

Poe calls all these storms hurricanes.  So what?  He was, after all, writing in the 1830’s and 40’s. 

What I learned new, besides terminology, is how I tend to look for differences rather than similarities.  I’ve learned as a guide at the Aquarium that there are two different kinds of taxonomists – clumpers and splitters.  Clumpers find the similarities in things – all sharks are cartilaginous fish.  Splitters differentiate - some sharks lay eggs, others have live birth.  I think we tend to split more than clump these days, hairs and storms.  We look for differences not similarities.  Ocean storms here in America are hurricanes.  Far away in exotic Asia they are typhoons. 

But no, they are the exact same thing.  Clump them together and we realize that the damage and human suffering are equal.  Moreover the recent increased intensity of both hurricanes and typhoons is also caused by the same thing – climate change.  Warmer ocean waters grease the runways of those winds, whipping up cyclones and maelstroms like never before.  We are all getting wetter, warmer, windier, deadlier. 

MS. In a Bottle is said to have directly inspired Herman Melville to write another sea tale of a restless narrator boarding a ship with a strange crew and captain, looking death in the face, barely living to tell the tale.  Poe may have gotten meteorology slightly wrong, but he changed the course of short stories, detective fiction and great literature like Moby Dick.   Not to mention inspiring an NFL football team. 

Just stay away from those maelstroms.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Not Very Far Offshore

From the very first page Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Offshore feels damp, musty, almost muddy, like the Thames riverside where it is set.  Then this story of boats and people gets wet, sunken, drowned.

You say you thought I was writing this summer about ocean novels, fiction in which the ocean, not a river, is a main character?  Well, the Thames is a tidal river, inexorably linked to the North Sea, up from which twice a day the tides surge into and past London, soaking all in their path.  The tides relentlessly lift and drop every boat on the river, including the rough old houseboat barges where the novel’s characters live, as much as 24 feet, as the rushing waters scours the banks and sometimes human lives.

Reading the novel made me a little queasy, sea/river sick, with all the motion.  And I wished for a dehumidifier.  But the sweet and sad and very appealing characters who live on the houseboats in 1961 seem unfazed by the challenges of leaks and pumps and gangplanks and primitive plumbing.  Almost like a crew of a ship there is a male leader of the ramshackle community, Richard, with a pretty water-worthy boat, Lord Jim.  Then there are several less responsible survivors, among them a male prostitute, an elderly maritime painter, and a struggling young mother and her two daughters, on their minimal boat, Grace.

Of my summer series of wet novels, Offshore reminded me most of Frederick Buechner’s Storm.  In both novels the tension builds for our motley crew as wind and water conspire to change everything.  And like Storm, Offshore could have ended with a lot more marine carnage, but actually concludes with some hope.  It is as if the tidal storm washes at least some of the characters clean, but at the cost of a lost community. 

It is a sad tale.  Fitzgerald has written that she often writes about “people who seem to have been born defeated or even profoundly lost… They are ready to assume the conditions the world imposes on them, but they don’t manage to submit to them, despite their courage and their best efforts… When I write it is to give these people a voice.” [These barge dwellers are] “creatures neither of firm land nor water.  They may aspire to the sensible and adequate conditions of life on the Chelsea shore, but a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, causes them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.”

They are indeed “creatures neither of firm land nor water,” and they seem content in this liminal state.  But other forces, like the tides, relentless pull them on shore or out to sea.  Fitzgerald writes short novels but they are rich in language and nuance.  In this case she describes both scene and  people with lots of mud, currents, eddies, drifting.  The barges, like the people, longing to ride free in the midstream as they once did, but they are anchored to the mud, until they are not. 

Fitzgerald herself lived on a barge for two years in the 50’s as her husband succumbed to alcoholism and she struggled to raise her children and write.  Like Willis in this book, her barge sank and she lost books and papers.  But like these survivors, she rose and wrote. 

Look at these four of many different covers for the book.  It’s almost as if the novel is a puddle that reflects so many very different images for publishers and readers. 

  • There is a theme of maritime art, and a sweet visit by the painter and the young girls to the Tate to see Turner and Whistler marine paintings. 
  • Their barges are tethered near the Battersea Power Station – more liminal contrasts of a simple life of wet wood and often no power and the imposing steel energy station.
  • The river winds through London and we spend 141 pages in only a tiny little section of it on this map. 
  • And the anchors hang down, but not quite far enough.

I loved this novel, and others by Fitzgerald are just a poignant.  Reading it 40 years after it was published (and subsequently won the Booker Prize) we know that now this small liminal community has long disappeared and been replaced by gleaming glass condos and reinforced concrete Embankments. 

But like the girls going out at low tide to scour for hidden treasures they could sell, an ancient practice called mudlarking, we probably could stand on any tidal shore and look just “offshore” and see the treasured remnants of lives such as these.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


The Sea, The Sea

Iris Murdoch won the Booker Prize in 1978 for this her 19th novel.  When I posted on Facebook about my summer project to read novels in which the ocean is a lead character, my friend Michelle suggested this one.  I’m glad I read it.

My favorite character in this novel, The Sea, The Sea, was – the sea.

As for the novel’s human characters, the recently retired Charles Arrowby and his various friends who visit him over the course of a couple months in his strange old house on the Northwest England coast – it was hard for me to relate to or care for any of them. 

Arrowby has left a very public urban life in the theater for what he expects to be years of quiet seaside reflection.  But his previous life, like the ocean, never stops crashing at his door. Friends, ex -lovers, complicated relationships keep showing up.  Despite all this traffic, he is drawn daily to the ocean.  He immerses himself in the sea, but there is always a sense of danger. Tension builds, and finally as expected, he almost drowns.  Tragically, the next day, he watches helplessly as a dear friend does die in the waves. 

I liked the ocean character because it remains authentically itself, some days calm, others rough, inviting or lethal, relentless.  There is no doubting its truth or power.  It daily mirrors Arrowby’s mood, sometimes bright and full of possibility, but more often it foreshadows his next disappointment and disaster. 

But while the ocean was real, I never could quite believe the authenticity of these people.  Were they telling the truth, would they think of anyone besides themselves, had they really done what they claimed?  Murdoch creates this confusion, intentionally I think, by writing the novel in the form of Arrowby’s rambling memoir, in these first months of his completely new life.  I came to realize that he is what literary critics call “an unreliable narrator.”  Which means the reader has to read suspiciously.  Was he really such a success?  Whose were those hands who pushed him in the ocean? Does Mary really want him to rescue her from her supposedly violent husband?

Describing the ocean with words is really hard, just as painting a wave challenges any artist.    Murdoch is a genius at painting the ocean’s many moods.  I loved the daily weather reports: “I got up and went to the window.  It was about six o’clock and the sun had been up for some time.  Cool summer weather had come back with a misty sky and a calm sea.  The water was a very pale luminous grey-blue, almost white, the same colour as the sky, shifting with a quick small dancing movement, and scattered by the misted sun with little explosions of metallic pale-gold light.  It had the look of a happy sea and I felt I was seeing it through Titus’s eyes.”

I haven’t read any other Iris Murdoch novels, but I gather from articles I’ve read that she often writes from the perspective of a sort of sad failed male protagonist, so this is nothing new.  There are four women characters, former lovers and actresses, whom Arrowby thinks adore him, but they eventually all reject him.  (Male unreliable narrator.)  There are two intriguing male characters, Arrowby’s mysterious cousin, the Buddhist spy, and the young homoerotic Titus, who might have been his son.  Titus arrives mysteriously, loves the sea, swims there daily in the nude.  And of course, he, the youngest and strongest of them all, drowns.

Arrowby has two sweet encounters with sea creatures.  Soon after he moves in he sees a giant sea monster.  He doesn’t quite trust this vision, but it is a scary reminder of the ocean’s power and mystery.   And then near the end, after months of people asking, “Have you seen the seals?” he finally encounters them.  After all this despair and drowning and confusion, these simple dark sea creatures welcome him with blessing.

After his encounter with the seals, Arrowby seems finally ready to go back to London.  As the book ends he has sold the seaside house and is back far from the waves.   But he is changed, much more accepting and realistic, more generous, less snooty.  It’s as if the sea cleansed him, washed him in and out.  Even though the ocean led to the deaths of some dear ones, Titus and his cousin, it has sent him safely back home. 

I’m not selling this book very much.  It’s a slog.  But I’m glad I read it. I was reminded that I too have chosen to live out my retirement days near the ocean.  Like Charles Arrowby, I will keep my eyes out for the scary sea monsters and the blessing seals.  I will dive in but remember the ocean’s power.  Like him I know that the gift of retirement years also brings us so many tragic losses of dear ones. 

I am reminded that I, like Arrowby, reflect on life by writing (unreliably?) inside my house by the sea. 

I am grateful for the waves, every day, relentless on the shore.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


To the Lighthouse

Ocean Novel #8 in my wet summer reading project, the 1927 classic by Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse.

What are the two greatest novels in English ever written?  The Guardian newspaper asked various authors, and Michael Cunningham (whose novel The Hours is about Virginia Woolf and reads like her as well) chose James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  He writes, in part,

“Let's remember that the novel, in English, is less than 300 years old. Given its youth, its track record is remarkable. We've had, in relatively short order, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Bleak House, The House of the Seven Gables, Moby-Dick, The Golden Bowl, The Sound and the Fury, and The Great Gatsby – just to name a few.

For me, however, it was the modernists who engendered the most significant literary revolution. Suddenly, in the early 20th century, novels had as much to do with language as they did with events. They were about outwardly ordinary lives, and thereby established that there's no such thing as an "ordinary" life; there is only inadequate appreciation of humanity. And a novel was no longer meant as moral instruction for readers who were, perhaps, ever-so-slightly in need of it.”

To the Lighthouse is indeed about language and about ordinary lives, if the large Ramsey family and their friends, who spend summer weeks at their house on the Isle of Skye before and then after WWI, are ordinary.  There’s very little plot or dialogue.  Between the page one promise by Mrs. Ramsey to 6 year old James that they will go to the lighthouse the next day (a hope immediately dashed by grumpy controlling Mr. Ramsey) and the last page, 10 years later, as sullen teenage James finally steers the boat to the lighthouse shore, with his only his father and sister, but no Mrs. Ramsey, very little “happens.”  The bulk of the novel is the interior ruminations of Mrs. Ramsey and her artist protege Lily Briscoe. 

But both the minimal plot, and the rich introspective language are drenched in ocean metaphors – depth, surface, wave, stroke, dip, pool, and so the novel joins my collection of ocean novels .  If, as Carl Jung says, a dream about the ocean means we are diving right into our unconscious, then this novel of introspection and emotion is a deep dive into the characters’ souls, and ours.  I felt wet from start to finish, bathed in wonder, carried along on this “stream” of consciousness by my surprising thirst for the next sopping metaphors.

It’s easy to make fun of the lack of plot, or to get impatient – just go to the damn lighthouse already.  Margaret Atwood has a funny piece also in The Guardian about reading the novel as a young college student, feeling bored and confused, and then rereading it when she is Mrs. Ramsey’s own age, and identifying with her and her interior richness.  Of all the ocean fiction I have read this summer, this novel and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea are the only two I had read previously, also as a college student.  Like Atwood, this time I got a lot more out of these simple yet dense novels, reading them as myself an “old woman of the sea” and a nostalgic mother likewise enamored of lighthouses.

As a girl Virginia Woolf and her family regularly summered at St. Ives in Cornwall, near the Godrevy Lighthouse, also on a rocky island offshore.  And like Mrs. Ramsey, Woolf’s mother died young and suddenly when Woolf was 13.  Woolf is something a feminist pioneer, especially for her essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” which I also reread last year, where she argues that there are few known women writers because women must depend on men for money and because women have no place where they can shut the door and be left alone to write. 

Godrevy Lighthouse near St. IvesMrs. Ramsey, in whose head we spend more than half the book, has neither, room nor money of her own, but she still manages to have a rich internal life and gives the gift of her inescapable depth to her eight children, a wide circle of friends, and to some extent to her husband.  Her protégé Lily Briscoe picks up the torch of this creative depth ten years later, pondering about the creative process as she tries to complete a painting on the shore while watching the small boat finally arrive at the lighthouse. 

As I read I jotted down many of the ocean metaphors, not to prove my point or to justify this as an ocean novel, but just because they were so varied and delicious.  Here are two long passages (one can’t edit and still get the flow) about creativity and “stroke.” 

First, Lily painting and ruminating: 

“She took her hand and raised her brush.  For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air.  Where to begin?  That was the question, at what point to make the first mark?  One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions.  All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests.  Still the risk must be run; the mark made.

“With a curious physical sensation, as if she were urged forward and at the same time must hold herself back, she made her first quick decisive stroke.  The brush descended.  It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark.  A second time she did it – a third time.  And so pausing and so flickering she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related and so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner settled there than they enclosed (she felt it looming out at her) a space.  Down in the hollow of one wave she saw the next wave towering higher and higher above her.  For what could be more formidable than that space?....”

Earlier Mrs. Ramsey had reflected also on the sea, and on the word “stroke.” 

“It was a relief when the children went to bed.  For now she need not think about anybody.  She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of, to think, well, not even to think, to be silent, to be alone……Although she continued to knit, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.  When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless……There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on the platform of stability.  Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles) but as a wedge of darkness.  Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity; and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things she saw, and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke.  Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at – that light, for example….”

Some say Woolf’s novel is about time, others the creative process.  In these two passages we see these women finding time and space alone to be creative, using the motion of wave and the lighthouse light, the stroke of brush and beam, to mark the time and to free them from time, the rhythm and the light, the steep gulfs and foaming crests.

See – I’m starting to write and think like these creative women myself! Ocean is motion, ocean is depth and source of life.  I will give myself to that gentle regular rhythm of brush and light.

Both women have the advantage of servants and money to free them for such creativity, but I think Woolf would say that everyone has these gulfs and crests, these strokes of emotion.  And that more women, if freed from constraint, could exercise like her and Mrs. Ramsey and Lily, these “strokes” of genius.

The sea and the lighthouse in this novel are ordinary.  Unlike some of the sea adventures I have read, the water and rocky shore are not threatening, the tension is not whether they will capsize, but whether their respective wills and emotional needs will simply allow them finally to get into the boat in the first place.

And, as Cunningham notes, this modernist novel does not moralize (“That’s what happens if you don’t practice boat safety!”)  Surely the Ramsey children will need some psychotherapy, having weathered their strange parents and early death of their mother.  Between the idyllic beginning and the ten year return to the island, the Ramseys personally and all of Europe has been devastated by World War One. But that’s not why Woolf wrote the novel. 

Maybe Mrs. Ramsey IS the lighthouse, the steady reassuring stroke of light that enables creativity and safety for others.  For that reason alone, I am relieved that they finally make it to the lighthouse.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter