Spirits from the vasty deep…

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

‘The sea defines us, connects us, separates us,’ Philip Hoare has written. His prize-winning Leviathan, then a collection of essays called The Sea Inside and now RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR together make a loose, meditative trilogy on people, the ocean, its inhabitants, its threats and delights, the comings and goings, the whole tidal business, its excitements and its ever-present grip on our minds and imaginations. The sea ‘deals life and death for innocent and guilty alike’, he says, and that all-pervasiveness is both his subject and his method.

The rather exciting slidtogether words of this title (and of all his chapter titles) give a hint of what the book is about. This is not the sea in any historical, scientific or practical sense. It is much more embedded in a kind of marine ambivalence than that, with a lolling, lapping, almost somnolent rhythm to it, gathered into chapters called ‘HEGAZESTOTHESHORE’, ‘ZEROANDEVERYTHINGTOGETHER’, ‘THESTARLIKESORROWSOFIMMORTALEYES’ and ‘THESEATHATRAGEDNOMORE’.

Hoare is drawn more to mystery than to science, less to the known than the unknowable, to the amateur more than the professional, preferring to find those who stumble on the sea than those who devote their lives to it. There are no great seamen here, or biologists. You will look in vain for Sir Alister Hardy or Joseph Conrad, who is surely at the core of any modern English relationship to the sea. Instead, with the all-encompassing model of Moby-Dick behind it, Hoare presents a vast and billowing medley of marinaria, with a tumbling sequence of biographical sketches and autobiographical moments, a half-lyrical, half-narrative encyclopaedia in which everything and anyone can be contained like a bundling of gusts and siroccos shut for a moment into the bag of winds.

Woolf, Wilde, Stephen Tennant, Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Bowie, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Wilfred Owen, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Nelson all take their bows. Many of them are gay, quite a few are suicidal, all of them in their different ways are outsiders and doomed, people for whom the sea represents both an alluring hollow and a refuge from the ordinariness of things. At times I was reminded of a wonderful ceilidh I once went to on the west coast of Scotland at which the lady in charge stood up when we were all gathered and made her announcement. ‘We have, I am glad to say, a wide and varied programme tonight. Nearly all the songs are about drowning.’

Hoare writes with a beautiful and liquid assurance, luxuriantly at home in this half-modernist, half-conventional medium and capable of astonishingly realised visions of floating moments and sea encounters. Early on, there is a heart-gripping description of a dead avocet he finds lying on his Southampton shore. Deep in the book, he finds himself close up with an ancient seal:

The shape hangs in the water, a downed barrage balloon. Its black-grey back is ingrown with green algae, like those mythic whales said to grow trees and shrubs on their backs, as if they were another country. It looks at me with that sidelong glance that dogs have, and which makes you vaguely concerned for what they might be thinking. An overweight surfer in a wrinkly wet suit, or a hippo waylaid from some African watering hole. Its bones must be old and weary. Best left alone. Later I see him further out to sea, still hanging there, still waiting. For what I don’t know.

The lack of definition and the spreading ripples of association have the effect, paradoxically, of making this and many other scenes in the book more real than anything a plodding materialist could have managed. Philip Hoare floats and the seal floats and a sort of significance floats between them.

There is a genius for empathy here. The boundaries between biography and autobiography are blurred. The lives he describes of his friends and heroes are in many ways merely descriptions of his own life and his own attitudes, his own fears and desires, seen through those half-altering lenses. He doesn’t mention the passage from the Prelude when Wordsworth looks down over the side of a boat into the water and cannot for a moment disentangle the reflected vision of his own face and the world the water only half conceals, but that inevitably is the governing myth of RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR. All the sea-stained writers — and this is largely a literary book — look to the sea and find versions of themselves there, a continuous and everlasting folding out of the story of Narcissus, who fell in love with the boy he saw reflected in the watery world. Looking out at the sea is not to look out at all but to look in towards the nature of the self, perhaps even to the adorable self or at least to the oceanic depths of the unknowable self.

And so when Hoare swims in Ireland in a sea full of jellyfish, their bodies, entrancingly and disturbingly, become his own eyes:

I lowered myself in, sliding into the water so as not to disturb its gelatinous spirits. I was becoming reconciled to the jellyfish, even rather fond of their company; they too made the sea seem less lonely. The waves I created lapped the sides of moored boots as I wound my way in and out of the animals’ paths. They moved mindlessly, mantles embedded with corneal flashes of orange and brown. Cloudy as cataracts, their pupil-less eyes peered unseeingly through the ocean’s skin to the sky; I saw through them like lenses, down into the deep below.

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