No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West
One of my favourite online things is belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; definitely the nicest and friendliest of the LT groups I’ve come across, and always supportive and good fun for a challenge or readalong. The group often has some kind of project going on (a chronological read of Viragos, for example) but as some of us were a little stretched by challenges, this year’s has been kept simple after one of the members came up with the wonderful idea of having an author featured each month whom we could choose to read from or about as our whim took us. After a little voting, Vita Sackville-West was settled upon, which was a good choice for me as I have so many of her books lurking on the TBR, and have read so few! (Please note how much reading from the stacks I’m doing just now!) I decided to pick the slim volume “No Signposts in the Sea” as it’s a book I started once before then got distracted from, so now was the ideal time to read it.
Published in 1961, NSITS was Vita’s last novel, and it’s narrated by Edmund Carr; a middle-aged, cynical political journalist, he has been given a short time to live and decides he will spend it taking a sea voyage. This is no ordinary trip, however, as Carr has chosen to travel on a ship carrying Laura Drysdale, a widow with whom he’s in love, in the hope that he can spend his last months in her company. The decision to make the trip had been a spur of the moment thing, as on the day he received his medical sentence of death, he visited Laura and learned of the journey she was making.
Laura seems pleased to see him, and the two spend much time together on the journey. The ship sets off for southern, warmer climes and although there are islands and natives, we really have no idea where the cruise is going; Carr has no real interest in specifics, only thinking of Laura, and as he says, there are no signposts in the sea. As the journey continues, he reflects on his past, the change that has come over him since receiving the news of his demise, and the bittersweet pleasure of being in the company of someone he loves, but unable to tell her because of his impending death and his fear of disturbing what relationship they have.
An extra element is thrown into the mix in the form of Colonel Dalrymple; initially, Carr befriends the man and likes him very much, until he perceives that Dalrymple is attracted to Laura – and it seems to Carr that Laura is attracted back. However, the voyage is coming to a close for Carr, and a final revelation proves just how little we know or understand about our fellow humans.
I take it that any creative work, as opposed to my own hack effort, must be intensely private, not to be mentioned, least of all discussed. No doubt the actual process is comparable. One lives in a little world of one’s own, and nothing else seems to matter. The most egotistical of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts. To see the pages piling up, and to live in the persuasion that one is doing something worthwhile. Because of course one must hold on to that conviction, or one wouldn’t go on. Luckily a writer’s powers of self-delusion are limitless, and oh the smugness of feeling that one has done a good day’s work!
NSITS is a short novel (less than 150 pages in my Virago edition, although the type is fairly large so I’d be more inclined to call it a novella) but it contains much food for thought. It’s impossible to read this book without speculating how much it draws on Vita’s own life, and indeed the excellent introduction by Victoria Glendinning sets out the events in the author’s life that informed the book. Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson had been on a number of cruises, which Vita drew on for the book, and she also used the story to discuss her thoughts on life, love and writing through Edmund’s musings. She was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill her, and there is a bittersweet element running through the book that presumably reflects her state of mind at the time. Edmund Carr has gone from being cynical to sentimental, regretting his single life and considering what makes a good marriage and a meeting of minds; and I can’t help speculating that this latter must have been much on Vita’s mind as she looked back at her life and her unconventional union with Nicolson. The book also contains a direct discussion of lesbianism which I’m not sure that Vita had ever tackled in her work before.
However, the book is certainly not perfect. It reflects some very outdated and unpleasant attitudes to race which I would perhaps expected to start to be filtered out; certainly I wouldn’t have guessed the book was from the 1960s with these viewpoints on show. And there is a class element showing too; as Glendinning points out, although Carr is meant to be from a lower class than Laura, his thoughts, behaviour and attitudes are those of the author rather than someone who has worked his way up from humbler beginnings.
The text is interspersed with unattributed quotations and poems reflecting Edmund’s thoughts on particular topics, and I must confess I rather wished for an annotated edition giving background to these excerpts. Although Glendinning points out that the reader can have fun tracking them down (and they might have been more widely known at the time the book was published), I was too involved in the narrative to want to stop reading and do some research.
And involved I was. Despite my minor criticisms, the book is beautifully written and very evocative; the sense of the removal from reality and everyday life that occurs on a cruise is captured in Vita’s clear prose, and I felt as if I was at sea with Edmund, Laura and Dalrymple. NSITS is a poignant little book, full of thoughtful discussions of the important things in life, and a fitting addition to Vita’s oeuvre. This is only the second of Vita Sackville-West’s books I can be sure I’ve read (I loved her “The Heir” which I reviewed here), but on the evidence of these I can highly recommend her.