Sail Away: Stories of Escaping to the Sea, Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker, eds.

Marlowe and Company August 1, 2001 352 pp. 16.95 Pbk

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

In the 19th century, sea travel was a prosaic, if dangerous, means of moving both goods and passengers.  Yet, it also inspired: we are still transported by Melville and Conrad. Interestingly, in the 20th century, sea travel’s replacements, air travel and long-haul trucking, are positively mundane (excepting, of course, the careers of Charles Lindberg and Burt Reynolds).  Sail Away verifies that, in this century, adventurous writers can still look toward the sea, continuing a literary tradition that endorses travel by water as romantic, individualistic, and, at times, metaphysical.

Lenček and Bosker’s choices, fictional and non-fictional, are mostly all entertaining in their own way.  Being on the water, they argue, “is literally the closest thing we have to inhabiting a parallel universe.”  Like reading, being on the sea involves a “hovering of the mind, between dream and waking.” 

Rather than organize their selections by genre or time period, the editors state that they’ve “arranged the stories to progress by degrees from a tight focus on the material circumstances of being at sea, to an increasingly abstract exploration of its psychological, social, developmental, spiritual, and finally, utopian dimensions.”  Whew!

            A surprising number of selections focus on cruise ship travel, from David Foster Wallace’s immortal account of the toilet on the “m. v. Nadir” to Paul Theroux’s dependably grumpy rant about a cruise to Istanbul, an account he insists we take as “ironic.”  Still, his stellar intelligence instructs: “Turkey is the superficially westernized edge of the Orient, Greece is the degraded fringe of Europe, basically a peasant society, fortunate in its ruins and … its selective memory. … If Greece is a successful version of Albania, Turkey was a happier version of Iran.” 

            The real find among cruise narratives, however, is Russian Ivan Bunin’s fictional “The Gentleman from San Franscisco” (1916), a haunting, Jamesian account of a wealthy American family’s trip to the Mediterranean. 

             Many of these selections are not sea stories per se, but tales whose occasion is the sea.  Among these are Earl Thompson’s [italbegin] Caldo Largo [italend] with its tough-guy eroticism (setting a new standard for male sexual endurance), John Rolfe Gardiner’s “The Voyage Out” (a young boy adjusts to wartime evacuation), and James Reid Parker’s gentle satire of the stuffy British, “A Maritime People.”

            The horror of the sea’s power is never far from the sailor’s consciousness.  One of this collection’s best is Bryan Burrough’s “Storm Warning,” an account of 1999’s deadly Sydney-to-Hobart race, one easily rivaling A Perfect Storm for its compact account of the sea’s indifference to human concerns. 

            Equally compelling is an excerpt from Ann Davison’s account of her 1952 solo voyage from England to the West Indies on a 23-foot boat.  Her self-deprecating account of her crazily heroic trip inspires both laughter and admiration.

            The sea’s power is demonstrated in fiction as well. In one of the best stories, “Afternoon of the Sassanoa,” Jason Brown manages to combine insight into the insignificance of the human life on the sea with a powerful account of the submerged emotions in a father-son relationship.

            Like any excerpted collection,  Sail Away  is dissatisfying: one is introduced to just a smidgen of a great work (Virginia Woolf’s  To the Lighthouse) or an excerpt fails to give a clue to the novice reader of just what is at stake (Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon Tiki Expedition ).  However, a collection such as this should be a launching point, not a destination port.  Active readers will want to use  Sail Away  as a guide to further reading about the mysterious relationship between restless humans and the wine dark sea.