No Signposts in The Sea by Vita Sackville-West

May 26, 2010

Doubleday, 1961

Finished: May 20, 2010

Source: fate

Genre: existential romance

On the Scales: middleweight

Vita Sackville-West probably wasn’t as smart as her Famous Friend, but she would have been more fun to meet on an ocean liner.

Here is a novel is about love, facing death, and journies by ship.  It is dated.  It is melodramatic.  It is short.  It is the kind of book that smokes Gauloises, affects a beret, and talks constantly about a manuscript with a portentious title which his friends all suspect is the only part he’s actually written down.  Something like . . . No Signposts in the Sea.

The plot device is a big wince, but unfolds into something touching.  No Signposts in the Sea ends a better book than it began.  When I say “ends,” I really do mean ends.  It didn’t like it much until the last 25 pages, but those 25 pages had such great stuff, I was able to look back more kindly on the rest.

The story progresses at an odd, jerky pace.  We’re thirty-some pages into the story before we learn that the narrator is a man.  It’s even longer before we know anything about him–his profession, the nature of his obssession with a fellow passenger named Laura, or even what he is doing on the ship.  At that point we discover that cagey David is a middle aged journalist suffering from a Nameless Malady.  Authors who burden their protagonists with this universally fatal condition never seem to realize how silly it is, or how thoroughly it undermines tragedy.  I suspect Sackville-West knew very well but waved it off with lordly indifference.  “Yes, yes.  I can’t be bothered.  Would you rather I spent my time writing books, or looking up diseases in the encyclopedia?  Come to that, it doesn’t matter which you’d rather!  I’ve a castle and gardens to look after.”

Here’s a slice of synchronicity:  In February I started the seeds of a lovely Mediterranean plant called Pride of Gibraltar (Cerinthe major atropupurrea).  The seed catalog mentioned that this flower was first introduced to many English gardens from Sissinghurst castle.  Before it was given over to the National Trust, Sissinghurst was owned and the famous gardens were made and kept by Vita Sackville-West.  I thought of her every time I watered my starts.  Then one day I was looking up something entirely unrelated on the library catalog, and a typing error brought up this book, which is how I came to read it.

David spends most of the book pulling a Hamlet–a role anyone who isn’t a prince of Denmark ought to leave alone.  “Ooh, I’m dying so it’s all about me, me, me!”  Well okay, diaries are supposed to be about me, me, me; and he is dying–but it was Laura who carried the book.

Projected on the screen of David’s ridiculously exaggerated insecurities, Laura enters as an ice queen.  The more time they spend together, the more human she gets–though it’s David who changes, not Laura.  By the end of the she has stepped down from the screen and become a woman I would have loved to have the chance to know better.  As would David.  That’s what made me choke up in the last scene (if it wasn’t that Turkish tobaco).

There were staggers.  Unconscious colonialism kept popping up and startling me like a bug-eyed whack-a-mole, as did a quaintly stormy let-us-throw-off-our-Victorian-shackles attitude toward sex that made it hard to remember the book was supposed to be taking place in the 1950’s.

There had been the young steward who brings the coffee after dinner; had I noticed him, she asked?
“I can’t say I have,” I said.  “Unlike some of your friends at home, I don’t take any particular notice of young men.  What about him?”

“Well, look how graceful he is; he might be a dancer.  From Bali.  So sinuous.  Look how he weaves between the tables.  And he has a crooked smile, which is very attractive, and one pointed ear like a faun.  A dangerous person to have about.”

At the time I thought she had spoken flippantly, and paid little heed, but now I am not so sure.  What lies under her cool exterior?  Was her appreciation of this boy’s wry beauty indicative of her own sensuality?  One has often been surprised by the discovery of hidden things going on for years in lives of the highest repute–why not in hers?  She is still young, she is attractive God knows, she is free–what is to prevent her from indulging in the most fleeting caprice?  She is deep and secreteive; one would never know.

From here is but a step to remember her comment on Dalrymple’s good looks, and he a man of her own class.  Yes, shis moved by the handsome male, no doubt about it.  She can become eloquent over black dock-hands, naked to the waist.

“Look, Edmund, what a magnificent torso, what shoulders, what muscles!  polished like metal, pure sculpture.  How a black skin enhances color–see how his red loincloth shows up redder than it would on a white man.  Look at their natural carriage, so straight and erect, and their springing walk–like atheletes.”

I wish I could believe her observation to be wholly aesthetic, but the touch of sex is in it.  Or so my disordered mind persuades me to surmise.  And why not, I say to myself, ashamed of my unworthy fancies?  She is very much a woman, and her affinity is man.  Her very frankness should perhaps be disarming: people are careful not to betray that which they have reason to conceal.  It is not exactly that I suspect her of promiscuity; only that I record her susceptibility, and, knowing her distaste for convention and hypocrisy, deduce that a sufficiently powerful inclination would lead her to seek its natural term.  Not the little steward, not a darkie–unless she is more of an experimentalist than I give her credit for–but Dalrymple . . . ah, that’s another matter.

David’s oggles and envies and twitches like a man from the age of psychoanalysis and Josephine Baker, not the atom bomb and Gypsy Lee Rose.  Of course, the problem is that Sackville-West’s war was the first world war, but her characters’ war was WWII, which resulted in the wrong kind of philosophizing and mopes.  Subtly wrong, but still…

It gave the book an artificial timelessness.  War loomed in the past, but which war?  Does it matter?  I don’t think Sackville-West believed it did.  The background was incidental.  No Signposts in the Sea was her last novel; at the end of a life of spectacular loves, she wanted to write about love and mortality.  She takes them on with a mezmerizing confidence.  My complaints dissolve.

“Tell me your recipe for a workable marriage.”

She held up her hand and began ticking off the points.

“Mutual respect.  Independence, as I have said, both as regards friends and movement.  Separate bedrooms–no bedroom squalor.  You know how a chance remark may stick and influence one’s whole outlook?  Once, when I was a girl, I heard someone define it as hair-combings floating in a basin of soapy water and I have never forgotten.  Separate sititng-rooms–if the house is large enough.  Separate finances.  I’ve come to the end of my fingers.”

“What about community of interests?”

Nice, but not essential.  What is essential is the same sense of values.”

“Meaning that one must be shocked, or otherwise, by the same things?”

“Exactly.  And amused by the same things too.”

“And what about fidelity?  Is theh liberty of the spirit to extend to the liberty of the body?”

She hesitated.

“I can’t prescribe.  I would say it must depend on the other person.  I feel sure that one should avoid giving pain; it is an elementary part of the bargain of marriage.  After all, I did live up to that principle in a minor way; I never offended Tommy’s conventional ideas because I knew it would hurt him, and short of breaking away altogether I knew that no compromise was possible.”

“How long could you have kept it up?”

She shrugged.

“I have often wondered.  As one grows older and becomes more aware, one also becomes less inclined for self-immolation.  Unless one has a saintly character, which I haven’t.  But in my case Fate intervened.”

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8 Responses to “No Signposts in The Sea by Vita Sackville-West”

  1. bookgazing said

    Looking at the quotes here it looks like she has that lovely talent for producing a line that cuts through everything. A line like ‘I feel sure that one should avoid giving pain’ is worth a it of an odd disconnect between the time the book is set and the time the author seems to be writing.

    • Trapunto said

      –line that cuts through everything.

      Yes, she does! That’s what made me think she would be more fun to meet on a ship than Virginia Woolf. Actually, I’d probably be intimidated (rightly) and dismissed. But we could talk about gardens. . .

      Her book did seem to jump around in time, and context. I think that may be a feature of writers who have lived through a lot of eras of thought. They’ve gathered pieces of all of them over the years. Then too, time has caught up with some of their ideas. They say things that would have been shocking if they had said them baldly when they were 23, but which now they seem a little quaint, even though they are the kind of thing the contemporary 23-year-olds are all talking about. It’s reverse precocity: young people are just so startled by an old person uttering a young idea, it’s hard for them to look at the idea itself.

      Robert Graves was another writer whose ideas were never stuck in his own time, but since he holed up on Majorca, he managed to be treated a guru rather than quaint in the 50’s and 60’s.

  2. zibilee said

    I have never read anything by Sackville West, but a quick stop over at Amazon shows me that she has several books out there, in addition to some letter collections and biographies. I thought this review was very interesting. On the one hand, it sounds like the book didn’t work for you in some fundamental ways, but then it all of a sudden cleared up and turned into something that you wished had been prolonged. I love it when a book turns around on me. It sometimes makes me fearful to give up on a book too early, because who knows if there is a great turnaround coming just a few pages into the future? Great review! I can’t honestly say that this is a book that I would read, but you’ve convinced me that I need to look a bit closer at Sackville West’s other offerings. I also really liked the quotes you provided in your review.

    • trapunto said

      I also love it when a book turns around, but it happens so infrequently I don’t usually go the distance with a really poor book unless there’s a hint of possible improvement–unusually good writing or something. Helps if it’s short, too!

      I intend to read more Sackville-West. I didn’t know it was her last book when I started No Signposts. It goes against my usual policy of reading an author’s work in chronological order. I really want to see what her writing was like when she was a younger woman.

  3. Jenny said

    Heehee, you make me laugh. Vita does sound like more fun to hang out with than Virginia Woolf, though I’m saying this having read very little by either of them. Also, I get Vita Sackville-West mixed up with Natalie Clifford Barney. They were both queer and had three names and I always think of them both as holding salons in Paris, but I can never recall which one had the affair with Oscar Wilde’s niece. I think it was Natalie Clifford Barney because whichever one it was who had the affair with Dolly Wilde ALSO had an affair with Oscar Wilde’s lover’s eventual wife, and surely Vita Sackville-West didn’t have enough free time between salons to have affairs with both of them and Virginia Woolf too.

    • trapunto said

      I didn’t know who Natalie Clifford Barney was until I looked her up. The whole crowd is a big hole in my author-and-artist-biographical-tidbit database. I’ve been thinking I need to find a good book to start filling it in. It’s surprising how many famous people knew each other, and slept with people who knew people who knew each other, and so on. It makes it feel like pre-wwII europe was very small. A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book conveyed the feeling. But I guess that is the point of an aristocracy and an intellectual and artistic elite.

  4. Nymeth said

    Your Gauloises and beset image is priceless 😀 I’ve been curious about Vita for sometime, especially about The Edwardians, but this sounds just as interesting – and shorter too.

    • trapunto said

      Yes, my plan is to sample the fiction and work my way up to the gossipy history.

      I am always grateful to people who write lots of short books instead of a couple of long ones, as if they did it to make my life easier, the same way I am grateful to polite salespeople in stores who tell me to pleasantly to let them know if I have any questions and then leave me alone. Not that I don’t like long books. But sometimes dim sum is just right; you don’t want a full course meal.

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