BY Emily LaBarge in Opinion | 19 SEP 18
Featured in
Issue 198

The Literary Tradition of the Ocean Liner

Storms arise, the boat pitches and rolls, passengers are literally and figuratively tossed together

BY Emily LaBarge in Opinion | 19 SEP 18

‘Life began the moment in which we got on board. The beginning is the Proleterka.’ In Fleur Jaeggy’s novel, SS Proleterka (2001), a precocious and unnamed 15-year-old narrator sails from Venice to Greece with her estranged and ailing father, Johannes. Jaeggy’s text, like its titular vessel, is a strange and compressed space in which time eddies, tenses tilt and perspectives wheel: an enclosed universe with a logic of its own. ‘The future is the glowing mouth in the side of the ship,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night (1934) of Dick Diver’s voyage to Europe following his father’s funeral: ‘One is in a country that is no longer here and not yet there […] next the loud mournful whistles, the portentous vibrations and the boat, the human idea – is in motion.’ The ocean liner dazzles and dislocates. On board, one slowly, then quickly, becomes not entirely oneself. Things come in waves. The human idea – is in motion.

The Proleterka, which means ‘Proletarian Lass’, was a real ship: a Yugoslavian steamer whose running mate was the SS Partizanka. Other ocean liner names (always italicized, always she, even when he) are equally obvious, and each comes with its own competitive national agenda: Britannia, Imperator, Olympic, Liberté,SS George Washington, Independence, Constitution, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Wilhelm Gustloff (originally the Adolf Hilter), Robert Ley and, of course, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, I and II. Writers similarly harness their modern ships with legendary nomenclature: Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915), which marks Clarissa Dalloway’s first appearance, is an Edwardian satire that takes place on the Euphrosyne; Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley evades murder charges by sailing to Greece on the Hellenes, where he stands at the bow and envisions his rich new life in Athens; Evelyn Waugh’s Gilbert Pinfold loses his mind on the Caliban, imagining he is tormented by a family of tyrants who accost him via the ship’s electrical systems: voices in the ether, telling him to commit suicide – full fathom five. 

‘O all the gorgeous terminology of the sea … most of it gone forever now, with the sails that gave it wings,’ wrote Hart Crane, who watched gulls swoop in the wake of the ocean liners that sailed beneath his beloved Brooklyn Bridge. Crane, whose applications to work on steamships were always rejected and whose father invented Life Savers candy, slept and brawled with sailors on and off shore. He drowned somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico in 1932 when he leapt from the Orizaba,en route back to New York after drinking his way through a Guggenheim Fellowship in Michoacán. 

Crane described his friend Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs in terms of captured motion: ‘Speed is at the bottom of it all […] the moment made eternal.’ Earlier this year, Stieglitz’s famous print, The Steerage (1907), was included in ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (currently on view at the recently opened V&A Dundee). While the show focused predominantly on the craft, design and technology of the transatlantic steamship, it concluded with a room devoted to works of art, architecture and film that indicated how the ship – as a symbol of both modernity and intrigue – has extended into popular culture. Stieglitz’s photograph captures the stark division between the upper first-class and the lower ‘steerage’ decks. But, in later decades, as the ocean liner evolved from mere mode of transport to site of exhibition and indulgence, such hierarchies would blur. Freed of context, with a little investment and knowledge of social codes, one could purchase a transatlantic persona and experiment in transgressing boundaries. 

In literature, a common trope of the ocean liner tryst is: storms arise, the boat pitches and rolls, passengers are literally and figuratively tossed together. Things begin to swell, sway, tumble, thrash, rock. Domestic and sexual relationships unravel, from the benign to the extreme. In Alice Munro’s short story, ‘Goodness and Mercy’ (1989), Averill regards fellow passengers with a keen eye as they stake each other out for brief oceanic romances. Nightly, Averill sits in the dark on the bench beneath her cabin window and imagines a romance with the ship’s captain. Jaeggy’s narrator, too, waits on the bench beneath her cabin window every evening; waits for the different sailors with whom she is engaging in violent sexual affairs: ‘The Proleterka is the locus of experience. By the time the voyage is over, she must know everything.’ 

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907. Courtesy: Alfred Stieglitz Collection

But there are other ways to dissolve, to sink into oneself, to depart from the here and now. ‘Three sheets to the wind’, as the saying goes. To be soaked, sodden, sloshed; over the bay, half-seas-over, decks awash; flying the ensign, up to the gills and down with the fishes. Crane was obsessed with the ‘Perennial-Cutty-trophied-Sark!’, a boat he visited in London but also a blended whiskey that he bought for the journey home from Europe. (The bottle lasted only three days.) In his Memoirs (1975), Tennessee Williams wrote that, when he died, he wished to be ‘dropped over board, 12 hours north of Havana, so that my bones may rest not too far from those of Hart Crane.’ Williams was terrified of flying. He took ocean liners to Europe each summer, long after they had been rendered unpopular by 1960s innovations in air travel. On a ship, Williams could avoid the panic attacks he experienced when he could not access alcohol. Safely stowed in his private cabin, he could order dry martini after dry martini and write  in his notebooks, trying to keep the blue devils at bay.

But whose blues are the bluest? Though organized around communal spaces and activities, the ocean liner is for the loner: the solitary traveller who watches and waits, who observes and records, who does not belong. This theme reaches its exaggerated height in David Foster Wallace’s chronicle of his seven-day Caribbean cruise, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ (1997). Foster Wallace thinks of suicide and sadness, particularly at night ‘when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased’. He describes his ‘despair’, wanting to jump overboard to escape the unbearable feeling that he is ‘small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die’.

The colours of the ocean liner are blue and black – not the boat itself, but the sky and the sea. Black night, black water; the immensity and the crippling smallness of it all. Jaeggy writes of the ‘vegetation’ of the sea voyage, which seems to mean bleak and stark and bright: a place where, in fact, nothing grows at all – except the narrative that unfolds on the page. If writing is being still while in motion, in motion while still, then is the seafaring passenger a cipher for the writer – the story within the story? There is a P&O publicity photograph included in the ‘Ocean Liners’ catalogue that I look at again and again, and I think so. I think so, and I look at an image of the SS Canberra, in 1962, when she was still operating transatlantic voyages. The ship gleams as it ploughs through dark water that pulls and ribbons behind it like tar. At the widest part of the bow, where the water separates into a V-shape, I am not sure, but I am pretty sure, that I can see one person standing alone, arm raised, waving. 

Main Image: SS Canberra at sea, c.1962. Courtesy: © P&O Heritage Collection

Emily LaBarge is a writer based in London, UK, where she teaches on the writing programme at the Royal College of Art.