February 2011

Kelsey Osgood

nonfiction

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester

Myriad problems face the critic each time he or she (in this case, she) sits down to pen a review. Evaluating Simon Winchester’s latest, Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, proved no exception. The first and least significant bump in the prose-road was that employing the most obvious simile available to me has clearly proven irresistible. Here goes: Atlantic the book, just as the body of water whose history it attempts to chronicle, is expansive, intimidating, awe-inspiring and occasionally maddening. To add insult to injury, I also submit that reading this work is indeed like a journey across the high sea aboard a curragh, a traditional Irish canoe powered by a single sail. When setting out, even the most substantial arsenal of supplies feels paltry; any map is just a flimsy piece of paper dwarfed by the enormous blue-gray before you. At the sea’s locus (around page 261, let’s say), you feel dizzy, lost, and doomed to view that blue-gray forever. Finally, at the journey’s end, you anchor the boat near shore, exhausted and slightly malnourished, but bolstered by the accomplishment and a certain personal knowledge of what has often been, to us as humans, daunting negative space.

This writer’s apparent lack of creativity, though, was not the most persistent or the most interesting obstacle faced. Rather, what was continually striking to me was the presence of the author in this tome, the way his calm breadth of knowledge, both personal and intellectual, informed every aspect of the work. Winchester is perhaps best known for the much-lauded 1998 bestseller The Professor and the Madman, though he has authored more than ten books. I had read exactly zero of his sweeping historical dramas before conquering Atlantic. From the first page, I was both reverent of and blindingly jealous of this author, whom a San Francisco Chronicler columnist accurately said “could probably write circles around most writers on the planet.” Winchester’s voice is benignly British, scholarly yet excitable, and one can imagine his personal aura as approximating David Attenborough’s or a more sanguine version of Seinfeld’s sartorially-inclined world traveler J. Peterman’s. It wasn’t Winchester the writer who was the object of my sinful envy, but rather Winchester the man-who-has-done-it-all, who not infrequently begins stories with sentences like, “It was on just a day like this that I chose to sail, across a lumpy and capricious sea, to the westernmost member of the [Faroe Islands], the island of Mykines.” Or perhaps, “So I decided there and then that one day I would travel to the Skeleton Coast -- a place so named because of all the skeletons, of both men and the vessels in which they had wrecked… from there I flew to Windhoek in Namibia, and finally in a two-engined Cessna flew up to a tiny tented camp in the middle of the northern desert, close to the Angolan frontier.” Or my personal favorite, as he is discussing a crucial moment in the Falklands War, “Most shocked Britons remember with vivid exactness just where they were and what they were doing when the sinking was announced in the manner of so many recent tragedies. I had good reason to remember especially well, too, because at the time I was locked up on espionage charges in a prison cell not too far away in the grim sub-Andean town of Ushuaia, in southern Tierra del Fuego.” As narrator (metaphorically, then, captain of that curragh braving the stormy waters), he inspired in me both trust and dis-. I could hear myself asking with a warily raised eyebrow, Is this guy for real?

A visit to Winchester’s website affords a window into the man, the myth, the legend (and also provides visual aids: Winchester donning a red windbreaker greeting a waddle of penguins; Winchester wearing a panama hat on beach; Winchester reading by the hearth of his home in the Berkshires). Recipient of a geology degree from Oxford University at 21, young Simon soon after found himself an unsatisfied member of a Canadian mining expedition stationed in the Ugandan mountains. To pass the time, he read an account of the 1953 expedition of Mount Everest, which ignited the literary spark within. He soon after formally left geology for journalism, reporting for a number of publications before the monstrous sleeper success of Madman allowed him to pursue his own projects full time.

It’s clear from the material compiled on his website that Winchester, in addition to having cocktail party anecdotes that would rival those of Indiana Jones, also has a sense of humor. Under the “Contact” heading and then the “Professional” sub-link, Winchester offers up an amusing list of tasks he’d be willing to undertake in the name of publicity. “Like all freelance writers, I am happy to consider ideas for commissions -- to give talks, to write essays and books, to entertain at birthdays and bar mitzvahs, to open supermarkets, to try to keep passengers awake on cruise liners and to play the male lead in major motion pictures.” There was nothing of tweed or pipes or pomposity about this man, worldly though he may be. Struck by his lightheartedness, I suddenly felt compelled to reach out to Winchester, using the standard input form on the Contact – Personal page. And -- no kidding -- he responded within ten minutes, no doubt typing on his iPhone while dangling off the side of a mountain in Nepal or traversing tenable shifting ice floes off Greenland (true story). (Though please do not be encouraged by this turnaround time to bombard Mr. Winchester with emails. For one, that would distract him from writing such dense and fascinating books. For two, that would make him like me less.)

Ay, there’s another rub, though: book critics are supposed to strive toward impartiality, perhaps a lofty, even unachievable goal, but a noble one, nonetheless, and one that must not be forgotten. And how could I outline the things about Atlantic I thought were unsuccessful when ringing in my ears I now heard Winchester’s voice, even more sincere and British than I had imagined it would be? For the writer assigned to evaluate a piece of literature, the freedom to express one’s grievances is paramount. Had I destroyed what little latitude I had to be entirely honest about the book? Because it is, when all is said and done, an imperfect book for one overarching reason, and that is the structure.

Credit where it’s due: it must be beyond tough to figure out how to structure a book on a subject as enormous as the Atlantic Ocean, and any rubric one decides upon will probably feel arbitrary and exclusionary. Winchester, when approached with this dilemma, opted to divide the story of the Atlantic into chapters corresponding to the seven stages of man as outlined in the most famous monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Thus, the narrative moves from the ocean’s infancy (“At first the infant, /mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”) to its mapping and discovery (Jacques’s schoolboy) to artistic representation of the ocean (the Lover) and so on and so forth until “second childishness and mere oblivion,” or in other words, when the ocean is no more. One hardly feels the chapter’s title acts as a good lighthouse, especially through the middle of the book, as the connections between Shakespearean header and content (the “lean and slipper’d pantaloon” in relation to air travel?) seem particularly tenable in this region.

Thus, any sense of a linear story, either the writer’s or the ocean’s, is muddled by Act IV. With such an overwhelming topic, I venture to guess that it may have been better for Winchester to just cut his losses and stick to the strictest semblance of chronology he can. Furthermore, within the unsatisfying meta-structure of the book were subchapters and quotes-as-headings and footnotes and visual aids and their captions, and all this division in service of the whole served to befuddle more than anything. There were moments where I felt myself -- dare I say it? I do -- adrift. And perhaps because I didn’t feel nestled in the bosom of a straightforward narrative, I had trouble with some of the smaller acts of faith I was asked to perform, like when Winchester took logical leaps across canyons I didn’t feel capable of clearing. For example, early on he states, “Not all bodies of water are so very evidently alive as the Atlantic.” Certainly not the Dead Sea, but I personally was hard-pressed to think of a single reason the Pacific, say, is less “evidently alive” than Winchester’s ocean of choice. (Though it’s very possible he knows something I don’t.)

These seas are not smooth sailing, but every so often, and this is a testament to Winchester’s prowess, they part, and the sun breaks through the clouds and a baby turtle or a dolphin or some other gorgeous, elusive water creature breaks the surface and the moment is so peaceful and new and clean as to make all the hardship before worthwhile. These moments are turns of phrase, like when Winchester compares the movement of the tectonic plates to “the unzipping of a fly,” or anecdotes, like when he explains how Faroese people raise sheep on precarious sea cliffs one thousand miles above the surface of the water. The sheep, Winchester taught me, are placed on these small patches of guano-fertilized grass as wee lambs and are left to graze there, in his words “always ohmygod about to fall” for a year. Yes, at times like those, I would think to myself, even before hearing his eminently charming British accent, that this man was an excellent guide, and thank God I had him, for I would surely have never found this place on my own.

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester
Harper
ISBN: 0061702587
512 Pages