Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Romanticism and Verisimilitude

As always with Farley Mowat, you have to wonder where the verity and the verisimilitude intersect.

Nevertheless, his novel “Grey Seas Under” is a wonderful tale, where all the storms are the worst the North Atlantic has ever seen, where all the heroes are Newfoundlanders (unless they’re killing whales, of course) and the future is best regarded by a person wearing a kilt and standing with his back to the future while clasping his hands over his ears and yelling “Nananananananana!” at the top of his lungs.

I admit I tire of the “it’s new=better” mantra the world slips into, but Mowat’s writing in many ways reminds me of the philosophy professor I had at the University of Idaho who turned the university’s motto “Where Tradition Meets the Future” into something else when he added “and Beats it Into Submission” to the end of it.

But back to Grey Seas Under. A whale of a tale, if you like tales of the sea, which I do. I read Mowat’s “The Serpent’s Coil” many years ago and was thus delighted when I found this book at the thrift store.

It is a good tale of heroism, though there’s less of the human element in Grey Seas Under than there is in The Serpent’s Coil – and maybe that’s just faulty memory at work. This book feels, however, more like an allegorical tale of a battle between sea and ship, while The Serpent’s Coil wraps that around the stories of the men who sailed in the ship as well. There’s some of that in Grey Seas Under, but less than the other. So if you want humanity, go with the latter.

Still, Mowat knows how to turn a phrase. Behold (and, also, spoilers!):

That tale ended in the wind-swept dawn of February 5. It ended when there came a message from the signal station at Chebucto Head – a message that brought Featherstone out of his bed, and sent him racing through the icy streets toward the company wharf.

In the first bleak light of day he stood with a dozen others on the Foundation dock and watched with unbelieving eyes the slow, infinitely painful progress of a strange a phantom as ever fumbled its way into Halifax harbor.

She came in under quarter power, which was all that she had left within her. She was so heavily encased in ice that she would not have been recognizable to any man who had not known her well. She was listing 12 degrees to port, and she was so far down by the head that those who watched her held their breaths for fear that she would plunge back into the hungry seas from which she appeared to have risen, wraithlike, in the winter dawn.

The watchers on the dock needed have had no fear that she would fail to reach her old familiar berth. It was the grey seas under and the white winds above who had failed, in this their last attempt to take her to themselves.

The Franklin had come home from her last voyage.

And this is where Mowat succeeds where few can these days – he’s such a romantic.

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