No Signposts in the Sea
Introduction by Victoria Glendinning 1985
Virago Modern Classics 2002
At the age of fifty Edmund Carr knows he is dying, with just a few months left to him. On impulse he gets what he calls ‘extended leave’ from his job as a leader writer on a broadsheet newspaper and embarks on a round-the-world cruise. He has an ulterior motive, to spend as much of the voyage in the company of an acquaintance, the widow Laura Drysdale, but without letting anyone know of his fatal illness.
All is going well until he succumbs to the dread “green-eyed monster” jealousy in the shape of his perceived rival, Colonel Dalrymple. He finds an outlet for his feelings by confessing all in a journal, noting that writing is
the most egotistic of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts.
No Signposts in the Sea is purportedly his journal entries, undated but, we are led to imagine, written some time in the late fifties. What gives added poignancy to this last novel by Vita Sackville-West is that it in many ways parallels the final years of her life spent on cruises with her husband Harold Nicholson: she was to die aged 70 in 1962, the year after this novella was published.
For readers knowing the outline of this novel, with its inevitable conclusion, the interest will lie in Edmund’s thoughts on board the ship. The author has evidently based the timeline on a cruise she undertook from Marseille to Yokohama, but deliberately leaves factual details vague so we can focus entirely on Edmund’s inner life. He muses a lot on death, of course, being disgusted by witnessing a young shark being allowed to suffocate slowly on dry land and noting, along with the lack of marine signposts, that “There are no tombstones in the sea;” many such observations act like premonitions of what is to come, as well as indicating how we are like the solitary islands he views passing on the horizon:
Does one like islands because one unconsciously appropriates them, a small manageable domain in a large unmanageable world?
It’s easy to take this novel at a superficial level, either as a simple narrative or as a display of, to our eyes, the uncomfortable mix of the author’s beliefs and prejudices. There are the casual racism and antisemitic attitudes that were endemic amongst many of the upper classes, awkwardly juxtaposed with some left of centre political views on the iniquities of the class system. But to dismiss No Signposts in the Sea as too deeply flawed is to miss the fragile humanity that Sackville-West tries to convey in this piece as well as being a defence of literature that aims to express universal truths:
The average reader skims; he does not pause to obscure what you, Laura, rightly called the pattern. He does not weigh, as the author has weighed, the value of each word…
Edmund’s desire to be near the admirable Laura without telling her his secret — he doesn’t want it to cloud her easy friendship with him — is increasingly complicated by his irrational jealousy, an emotion symbolised by the green flash of light the pair look out for when the sun disappears below the horizon. At other times he experiences deep joy, such as when the pair companionably observe a distant lightning storm at night.
There are frank discussions of other matters, such as lesbian love — well, as frank as mainstream fiction of the time would stomach — and Edmund’s private musings on aspects of his former political life: “Ambition, old as mankind, the immemorial weakness of the strong.” But everything is overshadowed by the unrequited love that his foolish reticence maintains; and the novel ends south of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean, almost diametrically opposite his point of departure.
The author’s biographer, Victoria Glendinning, rightly draws attention in her introduction to weaknesses in characterisation, but in describing the novel as Vita’s “fictional testament” she at least indicates its particular value as a memorial to a remarkable woman, despite any unevenness.
4/20 in my 20 Books of Summer reading, number 17 on my list