We, The Drowned | by Carsten Jensen | Mariner Books | 2012
During our summer trip to Maine this past June, we picked up a handful of sea-faring books to help us "get into character" for our upcoming production of Wagner's ghost-ship drama, The Flying Dutchman. The Danish author Carsten Jensen's acclaimed new novel, We, The Drowned was just the ticket. Below are quotes from the Mariner paperback edition that either connect to our nautical opera directly or pique our imagination to make the relevant associative leaps.
"How often have we sat in the fo’c’sle, listening to tales of the klabautermann, the grim reaper who hangs in the mizzen shroud, with his white face and his dripping oilskins? Or of the Flying Dutchman, or the ship’s dog that howls in the night, searching for its lost ship?" (p. 240)
See posts below this one for the origins of the Flying Dutchman legend. The following quote is one of many highly musical examples in Jensen's lyrical prose.
"Over a hundred ships were docked in Marstal, and a howling concerto rose over the town from the many riggings raked by the northeasterly wind. There was the slapping and slamming of ropes against wood, and the sound of hulls bashing against each other and the wharf as they waited to be remoored by the crews. The water level continued to rise and the ships rose higher and higher, their menacing twilight shadows looming in the snowfall, like a fleet of Flying Dutchman come to announce the destruction of the town." (245)
This epic novel is full of passages that remind us shore-bound citizens how mysterious is the proverbial call of the sea...
"It was as if the sea had turned itself inside out and was disgorging all the thousands of people it had swallowed across the centuries. Crossing it, they felt a fellowship with them." (665)
"The noise was deafening. Two oil tanks on the north side of the Thames had caught fire, and a frustrated roar sounded from the sea of flames, like the great mythic wolf of Ragnarök staining on its chain at the end of time, howling to be unleashed on the whole world." (568)
The mythical references and the novel's severe northern geography connect directly to Wagner's world and the Flying Dutchman.
"Probably the [battle]ship’s greatest value lay in simply being a symbol… she lay chained there like the great wolf of myth, threatening a Ragnarök that never came. But now that Ragnarök was imminent: the wolf at the end of the world was going to snap its chain at last and grab the bait." (605)
Having recently seen the Met's outstanding production of Britten's Melville-inspired nautical opera, Billy Budd (for which our friend Steven White was the associate conductor), the sea chanteys and the ritualistic aspects of singing on board echo...
"They sang, as generations had done before them, the old hymn dedicated to the sailing profession…a hymn about their own fragility, and that of a ship’s timbers, and the strength of God:
The cruel sea shall be our grave | Be thou not by our side.
Mid raging wind and crashing wave | And lightning’s flashing sword,
Your word can calm the surging tide. | Be with us now on board!" (468)
"Somewhere in the sea of people, a sailor started up a chantey. The others joined in, and soon they were all singing, swaying rhythmically to the old working song that had rung across the sea for centuries… It made no difference what language it was sung in; the message was in the rhythm, not the words. It didn’t preach; it traveled to men’s hearts via their muscles, reminding them what they were capable of, so that forgetting their exhaustion, they’d toil in unison." (231-2)
"One started singing, and others joined him until soon they were all singing a song that seemed to use the Pacific as a metronome rising and falling with the slow dignity that matched the immense swelling rhythm of the waves." (139)
The book's main port is Marstal, one of the maritime centers of Northern Europe. Jensen's novel is the result of careful research and if not a work of "historical fact," it is still invaluably informative for its portraits of sea-faring life in dangerous waters...
"… but he’d overlooked one essential thing about the art of steering a ship. You don’t just keep your eye on the compass; you also check the rigging, you read the clouds, you observe the direction of the wind and the color of the current and the sea, and you look out for the sudden surf that warns of a rock ahead…that’s how it is on a sailing ship, and in this respect its journey parallels that of life: simply knowing where you want to go isn’t enough, because life is a windblown voyage, consisting mainly of the detours imposed by alternating calm and storm." (429)
"When one of us was once asked why, when his ship was floundering in a storm, he’d refused to give up even though death seemed like a certainty, he’d given an answer that would seem strange to anyone but a Marstaller…”What made you keep going?” we asked… he gave us something completely different: an intelligent answer to a stupid question. 'I kept going because I wanted to be buried in the new cemetery.'
…On a ship, one man’s negligence could have fatal consequences for everyone. A sailor was quick to see that. The minister called it morality. Albert called it honor. In the church you were accountable to God. On a ship you were accountable to everyone. That made a ship a better place to learn...
Life had taught him about something far more complicated than justice. Its name was balance." (222-228)
The Italian poet and director Pasolini, who cast Maria Callas as Medea in one of her most striking non-operatic roles, called myth "a thriller of intelligibility." The "shadow of a menace" Jensen's describes applies to Wagner, The Flying Dutchman and tragedies from ancient Greece and Shakespeare to grand opera and epic war films.
"He felt the shadow of a menace that went beyond the fury of the wind and the pounding of the waves: a foreboding of looming disasters from which even the unyielding boulders of the breakwater couldn’t protect Marstal. The sensation was so vague and dreamlike that he thought he must have briefly nodded off…" (229)
"Every sailor knows the bitter feeling: the coast is near, but you’ll never reach it. Is there anything more heartbreaking than drowning in sight of land? Is there a single one of us who hasn’t at least once felt haunted by the fear of slipping away with sight of a safe haven?" (174)
We never cease to be fascinated and amazed by natural landscapes. And the severe landscapes of desert and polar regions are especially enthralling. Experiencing them vicariously - and vividly - through art may be the closest thing to living the danger and risk the explorers themselves took...
"Winter arrived, and with it the frost. The boats were laid up in the harbor, the harbor froze over, and an ice pack formed on the beach. Island and sea became one; we inhabited a white continent whose infinity both beckoned and terrified us…It looked so wild, windswept and deserted...
This new landscape even forced its way into our streets, where a blizzard of snowflakes whirled and danced on the heavy drifts, then leapt back into the air to obliterate the world once more." (75)
"Just then, the church bells started tolling a long-drawn-out farewell; a funeral procession was coming down… Death was a certainty for all of us, but whether the bells of Marstal would ever toll for us, there was no knowing. If we drowned at sea, there’d be only silence." (58)