The Swedish writer Bjorn Larsson can’t believe. Why any journalist, since he published his first book The true story of the pirate Long John Silver, always asks him the same question: “How and how much does the sea inspire your writing?”
This stubborn curiosity, which annoyed him at first, like all those questions to which it’s difficult to answer, finally pushed him to dwell on the matter, in Telling the Sea (2015). At first maybe no one think about it… but if you just stop for a moment, as he did, the doubt arises spontaneously: for what reason would the sea inspire literature? And what sea are we talking about? And what literature? Why who write anything else don’t receive similar questions? (How and how much do the pastures inspire your writing?)
What’s the sea that looks so powerful to us, able to inspire whole books? According to Larsson, it’s a bizarre belief, because “if it was true that the sea represents a prime source of inspiration for literature, it should be easy to find many who use and bring to fruition this golden vein of creativity”. But it’s not so. During his search, Larsson finds out that writers who really tell about the sea are very few and the usual known: Conrad, Stevenson, London, Melville.
Italy for example, surrounded by the sea for ¾, should have a huge amount of this kind of literature. On the contrary, and this is what the journalist-activist-editor Goffredo Fofi writes: there’s “a gap between the strong presence of the sea in the history of the peninsula and its very little presence in the literary world”, concluding that “the sea doesn’t produce imaginary“.
The affair also seems to worsen over time, taking away the sea more and more seduction. The reasons seem to be two: to travel we navigate the sea less and less, and the ships are increasingly distant from urban life (curiosity: “the last transatlantic line between Europe – United States dates back to the early 1970s”). So the sea has lost its dreams of freedom, becoming at most a job as another, or a free space for cruises, which are booming but on which no one writes. “What’s not to write a book that tells this life?”, Larsson wonders, “maybe setting a sadly romantic captain like Schettino?” (protagonist of Concordia shipwreck at Giglio island in 2012).
But literature is not practical, it’s just imaginary. Therefore the lack of personal experience in the field cannot be a real reason of lack of interest in the sea. It doesn’t hold up. Stevenson for example navigated very little, “and certainly not as a pirate“.
In short, “the sea and above all the workers of the sea are not recurring subjects of the narrative, as everyone would tend to believe stereotypically. The sea itself doesn’t mean anything, “but it has its own rules, other than those of earth: “at sea the uncertainty, precariousness, ephemeral becomes unshakeable certainties with which we must learn to live”.
“The advantage of being a sailor, in fact, is that people assume that he will leave again. Sailors that put down roots, soon lose their power to seduce and make dreams come true”.
Even the “father” of all maritime literature, the first sailor to which everyone was seriously inspired, is, in fact, too stereotyped. Reading the Odyssey again, Larsson remains disappointed. Not from the greatness of the work, but just for the role assigned to Ulysses himself over time: “He doesn’t deserve his reputation as a sailor. It’s far from him the desire to wander around the world, on the ridge of the waves, with no precise target. First he’s a soldier who usually wants only one thing: come back home“.
So all this metaphorical importance that we give to the sea is based on an idealized stereotype?
The only fact that can give us an answer is this one: for millennia, the man was afraid of the sea, until he saw a potential way of communication. A space that he could cross to see what was beyond. A way to satisfy our own curiosity or perhaps our own boredom. The sea is therefore a synonym of knowledge for the human kind.
In my opinion today we are more attracted by another type of sea. The sea we are curious about is internet. We always say that, the metaphor is also inside our vocabulary now: it’s on internet that we surf every day. Like the sea also internet connects, it’s uncertain and you never really land somewhere. Like sailors, we never stop moving, that’s still necessary at some point if you really want to know each other. We even don’t know storms, the real danger at sea. Internet is a huge but quiet sea that drifts, unless you are able to return to the ground occasionally.
A bit like in the literature: “How many authors are really able to travel on the pages of a book, I mean able to tell the other, the stranger?“, Larsson wonders. “We always tends to tell about our alike. But a literature that stops leaving and keeps warm and safe at home is not true literature. Because the true one only offers insecurity but a healthy insecurity. There’s no great literature in defense of the death penalty or tyranny, or even less the law enforcement. Literature simply does not recognize the authority of any captain, it will always be on the part of the crew. As human beings, how to stay human, how to not become inhumane: these are the real issues of literature“. That it’s of sea or land. Or network.