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No Signposts in the Sea by Vita…
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No Signposts in the Sea (1961)

by Vita Sackville-West

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Published in the year before her death No Signposts in the Sea is perhaps Vita Sackville West’s most haunting novel. Written at a time when Vita was suffering from the (still undiagnosed) cancer that would end her life, it was also her last.

Vita and her husband; Harold Nicolson and their friend Edie Lamont – to whom the novel is dedicated, set sail on a cruise of the West Indies and South America in 1959. Vita and Harold had enjoyed cruise life before, yet on this last, sad voyage Vita began writing No Signposts… a novel about dying, unrequited love and how life should be grabbed at with both hands. The novel feels beautifully intimate, bound up as it is life, love, death and travel.

The novel is also shot through with extracts of poetry, reflecting the thoughts of the central characters Edmund and Laura. There is a delicate, elegiac quality to the narrative – which I really enjoyed. I can only assume that Vita was (on some level at least) aware that she perhaps – like Edmund in her story – would not be around for long.

“I want my fill of beauty before I go. Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.”

During a week when I felt increasingly hopeless and helpless I felt very much like sailing away on a calm sea, this book felt like perfect reading. I picked it up for the Librarything Virago Group’s author of the month – which in January is Vita Sackville West. Although I enjoyed this little novel enormously, there were a couple of moments when I was brought up sharply – almost back to the mad reality of 2017, with – what was for me – some unexpected, racially offensive attitudes. I know to expect it of novels from the 1930s and 40s – I read a lot of books from that period, stupidly I had not expected the same in a novel from 1961. It was naïve of me, I suppose. Still, the 1960s were still a different time, I understand that, and VSW of a very different class, that shows too, but none of this was enough to prevent me from enjoying this novel.

The story is told by Edmund Carr, the novel is his journal, discovered after his eventual death. We know from the beginning that Edmund is on borrowed time.

Fifty-year old Edmund Carr is an eminent journalist, who came from humble beginnings, and now counts members of an entirely different social class among his friends. One of those friends is Laura Drysdale, an attractive widow of forty. Edmund nurses a secret tenderness for Laura, and so when his doctor tells him he has just a few months to live, Edmund decides to spend his last weeks with Laura. Laura has booked herself passage on a cruise ship. Edmund hurriedly leaves his job in Fleet Street, and books passage on the same ship.

Delighting in having the sun on his face, Edmund settles into a lovely on board routine, frequently in the company of Laura. Keeping both his illness and the truth of his feelings a secret, Edmund is content just to be in Laura’s company, terrified of ruining the relationship they already have by looking for more. He is unable, however to free himself of his feelings, now so much in the company of Laura they are, if anything strengthened.

“And sometimes I suddenly hear her voice. This is a queer experience. I know her voice so well in the ordinary way of things, and then suddenly and unexpectedly I hear it as though I had never heard it before. It may be only six words, of no especial significance. Thus, I heard her say no, no more coffee thank you, and it was as though she had said Edmund my darling, I love you.
Love does play queer tricks,”

Together they watch the sunset from the deck, share dinner on a beautiful island, watch a magnificent lightning storm from Laura’s private balcony, all while observing their fellow cruisers with wry humour. Laura is presented as perhaps being a little unconventional – she discusses her views on marriage quite candidly and relates the touching story of a lesbian couple she knows. In these sections, we can presumably see, Vita’s own attitude to love and relationships.

Fellow passenger Colonel Dalrymple adds a little complication to Edmund’s contentedness. At first Edmund is happy with the colonel’s company, he, along with another passenger make up a four with Edmund and Laura, for bridge. In time, though Edmund imagines the Colonel has romantic interests of his own toward Laura, and his own jealous paranoia begins to threaten his enjoyment in Laura’s company. He watches the colonel, listens for footsteps between cabins at night, makes an uncharacteristically snide remark, and then worries that in doing so he has given himself away.

“Then come mysterious currents which rock the ship from below without much visible convulsion. Where do they come from, these secret arteries of the sea, tropical or polar? They are as inexplicable to me as the emotions which rock my own heart. I do not let them appear on the surface but am terribly aware of them beneath. Sometimes, churned by a gale, the waters grow angry and the blue expanse turns black and white, tossing us remorselessly, the waves crashing with a sound as of breaking biscuits, the rain hissing as it obliterates all vision, and again I draw the parallel between the elements and the surprising violence I have discovered in myself.”

Despite a couple of small jarring moments, this is a lovely, thought provoking novel – VSW re-creates her own love of cruising, her enjoyment becomes our own, the expanse of sea, the warmth of sun, a night-time, moon bathed deck, her writing is gloriously evocative. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Mar 16, 2017 |
There are no signposts in the sea, nor as Edmund Carr tells us, are there any tombstones. Both these statements are significant to Edmund. The senior leader writer for an unnamed leading broadsheet, "... one of the weightiest of our national newspapers", Edmund had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, one which would cause little pain or limitation until the very end. Like most of us, the fifty year old Carr had never really seriously contemplated his end. Now, he said, "I wondered quite dispassionately how best to arrange what remained of my life."

The day after his diagnosis, he discovered that Laura Drysdale, a woman whom he greatly admired, was going on a sea voyage of some months duration. He took an indefinite leave from his office and booked passage on Laura's ship, telling no one of his diagnosis.

Edmund kept a diary on the voyage, a diary which is most of the book. The reader sees him falling in love with Laura, tormenting himself with what could be. He had always avoided serious entanglements and now felt that to enter into a relationship with someone would be wrong, given his condition. Instead, he put Laura on a pedestal, agonized over her words and deeds, desperately searching for signs she might care for him. The tragedy is that obsession can cause us to lose our way, causing us to miss the very signposts that would lead us out of the storm.

This is a very well written book about the nature of love and of marriage, questions of long standing importance to [[Vita Sackville-West]]. The novel was set in 1955, a time of great uncertainty about the future for people like Edmund and Laura. It seems difficult now to imagine a world where given a certain amount of material well being, people could just step away for a time to actually think and read and write. One of the things that struck me most was the sheer excellence of the syntax of her language. Every once in a while I would stop and reread a bit, not necessarily for what was said, but for the pleasure of reading something so well constructed, but then what else would you expect from a man like Edmund, the voice of The Times, or a woman like Vita?

My only quibble was with the use of the third person "one" in place of "I" or "you". This usage has always bothered me. It is as if the speaker is unable to commit to a point of view and so fobs it off on that anonymous "one", who is actually "we" for a particular elite. This discussion of second marriages where "one" has different referents highlighted the stilted cadences of it all:
I take it that one does not commit the same mistake twice, not unless one is a film-star with a positive passion for divorce. No. But one would not commit it unless one was very sure that it wasn't one -- and when one is in love one isn't always able to judge.

How can anyone so dispassionate actually be in love?

However, any other usage would not have been nearly as convincing. It would not have conveyed who Laura and Edmund were.

No Signposts in the Sea was Sackville-West's last novel. It was written over two different sea cruises she took with her husband Harold Nicholson. Like Edmund, Vita was preoccupied with death on these cruises. She was ill with the as yet undiagnosed cancer which would kill her a year later. All in all this was a good book to lead off that contemplation of what really should be said before it is too late.
2 vote SassyLassy | Jan 25, 2017 |
No signposts in the sea is a book that grows on you. While the story initially seems a bit boring, and of light kaliber, the development of the relationship between the two main characters, Edmund and Laura provides depth.

When Vita Sackville-West wrote this novel, her last, she was already terminally ill. She and her husband had started making cuises and voyages a few years earlier. No signposts in the sea is told from the viewpoint of Edmund, who is also terminally ill. During the voyage, Edmund comes to terms with the finality of life.

The beauty of the story lies in the contrast between the finality of life and the infinity of the sea. The title, No signposts in the sea does not occur in the novel, but there is another sentence that is very similar, viz. "There are no tombstones in the sea" (p. 48). Tombstones are reminders of death. Perhaps the title should be understood as suggesting ultimate freedom, one can (still) go in any direction.

The contrast between the land and the sea, is also reflected in the personality of Edmund and Laura. It has been pointed out that Edmund is an unlikely character, as he has supposedly never traveled before, although he is an expert on the Middle East. However, this objection seems very contemporary. It enforces the provincial views, the lack of openmindedness and some of the pettiness, such a jealousy or erotic fantasies which Edmund cannot see separate from his dealing with Laura. When Edmund observes the beauty of Asian men stripped to the waist, several times over the course of the novel, this is not with an erotic view, although even that idea may not be entirely impossible, but, more in the sense of estrangement, as British men of the Victorian Age and later, actually well up till today, will normally never be seen in that way. British men are fixed in a kind of formality, which excludes a free, more natural expression of physical prowess and beauty.

Much of Edmund's complicated sense of being is contrasted by the much more natural, and more simple Colonel Dalrymple. However, the most spiritual of the three, is of course Laura. She has a very full, rich life experience, of which Edmund only sees a glimpse, for example when she tells him how she got through the war. To Edmund, the voyage is like a spiritual awakening, although till the very last he confuses embracing the spirit of eternity with the physical embrace of Laura. ( )
1 vote edwinbcn | Feb 27, 2015 |
When Edmund Carr learns he has only a few months to live, he puts his affairs in order and embarks on a cruise. There he develops a close relationship with Laura, a young widow. While he knows it is pointless to even consider a romantic relationship with her, he can't help but feel attracted to her, and jealous of other suitors on board ship. The reader lives inside Edmund's head as he observes his surroundings, especially Laura, and reflects on his life.

This short, contemplative novella is the last book published by Vita Sackville-West, and the setting -- a cruise ship -- one that she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, experienced several times in their last years together. Edmund's ruminations, especially those concerning romantic relationships, undoubtedly reflect the author's experience. And so this was a not unpleasant read with some poignant moments, but overall I found it just average. ( )
  lauralkeet | Sep 25, 2013 |
This novel deserves to be much better known, and Vita Sackville-West deserves to be known as a quality writer. In the literary shadow of Virginia Woolf as she inevitably is, when I picked up this book I didn't expect the beautifully-written, exquisite gem I found. In it Edmund, who hasn't long to live, decides to spend his remaining days on a sea voyage, in passive pursuit of Laura, the woman he loves.

Edmund, as he contemplates his imminent death, finds a hitherto unsuspected romantic sensibility. He looks back to a more peaceful, unspoilt time - the 'noble savage'. Laura, the realist, reminds him that "man today is merely an extension of what man always was, only more complicated". The other major character in this slim novel, Colonel Dalrymple, is a stereotype, although - as Edmund finds - he's hard to dislike. His purpose in the plot is to provide the other tip of the triangle, although to describe the nature of the relationship between Edmund and Laura in such terms is to do the novel a disservice. Edmund's jealousy takes him by surprise and is something he struggles, touchingly, to overcome.

There is something exquisitely sad about this book. Edmund's love for Laura, and his attempts to come to terms with his love and with his impending death, are what make the book special. Edmund says, "One must believe everything, or nothing. Everything is either possible, or impossible. Miracles must be credible, or incredible." As I neared the end of the book, I found myself hoping for a miracle, but I rather knew it wasn't going to happen. [Oct 2005] ( )
2 vote startingover | Feb 1, 2011 |
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We have now been at sea for three weeks.
This is V. Sackville-West's last novel. (Introduction)
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From the back cover: 'And now I see how I stand . . . I once flattered myself that I was an adult man; I now perceive that I am gloriously and adolescently silly . . . Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.;

Edmund Carr is an eminent journalist and self-made man. In middle age he learns he has only a short time to live. Leaving his job on a Fleet Street paper, he takes a passage on a ship to an unspecified destination--for Edmund knows that Laura, a beautiful and intelligent widow whom he secretly admires, will be a fellow-passenger. Exhilarated by the changing colours of the ocean and the distant tropical islands, Edmund strolls the deck with Laura. This is a voyage of awakening. For in these long purposeless days Edmund relinquishes the past as he discovers the joys, and the pain, of a love he is determined to conceal.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0860685780, Paperback)

Edmund Carr is at sea in more ways than one. An eminent journalist and self-made man, he has recently discovered that he has only a short time to live. Leaving his job on a Fleet Street paper, he takes a passage on a cruise ship where he knows that Laura, a beautiful and intelligent widow whom he secretly admires, will be a fellow passenger. Exhilarated by the distant vista of exotic islands and his conversations with Laura, Edmund finds himself rethinking all his values. A voyage on many levels, those long purposeless days at sea find Edumnd relinquishing the past as he discovers the joys and the pain of a love he is simultaneously determined to conceal.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:19 -0400)

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