Looking at the Ocean
In Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, the novel’s protagonist, Leda, goes alone to the sea on her summer vacation. While there, she thinks of her daughters, far away now in Toronto with their father, and she doesn’t miss them. Instead she becomes focused on the drama of another family she sees everyday at the beach, especially on a young woman at the center of that family named Nina. Without them knowing, Leda intrudes on the family; she intensifies their drama. For a time, she becomes a confidante to the young woman, giving her advice that is dark but also direct, intimate. At one point Leda says to Nina: “Sometimes you have to escape in order not to die.”
The ocean is many things, of course, one of them a screen, something we watch from the beach while absentmindedly projecting our thoughts upon it. Or we read a book and when we look out at the horizon the book is projected there too. When we swim we stay fairly close to the shore. Farther out and the projection grows thinner. We project on to something, on top of it, not in. When Leda is in front of the sea it is her own life, rather than her absent family, that is projected on top of it; her flawed, complicated self.
In Joanna Walsh’s “Vagues” from her book Vertigo, a narrator sits in an oyster restaurant with a man who is not her husband, though her husband is projected into the scene, too, in the way she thinks of him. We see also the objects in the restaurant and the other people, the beach and the water, for the story is especially cinematic. The narrator (facing away from the ocean) sits across from the man who is not her husband and thinks: “Now he is here, seated at the table that looks out at the sea. It is the table he indicated, the table he desired, from which he can see the sea the beach the seagulls the stork the mother the stones the toddler the seaweed the rubbish, and at the other side of the table interrupting his view of all these things, me.”
Another vacation, now on the Costa Brava in Roberto Bolaño’s Third Reich, begins like this: “Through the window comes the murmur of the sea mingled with the laughter of the night’s last revelers, a sound that might be the waiters clearing the tables on the terrace, an occasional car driving slowly along the Paseo Marítimo, and a low and unidentifiable hum from the other rooms in the hotel.” As Third Reich goes on there will be a disappearance, mind/war games, and a kind of madness, though this opening sentence is empty and clear. The ocean mixed with other things, but constant. Soon it will be thoroughly visible and the novel will be a projection upon it.