Friday, October 12, 2012

By the Open Sea

A strange work of land art avant la lettre is created in August Strindberg's extraordinary novel By the Open Sea (1889).  Although summer has arrived on the island of Österskär, 'drift-ice was still coming from the north, where an unusually severe winter on the coast had resulted in the formation of bottom-ice, which, drifting south, had so chilled the water that the lower layers of air were denser than those above.  Consequently, refraction had distorted the contours of the skerries and, during the last few days, had produced the most magnificent mirages.' The scientific explanations voiced by Strindberg's doomed anti-hero, the government fisheries inspector Axel Borg, fail to dispel the supernatural ideas of the suspicious islanders.  Maria, the young woman towards whom Borg is attracted (she is staying on the island for the summer for reasons of health), likens the distorted shape of the pink-gneiss skerries to the cliffs of Normandy.  Borg decides he needs to appear to the islanders as some kind of magician simply to gain a hearing. 'He therefore asked the credulous if they would believe that they were seeing a reflection of Italy if they saw an Italian landscape, and when the answer was yes, he determined to combine the useful with the entertaining.  By making a few minor alterations he would produced the promised southern landscape for Miss Maria's birthday, so that when the next mirage occurred this, seen through the colossal magnifying glass provided by the varying density of the layers of air would appear on the horizon greatly magnified.'

Borg rows out to the skerry and begins work by stripping away lichen, leaving a few dark lines so that the rock resembles stratified sedimentary rock.  On the crest of the ridge he fells a few pine trees, isolating the best one so that it will be silhouetted against the sky.  He thins out its crown and trains some of its branches upwards with zinc wire to achieve the look of an Italian stone pine.  A juniper tree is converted into a cypress using an axe and darkened in colour using lamp-black dissolved in water.  At first he had felt rather disgusted with himself for indulging in this activity but as he works he comes to feel 'like a Titan storming creation, correcting its originator's blunders, twisting the earth's axis so that the south turned a few degrees northwards.'  He goes to work with a crowbar, trying to remove slabs of eurite to reveal the marble underneath, eventually resorting to the use of dynamite.  Having thus uncovered what would serve as the facade of a palace, he paints on windows and the outline of a rusticated socle.  He adds a pergola festooned with vines (three poles and some plaited runners of bearberry) and finishes his work by touching the area up with hydrochloric acid diluted with an equal part of water.  'Thus he obtained a gleaming shade of white among the green grass.  This produced an effect of bellis, or galanthus, so characteristic of the Roman Campagna in its 'second spring', which occurs in October after the end of the grape harvest.'

But that evening is a troubling one: Maria is ill, or appears to be, and Borg, with another kind of magic trick, goes through the motions of curing her.  Tired and confused he walks out into the night, where he is eventually rejoined by Maria.  They talk about their future together but fall silent on reaching a cairn erected in memory of the people drowned in a shipwreck.  Borg already feels a yearning for the time of their initial enchantment, 'the intoxication that blinded, that changed grey to rosy red, that built pedestals, that painted golden rims on cracked porcelain.'  Next morning they are talking over coffee when they become aware that a crowd has gathered looking uneasily out to sea.  Stepping outside they realise immediately that it is not the miraculous mirage Borg had planned.  'They saw swimming on the surface of the sea, in the middle of a clear sunny morning, a colossal moon, deathly white, rising over a churchyard of black cypresses.  The inspector, who had not calculated what the effect would be from this viewpoint, and who did not grasp the hang of the matter swiftly enough, turned deathly pale himself from shock.'  His intended marble palace, partly obscured by the pine tree and projecting rock and with windows painted on too faintly, resembled the face of the moon.  'He had never expected an otherwise law-abiding nature to produce such a monstrous phenomenon.'

   August Strindberg, Double Picture, 1892

Quotes here are from the 1984 translation by Mary Sandbach, which some publisher like New York Review Books really ought to reissue (Penguin Classics used to have an edition of By the Open Sea but it is no longer in print). 

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