The Peripatetic Reviewer

SUPERSHIP by Noël Mostert Knopf, $8.95

As the energy crisis was beginning to sink in last spring with the shocking realization of how dependent the world’s industry had become on Arab resources. The New Yorker, with perfect timing, published two startling articles drawn from this portentous book. For a century Americans have taken oil for granted, and during the past two decades, as we shifted our source of energy from coal to oil (and encouraged Japan to do likewise), we were unperturbed. But in June, 1967, when the Six-Day War closed the Suez Canal, tankers from the Persian Gulf bound for Europe were diverted around Cape Horn. Since the distance was more than doubled, the once standard tanker of 25,000 tons was enlarged, and when the gamblers in shipbuilding, the Greeks and the Japanese, put their minds to it, the sky was the limit. In 1972, the 372,000-ton Nisseki Maru was momentarily “the biggest vessel in the world,” but several 550,000tonners are now under construction, and they will be eclipsed by a 750,000-tonner being contemplated in Tokyo. This incredible growth of the most gigantic fleet in history has transpired while most of us were looking the other way; the ships have been built with a speed and recklessness that make them a grave liability to the ecology of the ocean and to all coastal life. Such is the warning sounded by Noël Mostert in his firm, indignant book.
His boyhood in South Africa early exposed Mr. Mostert to the brutal power of the South Atlantic. “The momentum of the great westerly driven seas lies along a line slightly northeast beyond Cape Horn, so that they bear toward the other Cape. Good Hope, gradually lapsing into the big swells that become the Cape rollers and fan toward the whole South West African seaboard.” He has experienced what those rollers could do to small craft, and in 1943, when he was in his teens, he watched their explosive effect on the French troopship Pasteur as it emerged beyond the Cape breakwater in foul weather. As the shipping correspondent of the Cape Times, he came to appreciate the strains which such seas imposed upon the modern tanker, some five to six hundred of which now round the Cape fully loaded each month. “More oil,” he writes, “probably has been wrecked, spilled, dumped, and slopped into the waters off and around the Cape than in any other single area of the world,” and the continuous effect of such spillage is disaster.
With his knowledge of marine engineering, much of it gained from British sources, he tells us that the rate of breakdowns aboard the oil ships is extraordinary, and is usually the result of boiler trouble, electrical blackout (itself usually a consequence of boiler trouble), or flooding of the engine room. Yet, in the face of these facts, the Japanese continue building superships with only one high-pressure boiler, and if that fails, the monster is helpless. Like icebergs, the superships are mostly underwater, with a draft of forty feet or more. To buck the Cape rollers they should not be fully loaded, but despite the protests of South African marine authorities, the restriction concerning winter load-lines was suspended, with the inevitable result that very bad slicks in the area were caused by overladen tankers dumping oil to protect themselves in bad weather. The effect of the spillage on the ocean itself, and on the seabirds, is horrible to contemplate, and the effect on the crews incarcerated in these giants for six months at a time is made vivid by a long voyage the author made on the P & O tanker Ardshiel.
Today the superships monopolize the high seas, and the wreck of the Torrey Canyon, which ran onto rocks off the Scilly Isles with such devastating results for the adjacent coasts of the English Channel, is only a sample of what the future holds until international regulations are enforced.
CENTENNIAL by James A. Michener Random House. $10.00
Twenty-five years ago, James Michener’s compact and lively Talesof the South Pacific became the source book for the enchanting musical South Pacific, and earned for him his first big wad. Since then he has become an authority on Japan and the author of immensely popular fiction, the most successful of his nineteen books being the extensive, panoramic novels. Hawaii and The Source. He is an earnest writer who, in his eagerness to assimilate, is careless not so much of facts as of style and subtlety. Centennial, his latest big book, displays both his ability and his weakness.
The scheme is simple. The editors of US (think of it as Life) plan to publish in 1974 a double issue devoted to an “in-depth analysis of one American community.” The little town of Centennial, Colorado, on the bank of the Platte River, is the chosen place, and a staff member has already prepared a preliminary survey. At this point they commission Professor Lewis Vernor, who has published scholarly studies of American settlements, to spend six months in Centennial researching every aspect of its past or present that appeals to him. This is the set-up, and the sprawling text that follows is supposed to be his findings which he sends back in installments to the New York office.
It is to be expected that Dr. Vernor’s Notes will be academic, and at the outset they are. His first installment is a speculative genesis reaching back billions of years to explain how Colorado became what it is, an outline of history lacking H. G. Wells’s concise turn of phrase. The second installment, Chapter III, is an account of the Inhabitants, with this goofy introduction: “Toward dusk on a spring evening one hundred and thirty-six million years ago a small furry animal less than four inches long peered cautiously from low reeds. . .”This leads on to the amorous adventures of the diplodocus, a female seventy years old, “one of the most totally lovely creatures so far seen on earth, a perfect poem of motion.” Having tracked her to her death, the professor relates the love stories of a bison, a beaver, a horse (the horse he believes originated in Colorado), with an intimacy and ingenuousness that would have left Ernest Thompson Seton in stitches; and skipping through time, we come to the primitive hunter who, with his exquisite Clovis point, killed one of the mammoths twelve thousand years ago. “I could not imagine how provocative the history of this little town would prove to be,” writes Dr. Vernor to his US editors, and they swallow it whole.
A transition occurs when the narrative shifts to the Indians, for now it is the novelist, no longer the professor, who is talking. The protracted story of the Apache, Lame Beaver, and his daughter, Clay Basket, that “lithe, poetic creature,” is hardly one which Bernard DeVoto would have commended, but it serves to relay our attention to the French fur trader, Pasquinel, a gutsy character who lives most of his life with an arrowhead in his back, and who, in a career that stretches from St, Louis to Bear Lake, spawns almost as many legends as children.
Thereafter the opening of the West is depicted in a series of thinly connected novellas, the best of them being the story of Levi Zendt, the Mennonite, who sets out on the Oregon Trail in his Conestoga wagon with Elly Zahm, the skinny, plucky sixteen-year-old he had rescued from the orphanage. The latter chapters have a slapdash vitality, but the continuity and the illusion are repeatedly interrupted by the chatty advice to his New York editors which the professor sends at the end of each episode. A grandiose undertaking that simply doesn’t work.
I have long rated Iris Murdoch one of the most original of contemporary English novelists, especially for her ability to engage the reader in a domestic situation which is about to burst. Her people may be predominantly happy, as in her charming, summery novel. The Nice and (he Good, or they may be, as in this new story, poised on the verge of strife and anguish; but they live, their talk is fresh and vivid, and their behavior so unpredictable that I keep pressing forward.
In a garden suburb of London. Blaise Gavender, a self-deceiving psychotherapist in his early forties, has arrived at the parting of the ways: he is dissatisfied with his practice and wonders whether he has the courage to enter medical school; in Hood House he has been living a comfortably dull existence with his soft, clinging wife, Harriet, and their only son, David, who is readying for Oxford; and in Putney he is beginning to tire of the complaints of his tart little mistress, Emily, her drinking, and the hostility of their illegitimate son. Blaise, in his somewhat bogus profession, longs for more respect and is troubled by his own duplicities. In his stormy evenings with Emily he thinks of the loyalty which Harriet has waiting for him at home, and when he is at home he remembers the passionate excitement which he has shared with his mistress.
Blaise’s confidant is his nearest neighbor, Montague Small, a popular author of detective stories who has also reached a turning point. “Monty” is steeped in grief at the loss of his wife; he has become disgusted with writing repetitive fiction and wonders if he can quietly immolate himself by returning to schoolteaching, his first venture on leaving Oxford. Monty has lost love and zest, and in cool detachment he urges Blaise to find a new design for living.
What neither could anticipate is the reaction of the two women as Blaise in his boobish way tries to come clean, and when they are joined by Monty’s friend, a famous Oxford scholar, Edgar Demarnay, the fat is really in the fire, and Miss Murdoch is in her element. Harriet, in her possessive way, tries to merge the two households, but Emily, the terrier, with her pent-up envy, has quite a different strategy. The struggle between the two provides the anger, the irony, and the eventual tragedy in this remarkable story.
Introspection is Miss Murdoch’s forte, but she seldom knows when to let well enough alone. In one scene of alcoholic reconciliation Blaise gets a poke in the eye and Emily, revolted by the proceedings, runs out of the house. Blaise chases after her, and as they race, each one of them is flooded by paragraph after paragraph of reproach, recapitulating what the reader already knows. Fortunately, this ludicrous episode is saved by a wonderfully comic surrender at Paddington Station. Of the characters, I am most drawn to Monty with his hatred of pretension, to David as he sheds his adolescence, and to Emily, the London gamine. Edgar, the preposterous Master of his college, is obviously a caricature, and it is fun to guess who the author had in mind.
THE EUROPEAN DISCOVERY OF AMERICA: The Southern Voyages by Samuel Eliot Morison Oxford University Press, $17.50
Ever since his boyhood cruising Down East, Admiral Morison’s career has been a cumulative success. His early book, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, still a standard, established him as an authority on sailing ships; in the preparation for his biography of Christopher Columbus, he explored the Spanish archives and himself navigated a small craft over the sea paths taken by the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” The historian of the United States Navy in World War II, he earned seven battle stars and intensified his knowledge of navigation and his familiarity with the straits and the islands in the Pacific. Such is the experience that led him on to his magnum opus, of which this is the second and concluding volume.
In the Preface, Morison emphasizes how much longer the Southern Voyages were than the crossing of the North Atlantic. Columbus’ great circle distance from his jumping-off place, Gomera in the Canaries, to San Salvador in the Bahamas, was 3116 nautical miles. “You seldom hear of food giving out on a Northern transatlantic voyage in the sixteenth century,” he writes, “but on Southern Voyages scurvy and starvation were commonplace; and very many, perhaps a majority of the men who set out on them, never returned.” One quality that all these mariners had in common with the ancient Greeks was “restlessness”; the lure of gold was enough for the hidalgos, the young courtiers who went along, but it was the discovery of the unknown which called the great captains, and in his early pages the historian makes clear with what forethought they prepared and with what primitive equipment they navigated.
His heroes are the three greatest navigators in history: Columbus, Magellan, and Drake. Each was gone for months on end (Drake was away for three solid years), and the further they traveled, the more they had to combat the rising fear of their people that they could never find their way back. Fear was always present, and on October 9, 1492, Columbus’ crews were so close to mutiny that he had to promise them that if land was not sighted in three days he would turn back. On his second voyage, Columbus reached his peak, and Morison’s account of “those bright November days of 1493, the fleet gaily coasting along the lofty, verdure-clad Antilles with tradewind clouds piling up over the summits,” is glorious. On the triumphant homecoming he could have retired with a title, a castle, and a serene old age, but that was not his character.
Magellan’s was the harder fate. A Portuguese who, after having been rejected by his king, offered his services to Spain, Magellan was always suspect. Three of his Spanish captains conspired against him, and the ship chandlers gave him only enough stores for six months, instead of the eighteen he had been promised. That he could put down the mutiny, brave the Antarctic cold, discover and sail his way through the Straits—and have his enemies extol him after his death—is proof of a man.
Francis Drake is the gayest of the three, a Robin Hood at sea, living off the fat of the Spaniards, wrecking their churches, confiscating their gold, but with no rape and a minimum of bloodshed. Like his predecessors, he took great care of his people, and was ingenious in his periodic cleaning and repairing of the Golden Hind.
His dealings with the American Indians, when he finally reached them, were evidence that diplomacy and potential commerce were as much in his mind as robbing the King of Spain.
I am enough of a landsman not to fuss about Morison’s mapping; what I relish is his fresh, graphic account of the country, of the behavior of the natives, the greed of the lesser adventurers who were out for pearls, slaves, and women, and above all, of the exhilaration of that great trio as they looked on a new world.
Page Stegner’s latest hook is entitled Escape into Aesthetics: The Art of Vladimir Nabokov.
Richard Todd is a bimonthly contributor to these pages.
C. Michael Curtis is an associate editor of The Atlantic.
Edward Weeks and Phoebe Adams appear regularly in this department of the magazine.
Andrew Glaze (page 80) is the author of Damned Ugly Children.
William Walden (page 87) is a native New Yorker, a playwright, and a confirmed tennis player.
Margaret Atwood (page 97) is a Canadian novelist and poet, author of The Animals in That Country, Surfacing, and other works.