Through the lens of literature, something interesting happens to the world of sand and sea, harbours and hotels. In fiction, the seaside frequently represents a threshold between order and chaos, society and nature, identity and its loss, with a move or visit to the coast signalling a shift from the former to the latter. This undermining of tradition or self is reflected in eroding coastlines, in crumbling houses, in the disintegration of narrative structure itself.
The seashore can represent renewal, and after a spell at the seaside – in fiction as in real life – one might turn around and return inland, changed. At the same time, though, there is a link between a coastal setting and some kind of compulsion towards death.
1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
At the family’s summer house on the Gulf coast, Edna Pontellier begins to feel restless. After falling in love with a younger man, James, she struggles to reconcile her desires with her role as a wife and mother. Her husband, worrying about Edna’s mental health, complains to the doctor that she “lets the housekeeping go to the dickens”. Meanwhile, James has been teaching Edna to swim, ultimately enabling her, as Sandra M Gilbert puts it in an introduction to this landmark and – in its day – highly controversial novel, to swim “away from the shore of her old life”.
2. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912, English translation 1925)
In Venice, the honoured author Aschenbach acknowledges a deep longing “for nothingness”. Meanwhile, he is developing an obsession with a beautiful young boy, Tadzio. Despite the spread of a contagious disease, Aschenbach’s fascination causes him to remain at this coastal resort, where we see the disintegration of his mental, moral and physical self. Mann’s great novella yields more on every reading.
3. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)
In this classic thriller, Charles Hale is on a newspaper assignment in Brighton when he meets Pinkie, a teenage gang leader, and realises that he is doomed: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” A hard core of hatred and violence runs through this novel, in which the seedy underworld becomes visible. After murdering Hale, Pinkie feels his world falling apart, as he tries to cover his tracks and keep hold of his alibi.
4. Holiday by Stanley Middleton (1974)
Edwin Fisher has returned to the English seaside town in which he holidayed as a child, to reflect on the death of his young son and the failure of his marriage. In this resort, now under threat from cheap package holidays in exotic locations, and in the company of holiday acquaintances whose own relationships begin to seem increasingly shaky, Edwin’s contemplation of the past leads to a re-evaluation of events at home and a shift of perspective. I read this Booker-winning novel on holiday this summer, and Middleton’s voice is still in my ear.
5. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)
In an abandoned old house in the fictional Suffolk seaside town of Hardborough, widow Florence Green opens a bookshop. She is challenged by rising damp, a poltergeist and local opposition. Hardborough exemplifies insularity: “The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold. Every 50 years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication.” As David Nicholls says in an introduction to this witty and tragic novel, the final sentence is “one of the saddest I’ve ever read”.
6. The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978)
In the same year that The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker prize, Iris Murdoch won with this novel, in which Charles Arrowby has retired from his successful career in the London theatre: “all those wonderful glittering absolutely vanished pantomimes”. He buys an isolated house – whose name means “Black End” – on a rocky coastline, a “great space for which I have been longing all my life”. He writes his memoirs and takes dips in a sea that is both attractive and dangerously difficult to get back out of. When he discovers that his childhood sweetheart lives in the village, he becomes obsessed.
This is a claustrophobic and unsettling novella in which a single mother takes her two young boys to the seaside, where it rains, their hotel room looks on to a concrete wall, and the funfair leaves the younger boy sick and snivelling. The world beyond their trio is hostile, while the sea is both frightening (it is “a freezing great floating graveyard”) and welcoming (“It’s just saying how glad it is to see you, it’s really missed you!”). Foreshadowed by images of dissolution (“I told the kids, we’ll dissolve in all this water, and down we went onto the beach”) and minimal punctuation that gives the narrative a fluid and breathless quality, there is a sense of inevitability in the terrible act of love that follows.
8. The Sea by John Banville (2005)
On a childhood seaside holiday, Max Morden meets the Grace children, but their friendship ends traumatically in a scene that goes on to haunt him. When he returns decades later, he is revisiting both the seaside village and the past. Banville vividly captures intangibles such as a feeling that time “has all begun to run together”, and the loss of self experienced by Max, now retired and widowed, which is expressed by a dream of trying to write his will on a machine that is lacking the letter “I”.
9. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)
In the summer of 1962, Edward and Florence are honeymooning in a hotel on the Dorset coast. On their first night, as they sit down to supper, they are all too aware of the view, through the open bedroom door, of a four-poster bed with a pure-white bedcover. With the point of view shifting tidally between them, the narrative traces the couple’s history, their anxieties, and the crucial failures of communication and understanding that lead to the story’s painful denouement.
Nominated for this year’s Man Booker prize, Wyl Menmuir’s debut novel describes Timothy Buchanan’s move to a coastal village, where he is troubled by fragments of information about a dead man, and bewildered by the fish that are trawled from the contaminated sea, and where he attempts to make a home. With its eerily strange setting, The Many is a desperately beautiful expression of grief.