Yes, it’s still me.
Yes, I’m still here.
Remember the story about Captain Ahab’s fictional wife in Aab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund? (Yes, I’m very much aware that Captain Ahab himself was fictional, Tsofit, but the point is that even within that fiction, there was no woman – real or fictional. There was a mention of one, in one sentence, that is true, but that doesn’t count. Therefore, the story about Captain Ahab’s wife is fictional at any rate, and besides – one shouldn’t be so particular about things…).
Anyway – Captain Ahab’s wife: remember her?
Good. Because, actually, you really don’t have to.
Indeed, when I first started reading The Homecoming by Anna Enquist, I thought there was some resemblance between the two: after all, these are two novels written by the wives of two very famous captains. The difference is that Captain Ahab’s wife went through exciting experiences, which populated the entire novel (that, in spite of its thickness and endless number of pages, wasn’t boring at all). Captain Cook’s wife, on the other hand, doesn’t do anything really – objectively and in comparison.
Captain Cook’s adventures and discoveries are revealed thanks to his wife, and they are truly fascinating – historically, culturally, morally, geographically and psychologically.
A man of the sea, who simply cannot live anywhere else. The ocean brings out something that doesn’t manifest itself naturally when he isn’t sailing off somewhere. Cook yearns for it: life becomes vigorous and vibrant as he steps on board. He can’t be the man he truly is anywhere but on the sea, despite the difficulty, the self-loathing and the madness. True: Elizabeth, his wife, hates it, but the ocean’s power is stronger than the resentment of any wife.
If the story were about Captain Cook, I would say that the narrative was incomplete. His journeys, exposed thanks to the diaries Elizabeth reads and edits, had left me with huge question marks. Maybe it ought to be like that – after it, it’s a novel, not a history book. When I read an interview with Anna Enquist, the writer, I understood it was her intention all along (that interview also helped me understand the psychological aspect of the characters. She is a psychologist, you know. That explains a lot, especially the resonating rhythm that analyzes Elizabeth’s emotional experiences. Only a psychologist would have the patience).
But this isn’t a book about Captain Cook. So what is it really about? The homecoming? Whose homecoming? Captain Cook’s homecoming doesn’t really happen. He returns but then the sea calls him back. Or maybe the sea is his real home all along?
Elizabeth prepares everything and then learns how to live without him once again. The minor tone, which accompanies her story, especially when it concerns her children, is heartbreaking. But still, something is missing. The WHY. The reason why people do what they do. There are circumstances, facts, needs – everything is clear and evident and right there on the table, except for this one thing.
You can’t get passed that.
I think that the greatest pain, for me, that grew out from this book, was the fact that Elizabeth had lived her life as if she was caught in a web that provided the misconception of movement when nothing actually occurred. Nothing really happens, nothing really changes. Maybe only when she was writing the diaries, but then, for her, the editing becomes pointless and redundant and she stops.
Elisabeth had three boys. She had more, but only three survived. The first, Jimmy, didn’t really need her. Well, he’s this kind of a kid. Practical. The second one, Net, Netanel, is all love and sentiment and gentleness and music. Elisabeth can’t fight over him against her husband and the conventions, which require him to study in a school for naval officers – and thus she loses him. She is completely unable to do anything about it. Hugh, the third, is renounced from the beginning. The son she wanted to be a girl, a girl who would live instead of Eli, the daughter she had and lost so tragically. Hugh was a mistake. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like that. Someone who so doesn’t want her son. She doesn’t touch him, doesn’t speak to him. She barely comes close. Her son isn’t really hers. He lives with her but he fears her. She’s his mother but her runs to the wet nurse, to the nanny. Someone else raises him: a woman who herself had lost a boy. Elisabeth doesn’t mind. She allows someone else to proclaim Hugh as her own.
Was it a dominating characteristic? Did it evolve with time? Numbness due to endless losses, or maybe it was Anna Enquist herself? Melancholy over still / turbulent water?
We live in a world that cherishes action. Once we lived in a reality that sanctified values (it didn’t disappear, you know. It just became something else).
What value or achievement is there in Elisabeth Cook’s story?
I’m not protesting or criticizing – I’m genuinely asking.
Maybe I’ve missed it.
Maybe there is some idea here, aside from the documentary and unchanging sensation?
Was it a book about a “mood”?
A book about “the wife of”?
A book about loss?
In the interview I’ve read, Anne Enquist reveals she wrote The Homecoming after her daughter died. The desire to write about Captain Cook’s wife was always there, but Anna Enquist ‘s disaster postponed her plans for a while. Indeed, there is a lot of Anna’ Enquist’s tragedy in this story, especially when focusing on Eli, Elisabeth’s daughter, but… this is not an autobiography of Anna Enquist. It supposes to be someone else’s biography. So what happened here really?
You know, there is nothing wrong with purposefulness: it keeps you in focus. Maybe the reason I couldn’t find it here has to do with the fact that purposefulness was never meant to be The Homecoming’s intention.
The back cover of the talks about Elizabeth and the way she tries to understand James’s death and thus understand herself. But the final revelation of James’s madness doesn’t reveal anything about him and it certainly doesn’t reveal anything substantial about Elizabeth. James’s ambitions – to discover new worlds – are so inspiring. His insights, that – with each discovery, something from the new world discovered is destroyed forever – are so painful. But what does that have to do with the big question the book is allegedly presenting to us? What causes James to hallucinate that he is an ancient pagan god? What led him to madness? And what is the conclusion? Now we know he lost his mind, what is clearer than before?
What insights does it provide us, to bring to life outside the book?
James Cook was a mighty Captain not because of the way he ended his life, but thanks to the way he lived it. Elisabeth ended her life the same way she lived it – passively. There is only sadness and gloominess and blurring sensations. It is as if she was search to know how to live but didn’t understand for what. She could not find a reason to move forward, and she hated to stay where she was. Depression? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just Anna Enquist’s way of telling a story.
It’s a good book, though. It has literary qualities that don’t appear in many of the many pages – best sellers – I’ve read recently. It’s refreshing, really, to discover that good literature still exists, even with its elusive meaning.
You know, usually it doesn’t happen, but when I look at Anna Enquist I think to myself that that’s the way I would describe Elisabeth.
Maybe that explains it.
Should I keep my optimism and hope to hear from you? Or should I keep on writing until you would crack and answer back?
Either way, the result would be the same.
All the best,