G. Wilson Knight subtitled this 1936 book “An Autobiographical Design,” and had he stuck to the autobiography and left the design out, I might have been less resentful about the several hours I devoted to assaulting its slopes. Perhaps I lack the mountaineering skills to attempt such a tower of intellect. But Atlantic Crossing struck me as one of the most grandiose failures I’ve tried to read in a long time.
Knight made his name as a critic and director of Shakespeare and other English dramatists. His lifelong immersion in Renaissance poetry and prose left him with a weakness for an intricacy at times beyond his own dexterity:
It was then I watched in twilight where up-piled clouds in rugged Alpine ranges towered and caught the morning and glowed with it, black rocks and giant crags fire-fringed, stained with a gilden glory. Shafts of burning mist, spear-points of the assaulting dawn, slanted angular upward splendours. Watch those breaking palisades, that rock-pinnacle flaming to its ruin, those tufts of red smoke, that heaving, billowing, crumbling, conglomerated mass–was ever such chaos so musically blended?–while the artillery of advancing day fumes the air with its cordite, rolling attar of roses in wave on wave.
Phew! Imagine 300-plus pages of this hyperventilating.
In Atlantic Crossing, Knight hangs on the slender frame of six days’ voyage on a 1930s ocean liner from Montreal to Southhampton enough ornaments and appendages to sink even the most sea-worthy narrative.
There are some promising bits. A fleeting, glancing romance with a lively American ingenue. Some fine purely autobiographical passages in which Knight recalls his experiences as a dispatch rider with British forces in Iraq and Persia during World War One. And enough tastes of luxury liner travel to leave us envious of the past:
Now what to do after breakfast? A pipe in the lounge; a walk on the promenade deck; watch the people; perhaps get to know some of them; shuffleboard and deck-tennis. This is to be unadulterated leisured aristocracy, free from beggars, telephones, letters, money, and all complex interrelations of modern civilization, yet with its best luxury at hand; in a world beyond richness and poverty, for one week.
Unfortunately for the reader, however, Knight can’t wait to hurl in great shovel-fulls of aduleration and complex interrelations:
It is often hard to day whether man’s passionate unrest is a matter of volcanic flame or turbulent ocean. The opposition of Thales and Heraclitus is profound. Fire must be liquid in us, coursing like quicksilver in our veins: that is, man’s fiery ascent drags ocean up mountains through fields of air. I suppose fire is ultimately the Alpha and Omega, earth-centre and empyrean.
OK, folks–a show of hands. Man’s passionate unrest: volcanic flame or turbulent ocean? I know my mind is often torn between these two choices. On the other hand, I have no second thoughts about what category Atlantic Crossing belong in.
Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight
London: J. W. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1936