July 06, 2006


Underwater to Get Out of the Rain: A Love Affair with the Sea. By Trevor Norton. Da Capo. $25.

     Trevor Norton is too clever by half.  A delightful raconteur and an accomplished scientist, he imbues every page of this memoir with his own quite charming personality.  There is a lot of science here, too – Norton is professor of marine biology at the University of Liverpool and director of the Port Erin Marine Laboratory on the Isle of Man – but Norton presents it so charmingly that what one learns, one learns almost in spite of oneself.

     Yet the highly chatty and very British style here will not be to all tastes, certainly not all American tastes.  Sometimes Norton talks around a subject while talking of it: “A sponge is the least pretentious of beasts.  It never seeks to impress.  It is just a cushion of catacombs lined with microscopic whips to keep its internal currents on the move.  The sponge’s interior is as labyrinthine as a grand hotel, with all its corridors crowded with tiny sheltering crustaceans that filch morsels from the flow.”  At other times, he takes a relatively matter-of-fact subject and goes out of its way to render it exceptional – and at these times he is British to the core: “Miraculously, we were almost unscathed [after a traffic accident].  But Bunny’s Triumph looked like Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled Buick.  The windscreen had gone, the bonnet was concertinaed and the saloon a colander.  To our amazement, when we extricated it from beneath the truck and pulled out the wings, the wheels still turned and the engine worked.”

     Then there are Norton’s ruminations on his lifelong love of the sea and its creatures: “The explorer’s (and the author’s) dilemma is that, just as a rose petal is bruised by handling, entire living communities are vulnerable to the touch of humans.  If we celebrate the beauty of a reef or a lagoon, we expose it to the dangers of excessive admiration.  Nature thrives best on neglect.”  And there are the anecdotes – many, many anecdotes – about science and scientists.  For example, there is one about a zoologist, Alan Stephenson, who wrote a classic book on British sea anemones “adorned by beautiful paintings of them and delightful vignettes of a naked sea nymph prancing in the surf and reclining on rocks.  The nymph is clearly his wife Anne.  Librarians at his university had inked out these vignettes in case she induced a prurient interest in anemones.”  This chapter ends with Norton’s own rendition of a Stephenson painting, showing – yes – a naked nymph lying on rocks on the seashore.  (It should be said that Norton’s many drawings are one of this book’s unalloyed pleasures.)

     This is a very rich book, multilayered and multifaceted, but it does have the flaw of the discursive: it is hard to say where Norton will go next (each chapter begins with both a title and a location, and there are many locations), or why he goes to one place or another at any particular time.  The feeling of the book is that of a lengthy monologue by a learned fellow who is perhaps a bit over-full of himself, who has been to many places and seen many things and tells his tales entertainingly – but tends to go on a bit and be somewhat oblivious to his audience’s reactions.  Norton’s memoir is a great deal of fun in small doses, though anyone seeking narrative sweep, cohesiveness or a fully articulated point of view will be happier reading something else.

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