The breath of German magic realism cuffs the reeds on the Warnemünde sands, as big boats slide stealthily out of the fog and into the distant harbour. That gust is no zephyr, and the cruise liners surely cannot be staying long.
The Baltic coast may not yet have loosened its hold on the German imagination, but its winter off-season falls like a veil over the shoreline, making a gentle mockery of the hotel chains that have set up multi-storey camp behind the dunes. Yet it was to just such a shore as this that Günter Grass, native of Danzig, dispatched the preternaturally short hero of the Tin Drum for virginal frolicks in the sand with a much taller woman. Here, too, did ‘little Oskar’, arguably literature’s most successful practitioner of self-willed arrested development, encounter a severed horse’s head being used as eel bait. The uncanny is at home here.
Grass’ home town, of course, is almost four hundred miles away and, much to the late author’s disgruntlement, stranded today on the other side of the Polish border. But the principle is the same. Where the Baltic meets the land, cliffs do not strain for your attention, nor inlets court your eye. Out here, let it be known, the beach is an accessory to the sea. This is, in fact, its principal attraction to the jaded Thomas Buddenbrook, for whom dry land is overrated. At the thought of an excursion to the mountains, he explains to sister Tony that they are ‘too arbitrary, too irregular, too varied…to be sure, I would feel all too inferior. What sort of people prefer the monotony of the sea? Well, it seems to me that such people have looked too long and deeply into the entanglements of the interior not to ask of the exterior one thing above all else: simplicity’. This fictional monologue takes place in an abandoned house high over Travemünde, another bathing spot a shade under a hundred miles along the coastline in the opposite direction to Danzig, and offers a tantalising clue to the enduring appeal of this barren northern fringe as a place of retreat.
If the ocean is nothing more than a one-dimensional antidote to the complexities of the examined life, though, what possessed Caspar David Friedrich to paint a studiously small monk against the vastness of the sea and sky? The answer to this question, of course, lies in the Senator’s words to his sister on the hillside. We are drawn by the water’s invitation to muse, to meditate and, yes, to transcend. Nor should the fact that Thomas Mann couldn’t leave the sea alone, having one of his subjects hallucinate it when lost on the eponymous magic mountain and yet another die in sinful reverie in front of it, lead us to the conclusion that his obsession makes him an eccentric among men of letters.
Admittedly, Theodor Storm was a man of the North Sea and, moreover, he celebrated his maritime preoccupation, whereas Mann seemed to regard his own as essentially unhealthy. What the poet and the novelist share, however, is a fascination with its inexorable, overbearing blandness. According to Buddenbrook’s analysis, the immensity of the sea is wont to make its beholder sink into a dreamlike state. The accompanying ‘veiled, hopeless and knowing look that once had somewhere seen the soul of sad confusion’ finds its antithesis in the ‘magic of youth’ evoked by Storm to describe his relationship with the waves. Reflecting though they do the alien perspectives of two over-stimulated observers at opposite ends of their lifespans, these reactions taken together hint at the true nature of the water’s lure.
To fall back on a metaphor that Friedrich might have appreciated, the sea is a blank canvas onto which the absent mind is free to project either eulogy or elegy. All it takes is the power to dream.