Monday, October 10, 2011

The jump

What would you do if you had the chance to leave the Titanic in a lifeboat as it was sinking? What if you were the ship's owner? And what if you knew you might face severe questions and even ridicule because of your choice? In her new book, How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, Frances Wilson examines the unhappy decision of J. Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line, who took the opportunity to jump when it was presented to him. And it's coming out just in time for the 100th anniversary of the accident next year.

While it's cleverly titled, it's neither a survival book nor a full account of the Titanic. It's partly a history of the ship's owner and covers the tragedy of the Titanic as it centers around its most tragic survivor. Wilson presents the many accounts of those who claim to have seen Ismay, and depicts very well the chaos of the moment as well as the unreliability of witness accounts. But she goes beyond the Titanic itself and brings in the fictional account of Jim from Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim (which was written before the Titanic disaster), because, as she explains, fiction often presents us with more appealing characters than real life as well as a window into a situation of heroism and lost honor where we can separate "the self we believe ourselves to be and the self-unknown" (pg 270).

The account of the sinking is rather exciting and the insightful comparisons are very thought-provoking but unfortunately, Ismay is a remarkably UNinteresting person and drags down the book to some degree. After the initial American hearings into the disaster the narrative runs out of steam and becomes quite boring for a time. The discussions on Lord Jim becomes a bit mind numbing in its literary-ness and Ismay's letters to fellow-survivor Marian Thayer (whom he was secretly in love with) are overly detailed and increasingly tedious. I don't wish to dismiss this book so flatly, however, because there was much to enjoy (and the ending gets better), but I think it will appeal most to readers with a special interest in the Titanic and especially those who will appreciate the literary parallel.

While it might be easy from the comfort of our present time, especially where the romance of the Titanic looms large in movies and books, to say 'I would honorably go down with the ship,' Wilson makes a compelling argument that until one is actually faced with the choice, none of us can really say for sure what we would do. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

No comments:

Post a Comment