Thanks partly to James Cameron’s film, our cultural memory of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is one of a linear narrative. There’s a clear chronology; we “remember” it as if looking through a camera, able to pan out from the experience of the individuals to the ship as a whole. There is a clarity to the disaster.
Frances Wilson’s How To Survive the Titanic (2011) has undone these things for me. Instead, she captures so well the uncertainty, the fact that for anyone in 1912 trying to understand what happened – even for survivors – there was a mess of contradictory reports, eyewitness statements which diverged as much as they converged. (The first report received over the radio was that the Titanic was being towed back to port, with no loss of life.) J. Bruce Ismay, former owner of White Star Lines and the managing director of the shipping company, was on board the Titanic and jumped into a lifeboat as it was lowered. After contributing greatly to the confusion about what happened, he spent the rest of his life as a pariah.
This is a biography focused on a single incident in a man’s life. Watson’s book begins with that critical moment when Ismay decides to save his life; the rest of the book moves backward to explain how Ismay became the man who made that decision, and forward to tell the story of the long consequences. I greatly admire Watson’s handling of her material; she shows a mastery of creative non-fiction in her control of time, scene, and detail. An example: in chapter one she weaves survivors’ accounts of watching the Titanic sink to contrast them with Ismay turning away; she finds three quotes from three different survivors which use the word “Fascinated,” and she begins each quote with that word, creating a kind of poetry and heightening the effect of the contrast. How to Survive the Titanic is a witty and profound biography of a man’s ordinariness in extraordinary circumstances. The reversal of the survivor genre is refreshing: the story of a man who failed to be a hero.
The uncanny parallel of the Titanic disaster to the 1898 novella Futility (retitled Wreck of the Titan) is a well-known factoid. (As a child, pre-internet, I think I first read of it in the ubiquitous Reader’s Digest Strange Stories, Amazing Facts.) But the more subtle literary parallel Watson pursues in her book is that between Ismay and the titular character of Conrad’s Lord Jim, who similarly fails to be heroic when he jumps ship. She makes a convincing case for it to be the text with which to illuminate and compare Ismay. It’s a bold and interesting biographical technique, even if I found myself impatient with the lengthy exploration of it. In every other way, I found this book unputdownable.