Charles Foster’s A Little Brown Sea is brilliantly original- a strange and elegant triumph.
Because the story of a life is the story of the lives that intersect with it, A SMALL BROWN SEA broadens the scope of the novel to encompass the beings with which we share this planet and without which we cannot be fully ourselves. Charles Foster, working out in fiction the concerns that inform his remarkable non-fiction, combines here the curiosity of the scientist with the heart of a storyteller. I loved this aphoristic, argumentative and form-stretching novel, and hope others will let it mess with their heads.
The fragmented polyphony of Charles Foster’s astonishingly ambitious and highly experimental debut novel, A Little Brown Sea, expresses the essential tohuwabohu of the human condition and provides a vehicle for the exploration of ‘ultimate questions’ of meaning and purpose, particularly in relation to the human encounter with self and the natural world. The maverick spirit and boundary-breaking hybridity of the novel reflects similar qualities in Foster’s celebrated philosophical enquiries Being a Beast and Being a Human, confirming him as one of the most singular and important—both playful and profound—voices of our time.
About Charles Foster
Charles Foster is the author of the New York Times bestseller Being a Beast, which was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and the Wainwright Prize, won the 30 Millions d’Amis prize in France, and is the subject of a forthcoming feature film. His second book The Screaming Sky was shortlisted for the Wainwright nature writing prize 2021, and Being a Human came out in August 2021 to great acclaim. His writing has appeared in many publications including the Guardian, the Spectator, National Geographic, BBC Wildlife magazine, Time Out, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, the Oldie and the Literary Review.
His current academic interests relate mainly to the relevance of identity and personhood in decision-making, and to whether the notion of dignity can do any real work at the philosophical coal-face.
He read veterinary medicine and law at Cambridge, and is a qualified veterinary surgeon. He holds a PhD in law/bioethics from the University of Cambridge.
I’m a writer based in Oxford, UK and a remote part of the souther Peloponnese. I’m a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, and my academic research is concerned mainly with questions of identity, personhood and authenticity. Most of my books are presumptuous and more or less unsuccessful attempts to work out what we are doing on this extraordinary planet. Those attempts have generated books on anthropology, natural history, evolutionary biology, the physiology of spiritual experience, pilgrimage, archaeology, theology and ethics, as well as travel books.
I’m a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Linnean Society, and have particular passions for waves, foxes, mountains, deer, deserts and the Byzantine world.
I have a very long-suffering wife, Mary, and six wondrous, wild children: Lizzie, Sally, Tom, James, Rachel and Jonny.
My website is www.charlesfoster.co.uk. It would be great if you could drop by there. If you’d like to email me to tell me how badly I’ve got things wrong in my books, I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org
From A little brown sea
I first met Theo, as I explain later, in a murmuring pub on the edge of the heaving brown sea of the Bristol Channel. It was a long way, in some ways, from the blue water of the Mediterranean that always heaved in him.
On paper we were quite similar, though his cv was much more brilliant than mine. We had paced some of the same cloisters, written for some of the same journals, admired some of the same women in the library and some of the same books – though his admiration, both of the women and the books, was far more nuanced than mine. We both liked mountains, seabirds, Mithraism, Arthurian legend and spoon-carving.
He seemed to be entirely without illusions. I had plenty.
When people asked me why I was writing this book I’d say: ‘I’ve recently re-read Moby Dick. Melville says something along the lines of: “Unless you’re thinking about and trying to write about the sea, you’re contemptibly failing to confront the real issues of life.” When I read that’ (I’d say), ‘I heard the slap of the gauntlet being thrown down, and felt I had to pick it up.’
It was meant to be an honest answer. But I’ve scoured Moby Dick for the quote, and it’s not there. The nearest is this: ‘But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! Who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony in vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing – straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!’ Which is hardly the same thing.
The Greeks, the Jews and everyone else who bequeathed us our western memes, saw the sea as the end and the beginning: as a metaphor for chaos, destruction, and death, as well as for birth, rebirth, beauty and power.
The terrestrial Olympians didn’t mess with Poseidon. They were very wise. But Yahweh, as we will see, won’t cede jurisdiction over the sea, which makes for some interesting tensions.
There is a Chorus in this book. In ancient Greek drama the Chorus generally represents the voice of conservatism. It points out that no good will come of sleeping with your mother, and usually the play ends with the Chorus saying: ‘Told you so’. Just occasionally the Chorus is confounded.
There are also many non-human voices. I explain in the Author’s Note why they’re there, but I suggest you don’t read that first.
Most of the book comes from drunken conversations with Theo, and from some notebooks of his that fell into my hands after ….well, later. I showed him very early drafts of some of the chapters. His comments were forthright and often angry. I’ve transcribed them as best I can.
I claim authorship because Theo hasn’t, and because I doubt crows, dolphins or limpets will sue me.
You might think it’s odd to have references in a book like this. But Theo and I are both in the academic business, and we’ll never get out of the habit.