Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

moby dickThis novel is, in the words of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, “the closest approach the United States has had to a national prose epic”. I would have said of this novel that it is a poorly constructed novel, a morass of tedious detail and irrelevant information, in which a good novella is swamped by enough verbiage to kill the bloody whale. Yes, there are quite a few moments of beautiful prose, but it’s a wade through mid-nineteenth century self-important and turgid writing to get to them, so that by the time you do land on something of merit, you’re pretty incredulous of what you’ve just put up with.

The following Amazon review might be a bit harsh: “Near the beginning of this book is an hilarious account of Ishmael meeting a “cannibal” and having to spend the night in the same bed as him in what would be seen by today’s ironic and cynical readers as a racist and latently homoerotic account. At the very end, the last 3 chapters or so, is the actual story. In between these two great pieces of writing is an extremely verbose, eye-drooping, eye-wateringly waffly literary writing experiment that can only really be understood if you have studied Shakespeare and Rabelais’s Gargantua and all of Melville’s other influences, and/or if you spent a lot of time on ocean-going ships in the nineteenth century. Yes, it is wonderful that the author could master different writing styles, but that talent doesn’t make the book any more of a good read. Avoid. Unless studying it. In which case, poor you.”

But not too harsh. It’s worth reading, but Jeez: what a slog!

moby dick 2Robert McCrum writes of this novel that it is “Wise, funny and gripping”, that “Melville’s epic work continues to cast a long shadow over American literature.” Yet, I wonder – how can this be so? Yet, I know, this is the general opinion of this novel: oft praised, seldom, I imagine, enjoyed.

McCrum goes on “Moby-Dick is, for me, the supreme American novel, the source and the inspiration of everything that follows in the American literary canon. I first read it, inspired by my sixth-form English teacher, Lionel Bruce, aged about 15, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Moby-Dick is a book you come back to, again and again, to find new treasures and delights, a storehouse of language, incident and strange wisdom.

“Moby-Dick is …the great American novel whose genius was only recognised long after its author was dead. From its celebrated opening line (“Call me Ishmael”) it plunges the reader into the narrator’s quest for meaning “in the damp, drizzly November of my soul”.

“Ishmael is an existential outsider. What follows is profoundly modern yet essentially Victorian, spanning 135 chapters. It is a literary performance that is exhilarating, extraordinary, sometimes exasperating and, towards its apocalyptic climax, unputdownable.

“When Ishmael ships aboard the Pequod, his own quotidian search becomes inexorably joined to the darker quest, in which the captain of the doomed whaler, “monomaniacal Ahab”, sets out to revenge himself on the great white whale that has bitten off his leg. This “grand, ungodly, godlike man”, one of fiction’s greatest characters – “crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale” – is not only pursuing his nemesis, a “hooded phantom”, across the ocean’s wastes, he is also fighting the God that lurks behind the “unreasoning mask” of the symbolic whale.

“Eventually, a whaling expedition from Nantucket – something experienced by the young Melville himself – becomes the story of an obsession, an investigation into the meaning of life.

“Next to Ahab and Ishmael, this massive novel is also rich in minor characters, from the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, the ship’s mate Starbuck, Daggoo and Fedallah the Parsee – all told, a typically American crew. And so a “romance” inspired by the true story of the Essex, a whaler that sank when it was attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific in November 1820, becomes like a terrifying (at times, intolerable) sea voyage, culminating in a thrilling three-day chase in which Moby-Dick destroys the Pequod. Ishmael survives to tell his tale by clinging to Queequeg’s carved coffin.

moby dick 3

“Moby-Dick is usually described… as an elemental novel in which the outsider Ishmael is pitted against the fathomless infinity of the sea, grappling with the big questions of existence. That’s not inaccurate, but there’s also another Moby-Dick, full of rough humour, sharp comic moments, and witty asides. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal”, says Ishmael, when forced to share a bed with the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, “than a drunken Christian.” For those readers intimidated by the novel’s bleak majesty, I think the humour offers a good way in.”

…as far as I can recall, in the 800 or so pages, that is the only moment of humour.

Woe is me the reader.

Mr A

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