When Gregory Peck appeared as Captain Ahab in the movie of Moby Dick, the brilliant film critic Pauline Kael was of the opinion that he would have been better cast as the whale. I remember very little about the movie, but I went to see it, back in the late Fifties, because I was a Peck fan and I am a sucker for any film about suffering at sea.
And here below is poor Ahab doing some very serious suffering indeed.
When I began to think about this piece, I searched for whaling images in the public domain with which to enliven it. There are many, but the one below is my favourite so I'm putting it in pride of place. It was part of an actual whaler's log and I love the naive quality of the picture, clearly drawn by someone very talented, and who wasn't in a studio but on the deck of a whaling ship.
Moby Dick is one of those novels we all feel we know even when we haven't ever read it. It's become almost a myth. There's a White Whale, (see below) and it has an opening sentence (Call me Ishmael) which would have to compete for the Best Opening Sentence Ever Title against "It is a truth universally acknowledged...etc."
We know the plot, roughly. There's Captain Ahab on his ship the Pequod, hunting a whale which has in the past, separated him from his leg. Ahab is seeking revenge. Ishmael's first person account of the voyage of the Pequod is what we are reading. And to begin with, it's a story about a seafaring man getting taken on as crew after a period of waiting in harbour, and most importantly meeting a man who becomes his friend, even though Ishmael regards him as a savage. This man is called Queequeg (the whole novel is full of wonderful names) and they share lodgings before setting sail on the Pequod together. Once on board, they meet Starbuck (yes, the coffee chain is named for him) and Stubb and Ahab himself, as well as other members of the crew. And then off they go...
As I came out of the cinema, I decided to give the novel a try. I downloaded Moby Dick to my Kindle and thought I would read a little bit every day, rather as though I were reading the Bible. I thought it would be manageable in bite - sized bits. I would do this, I thought, as a kind of duty. Instead, it became a pleasure. I was totally involved by the end of the first few chapters. The sheer energy of Melville's language swept me away. Reading it is like having a wave washing over you. I found the book the very opposite of boring. It's full of passion and poetry and the echoes of Shakespeare and Bible and even Milton raise it up to levels not often encountered in novels.
But here's the thing. This novel is not like other novels in many other ways too. Melville is telling a story, of course, but he's not in the least held back by considerations of keeping his readers interested in what's going on with his characters. That seems to be a secondary consideration. He sets up the situation: we're on a ship (cue many details of the layout of the ship and its furnishings) and these are the crew. This is the Captain and this is why we're all here: to find Moby Dick and kill him. No more spoilers from me, but Melville has other fish to fry, if you'll excuse the expression.
He is clearly more interested in whaling; its history and the way it operates and the details of every aspect of the process. He wants to teach us. He wants us to understand every single thing and he informs us fully about every possible thing over many, many pages. But he's a philosopher, too and every so often he'll break off to tell us about something unusual and strange. There's a beautiful chapter about WHITE which starts with a desire to describe the whiteness of Moby Dick more carefully but which veers all over the place and takes in every different kind of white, its meaning and points of interest. This is something Melville does a lot. When he comes across something which interests him, he wants us to be fascinated as well and so we get an essay on his preoccupation, whatever that happens to be. I kept on thinking, as I read, that no modern editor would have let him get away with it nowadays. "Now look here, Herman old chap...these pages about ambergris aren't germane to the plot, now, are they?" Fortunately for us, that was then and this is now so we have the glory that is Melville's overview of the entire history of the whaling industry from its earliest times. The fact that whaling is brutal, cruel and unpleasant in many ways is not glossed over. Melville mourns the hideous death of an amazing creature but the cities of the world have to be lit. Wheels of industry have to turn and whale oil is a precious commodity, without which modern civilisation cannot function. Men die in the hunt for whale oil and they are not the ones making the fortunes. In a parallel with coal mining, the ones who risk their lives to provide the fuel are not the ones who profit from the process.
Kindle allows you to highlight passages in the text you are reading. I almost never do this because what I read on my device is mostly fast-moving, rather disposable stuff, but while reading Moby Dick, I was constantly highlighting passages of outstanding beauty. He's the most wonderful writer, with a really delightful narrative voice. He is grandiloquent, funny, solemn, philosophical, schoolmasterly and occasionally, surreal. For example, he says that Queequeg's native place is ...'an island far away to the West and the South. It is not down in any map. True places never are." I've been thinking about that last sentence and what it means for weeks now. And here is Ahab, telling Ishmael about his leg. "Lost by a whale! Young man, come nearer to me; it was devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat. Ah! Ah!" Parmachetty is another word for a whale of course, but choosing to use it and to put it together with 'monstrousest' gives it a power and poetry (tinged with some humour, too) which it wouldn't otherwise have.
I could multiply examples but here is Melville (or Ishmael) telling us that only whale oil is fit to crown kings:
"Certainly it cannot be olive oil, nor macassar oil, nor castor oil, nor bear's oil, nor train oil nor cod-liver oil. What then can it possibly be but sperm oil int its unmanufactured, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils? Think of that, ye loyal Britons! We whale men supply your kings and queens with coronation stuff!"
The novel appeared first in 1851, and it was a failure in Melville's lifetime, only selling 3200 copies while he was around to know about it.
It's made a huge impression on me and in the same way that pregnant women see babies all over the place, my eyes are tuned to whales. Below is a photo of one I saw in John Lewis the other day, made into book ends. There is no end to our fascination with these amazing creatures (viz and to wit the crowds that turned out to look at them when a pod was beached in Norfolk recently) and a reading of Moby Dick is something I can heartily recommend. But be warned. You will need a strong stomach!