Monday 7 March 2016

Me and Moby Adèle Geras

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...

I will confess to having avoided this book for my whole adult life.  I feared too much whaling detail and not enough plot. And the odd thing is: I was right. There IS too much whaling detail and not enough plot but that is precisely what I now love about it. I came to it in a roundabout way. I'd been to see a movie called In the Heart of the Sea (highly recommended)  which tells the story of Herman Melville talking to an old sea captain about the voyage of  a ship called the Essex. This was the  tale which inspired Melville's novel.  


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!


Katherine Langrish said...

I think you've convinced me finally to read'Moby Dick', Adele - one of those classics I've always shied away from. Thankyou!

Sally Prue said...

Everything you say is true, Adele, and I was fascinated by the book, but I found the fact that about eighty per cent of it isn't about the characters or the story increasingly frustrating.
I'm afraid that famous first sentence does nothing for me at all: it put me off the book for decades!

Ann Turnbull said...

I loved the first sentence, and I loved the IDEA of the book, and when I was about 14 I started reading it, but got bogged down in all the whaling stuff and gave up. Maybe I should try it again, but I have a feeling the same thing might happen.

Ann Turnbull said...

I should just like to add that I am not yet 141 (though sometimes I feel like it) and that perhaps I should have put a comma after 14!

adele said...

tee hee! I love these comments! And yes, try again. Try a bite at a time, like the way you're supposed to eat an elephant!

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Read the first chapter as an excerpt in a reading book aged about 9 - gripped. "Clam or cod?" It sounded like a "clammy reception". And Ishmael lying in bed waiting for his unknown roommate who turns out to be a tatoo'ed "savage" with a tomahawk. It's also a pipe - they end up smoking it peaceably and conversing as best they can. Finally read the book aged about 23 and was gripped

Karen Maitland said...

Your comment about what a modern editor would have told the author to cut really made me chuckle.

I loved the book, but love or loath it, I am so thankful he left us such vivid picture of the industry which straight records of period never could convey. Fiction communicates the truth in the way facts never can.

Penny Dolan said...

Love this, Adele, and thanks! Moby Dick is sitting beside my bed again, again. It's often been there but has rarely been opened, just because of the size and the sheer dauntingness of the book, esp as a bedtime read. However, your post has really encouraged me to try once again - along with an excellent programme, Herman Melville's Sea Change on BBCR4 recently. Cut and pasting the link might work if it doesn't link directly.)

Julia Ergane said...

I have loved this novel from the first time I read it as a junior in high school (1966-67). In fact, I believe it is in my top 5 of all novels ever written. I live in SE Connecticut and every summer there is a live reading of Moby Dick at Mystic Seaport (the entire area used to be into whaling and sealing). I believe there is one also in New Bedford. In addition, Melville was a genius at making the mundane poetic.