Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Moby Dick", by Hermann Melville

I suppose I ought to say something about Moby Dick. I pathetically underestimated how long it would take to finish, only reaching the end the day after we met in the Lord Edward; the experience was chastening, and I will be more careful with future reads of the big books of the past.

But anyway, what did I think of Herman Melville's classic (in which, for those of you are unaware of these things, a whaling ship commanded by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab sets off on a doomed hunt for the titular White Whale who bit off the captain's leg)? Well, I thought it was incredible. I am not sure if I would be one of those people who say that it is the greatest novel ever written, but I can see why people would see it as that. There is an epic grandeur to it that you see in few works of fiction. One thing I have heard said about the book is that it prefigures the modern novel in certain respects, but I was struck by how gothic it was. As Ahab closes in on the whale, there is an almost palpable sense of doom clinging to the pages; rather than being a prototype 20th century anti-hero, Ahab seems more of a kind with Heathcliff or Melmoth as he races to his own destruction.

Moby Dick is also an odd book. The narrative chapters are interspersed with many discursive chapters on whales and whaling, the style of the narrative chapters themselves shifts from normal first person narrative to scenes described as plays, to scenes where we get interior monologues by characters other than the narrator. There are also some great comedy moments, like the whole Ishmael-Queequeg bed-sharing stuff, that run rather counter to the general gothic feel of the book. I could imagine some people finding all this a bit annoying, but they would be wrong to do so.

There might be a case to be made for an all-narrative abridged version of Moby Dick that leaves out the digressions – it could be useful for first time readers. I think, though, that they are part of what gives the book its power. They are certainly part of what will keep this book on my shelf – it is something that I will keep wanting to dip into.

One of the things with Moby Dick is its initially poor critical reception. Although it seems to have remained in print, albeit somewhat intermittently, it was only in the 20th century that it began to be seriously championed as a great novel. In discussion in the Lord Edward, Mr W---- suggested that it was the book's disjointedness that appealed to the modern critic, as it mirrors the stylistic innovations of the 20th century; he felt, however, that these critics were picking up on the failings of Melville's writing (his rambling inability to stick to the narrative, etc.) but hailing these as strengths. It is a view, but again I think the Melville's willingness to go where the narrative winds take him is a strength rather than a weakness.

I will leave you with an odd piece of Moby Dick related trivia. The well-known German far-left nutters the Red Army Faction were apparently obsessed with the book, and used it to give each other codenames for their internal communications. Andreas Baader picked Ahab for his own codename, something that seems not to have set alarm bells ringing.

Post your own thoughts on the book as a comment here. If you have already posted about Moby Dick on your own blog, post a link to that instead.

An inuit panda production


Anonymous said...

In the spirit of discourse, I wrote about it here:

Andrew Farrell said...

There is in fact such an all-action version available - I read it as a nipper, and it ruined the 'proper' version for me.

As regards the digressions and the dipping-in, do you think that this falls into a separate category than Neal Stephenson, whose books are always full of fantastic passages, which are unfortunately so unmoored from the actual progress of the plot to make it impossible to find them afterwards?

Ray said...

I think it's the same thing as Stephenson, at least in that he sees himself as part of that tradition. Stephenson is better at writing the non-fictiony passages, I think, but his fiction doesn't approach Melville.