Sunday, May 03, 2009

Moby Dick, a great book that nobody reads

There were only about a dozen books that I brought with me here to Guadalajara. One of them was “Moby Dick”.

It swept me away when I read it in college 37 years ago. I had re-read it in the interval, but I wanted to see what it seemed like now.

Age can make a difference in how a book affects you. In high school “Hamlet” was supposely of interest to us as a struggle of a young man. But the play didn't move me as much as it did when I saw it and re-read it two decades later. I thought it was a great play for an older person disillusioned with the corruption and depravity of mankind. Shakespeare was 35 when he wrote it.

Great sense of humor

I had forgotten how witty Melville is, and how many humorous set pieces he works into this novel. His adventures on Nantucket and his descriptions of his shipmates show a fine sense of comedy.

From his letters, you can see that Melville was on fire creatively when he wrote this book and drew on a vast array of sources, from the Bible to the science of whaling. His narrator's voice adopts the tone of philosopher, preacher, tragic hero, comic fool, scientist, revolutionary, parodist, linguist and more.

By the end, you have lived on a whale ship and lived in his time. It´s a fantastic encyclopedic portrait of his universe, literally and metaphorically a voyage around the world. The ambition of his work is breathtaking. It´s a modern prose epic on the scale of Homer's “Odyssey” or Joyce's “Ulysses”.

A young man writes with the sagacity of age

Melville had just turned 30 when he wrote his epic tale about a whaleboat captain, Ahab, who is obsessed with killing the white whale that turned on his attacker and took his leg.

It´s a wonder that one so young could write such a convincing portrait of a vengeful old man (Ahab is 58, my age on the next birthday). Then again, doubt, despair, rage, awe and passion are simply timeless. That is, a younger person can feel it just as deeply and write about it with as much authority. Melville, like Ahab, wonders if it is God, Satan or cruel fate that lets loose all the evil and violence in the world.

Melville greatly admired Shakespeare's “King Lear”, another portrait of a tragic figure driven mad by the world, and you can feel echoes of that play throughout “Moby Dick”. Shakespeare was in his early 40s when he wrote Lear.

Is it still readable

Melville´s language has an archaic feel to it today, some 160 years after the publication of his most recognized work. His prose has a latinate style that shows his appreciation of classical Roman literature. In his day, every educated person would have read the important Roman writers in the original, which had an impact on the writing of English. Today it´s hard to find an educated person who can read Latin literature. So the style is unfamiliar.

And many of the soliloquies of the characters, as one scholar has shown, can be broken down into lines of blank verse in iambic pentameter, the verse form used by Shakespeare in his tragedies.

Modern reading habits are not well suited to Melville's Shakespearean style much less to his magnificent epic style. Melville is much easier to appreciate when he is read aloud or at the pace of a person reading aloud.

An example is this description of the white whale, which sounds like it could have come out of Homer:

A gentle joyousness -- a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did suprass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

This is the great prose that Melville serves up on every page. Still, his quirky punctuation (semicolons and dashes galore) and his epic and tragic rhythms are unfamiliar to modern readers nurtured on realism and naturalistic language.

Book Club

The running joke in the Clintonville Book Club in Columbus, Ohio, was that one member would continually suggest “Moby Dick” as the next book, and was always voted down.

We left the club in 1995 when we moved to Baltimore, but the club did eventually read the book. I wonder what the discussion was like.

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: My Norton Critical Edition, copyright 1967, ran to 728 pages, only two-thirds of which was Melville´s novel. The rest was critical assessments, letters, sources and commentaries. Cover price was a mere $2.45.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:08 PM

    This is fabulous, just fabulous, Jamie. M-D was and remains my favorite book - in no small part due to the instructor I had, in college. There isn't a five-year span that goes by where I don't find M-D to be exactly pertinent to my personal life. (Gertrude Stein, a modernist, like Melville, called this "effect" the continuous present.)

    This is NEW to me: "And many of the soliloquies of the characters, as one scholar has shown, can be broken down into lines of blank verse in iambic pentameter, the verse form used by Shakespeare in his tragedies."

    How cool to learn this, now.

    Ever think about the Bulkington character? Melville wrote him out, after his 5-inch chapter, because his continued presence in the book would have, in my mind, resulted in the murder of Ahab, which of course would have ruined the book and brought it to a too-swift conclusion.

    Let's row, mate; row. - George M.