Sunday, April 8, 2007

Review: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Get it here
This is an epic book, and one that is much more a part of the American tradition than the European one. I get the feeling that while young Americans are reading (or feeling bad about not having read) Moby-Dick, Europeans are reading (or pretending to have read) The Outsider by Albert Camus. (A much shorter book - we Europeans have it easy!)
Like a good undergraduate, I was on the lookout early on for what the Whale 'symbolised' in the story. And early on, Mr Melville had a good chuckle at me by including a whole chapter on the vast number of things the 'whiteness of the whale' represented, and later poking fun at the whole concept of an allegory.
In fact, the whole work is so full of symbols and meanings, that as a whole it acts like a mirror, showing back to you whatever you want to find. The story could work as a meditation on faith, democracy, fate, subjective truth; whatever you like. It is also a straight story of whale hunting, and a fine history of that trade.
Humour is shot through the work like a seam of silver, and I noted a particular irony reserved for purveyors of absolutes. The prose style is golden - every trick in the book, deployed like a master craftsman, pages and pages of it, seemingly produced without effort or strain. And it all sounds so fresh - not a single cliche in evidence. Some images are so shockingly original, they feel like a splash of salt water: "... where the gaunt pines stand like serried lines of kings in Gothic genealogies; those same woods harboring wild Afric beasts of prey, and silken creatures whose exported furs give robes to Tartar Emperors..."
Towards the end, I was convinced that whether or not the whale was found was irrelevant. Which was when Mr Melville confounded me again by completing some of the most exciting passages imaginable, where all the knowledge gained in the rest of the book combines to allow a full understanding of the enormity of what is happening.
Sometimes it seemed, in my mind, to be a less of a book than a writers workshop, where Melville lays out all of his tools and materials, and proceeds to make a story before your very eyes.
This is a book that will present new meanings and perspectives with each re-reading. Something I will try to do in ten years time, when I expect I will find my review to have missed all the most important points. And in the next ten years, the same thing will happen.

Stewart Wills reads this with all his expected skill - in fact it was his reading of 'Lord Jim' that lead me to this recording in the first place. His characterisations seem effortless, with Stubb being perhaps the pick of the bunch, although as I write that, I feel that Ahab should have the crown. The highest praise I can offer is that some of the later, drama-filled passages actually sent shivers down my spine.

By my count that makes 13 books (and what books!) in 14 weeks, so I have a little catching up to make one a week. But not bad progress on the whole.

Next: Tao Teh King


Stewart Wills said...

Glad you enjoyed Moby Dick, and thanks for the kind words. Insightful review, as always -- it is a book of amazing depth, but I also think that a lot of people who haven't read it don't realize how amusing Melville can be.

ChrisHughes said...

Yes - it is very funny in some unexpected places. The research attributed to Prof. Snothead got a laugh.
One thing I dodn't mention, but wanted to: Melville notes several recursive things - a lamp lit by whale oil, lighting the consumption of whale steak; sharks that in a frenzy eat themselves, and a couple of others I can't quite bring to mind. I am sure he is getting at something, but can't quite put my finger on it. Any thoughts?

Internet2k4 said...

I'm coming to the end of MD, one of the best renditions of any book I've found on LV - a real challenge in the variety of chapter styles and tones, all read just right. I would very much like to listen to another one you've done: Google indicates you've read Winesburg, Ohio, which I haven't read since college and will do very well, but it's short. If you have a list of others you've done or are working on it would be much appreciated (a reader lookup would be handy on LV, but I can see why it might be touchy.) Regards.

K.M. Sudnik said...

Mr. Wills i greatly enjoy your reading. And i have indeed chuckled and laughed outloud at melvilles wit. I thank you for your diverse voice and depth, and for making this literary endeavor of mine so memorable. <3
-K.M. Sudnik,