Whale of a time

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In just a few days it’ll be time for Witch Week, but right now I want to look forward to a little beyond that. I’ve begun one particular classic a couple of times now, but was never quite in the right frame of mind for it.

But it’s a shame to let 2019 go without giving it another try. Why? Because its author was born exactly two hundred years ago, and because Moby-Dick is bruited to be more than a simple tale of a doomed quest. So, along with fellow blogger Lizzie Ross, I shall once again begin at the beginning.

But first, I shall now glance back at works I have read (links are to my reviews) that could almost have been preparations for this adventure, volumes that have owed a part of their existence to this great whale of a tale.

I begin with Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea (2000), a non-fiction study of the last voyage of the whaler Essex which recently spawned two films, one for the cinema and the other for the small screen. The real-life tragedy of the Essex, rammed by a bull whale, partly inspired Herman Melville’s novel, although he didn’t deal with the aftermath, the truly epic journeys across the Pacific taken by the survivors.

The Essex sailed from the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, an island which, despite the depradations of tourism, is said to retain a unique atmosphere all of its own. Otto Coontz’s YA novel The Shapeshifters (1983) evoked the supernatural air that some have detected on the island, believed to predate the arrival of European settlers.

Also set on the island — even if an alternate world version of it — is Joan Aiken’s 1966 fantasy Night Birds on Nantucket. This also involves a search for a particular whale but, in this case, not in fact one which is white. This post reveals its colour and suggests a reason for it being so.

Another denizen of the deep is the object of a quest, this time on dry land: China Miéville’s curious Kraken: an anatomy (2010), which is almost a mirror image of the Moby-Dick narrative. A giant squid becomes an underground cult’s fetishised deity, and while the action is set around London’s Thames river the humans never truly get their feet wet. However, like Melville’s earlier novel Miéville’s ‘urban weird’ tale reflects a religious fanaticism of a certain deranged kind.

Miéville returned to the Moby-Dick theme, this time more overtly, in his YA fantasy Railsea (2012). Instead of watery wastes the environment is a planetary surface covered in railways tracks, and the pursued animal is a giant mole, Mocker Jack, which tunnels underground: it’s entirely significant that the obsessive mole-chaser, Abacat Naphi, is an anagram of Captain Ahab.

Finally, the Poul Anderson SF classic Tau Zero (1970) focuses on a Pequod-like star-ship with ramjet propulsion technology. Melville’s novel is even specifically name-checked, an allusion to a voyage that has taken a life of its own, pursued to its bitter end.

All these works are, in one way or another, reflections of that original 1851 masterpiece, inspired by the story, the characters, its incidentals or its underlying themes. In reading these books I have been chasing the whale in a roundabout fashion; but the time will come soon when I shall be addressing it face on.

32 thoughts on “Whale of a time

  1. You and Lizzie are brave souls to swim those waters – just yesterday I read a list of the classics that most often go unfinished and Moby Dick was in the top five along with Ulysses, Atlas Shrugged, Catch-22 and Lord of the Rings. Bet you’ve read the rest though? :). https://www.businessinsider.com/most-abandoned-books-list-on-goodreads-2013-7?r=US&IR=T

    Good luck on chasing the whale and for Witch Week!

    I remember really enjoying In the Heart of the Sea – such an alien lifestyle to the one most of us live now.

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    1. Hah, appreciated that link, and, no, I’ve not read the rest!

      I expect you’re as waterlogged as we are right now, Lynn, bringing a bit of the ocean closer to our doorsteps. From our bedroom window we can see that the Usk has burst its banks and flooded part of the meadow by the bridge. No whales to be seen though…

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        1. It as, thanks, Lynn! As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Usk is reputed to be the fastest rising and quickest falling river in Europe and so twelve hours after the maximum extent of flooding, soon after the rain stopped, the water level was back to how high it might be after average rain — amazing.

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            1. I think that the phrase ‘global warming’ has blinded many simple souls, not realising the implication is more regularly occurring extreme weather, rising sea levels and strains on services. The occasional soggy bottom is just, as it were, the tip of the iceberg!

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  2. I’m one of those who has read the whole thing! I actually quite enjoyed it – well, at least in parts. Not least because I’ve seen the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford which features early on in the book. (The Whaling Museum there was fascinating too). Another reason I was glad to have read the book was precisely it has influenced so many others, and I find I pick up on that more having read it. I hope you don’t find it a chore, because there is much of interest in the book.

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    1. Jealous though I am that you’ve been to New Bedford, I’m sure I won’t find Melville’s novel a chore, Annabel, now I’m actually in the mood for it! And isn’t that the joy of reading, that delight in finding resonances and feeling that life is even more joined-up than we thought? Just found that so with an Anne Fine YA novel, as an immanent review will reveal!

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  3. piotrek

    I loved both Miéville’s books, and also read them before Moby Dick, they actually inspired me to finally read this classic. It proved to also be great read, it deserves its place in canon 🙂

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    1. Oooh, I shall have to go over and look at that now, Johanna! Unfortunately I won’t be in a place with few distractions — my smartphone reminds me every now and again that our “WiFi is fast”…

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  4. Pingback: The dark sea beckons | Lizzie Ross

  5. I listened to a recording of this on the radio but am afraid it didn’t grab me. Too much detail about plankton and the eating habits. In a discussion about the book one of the participants said that much of the content was lifted from a natural history encyclopaedia

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  6. ‘Call me Ishmael’. Surely one of the greatest first lines ever (even if it is not, strictly speaking, the start of the book – but never mind).

    Unfortunately it is a book that I have never got deeply into: very dry for me – but with your help I may well try again.

    The greatest first line ever? Has to be ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ doesn’t it?

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    1. I’ve gained the impression that Moby-Dick is a bit like Marmite with a dash of blubber cooked in whale oil: either truly profound or utterly tedious. Unfortunately up till now I’ve not as far as that ‘first’ line but I have high hopes to get past it this time!

      As for 1984 it’s been so long since I read it I’d forgotten (if I’d ever registered) that this was the first line. I can’t help now thinking though that it must have been Orwell’s nod towards the clichéd opening “It was a dark and stormy night…”

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      1. Such a great book, which, like most of what he wrote, is tinged with a very dark humour. It has no relevance to the book – I guess he just knew it was a memorable line and went with it – although popping clichés and fighting against ‘purple prose’ was what Orwell (as a novelist) was all about.

        My previous attempts at MD have sent me down the ‘utterly tedious’ corridor, but I will try again.

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  7. Good luck with Moby – I call him Moby because we spent so long together I no longer feel I need to use the more formal Mr Dick. Give my regards to Cap’n Ahab and tell him I hope his leg gets better soon… 😉

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    1. I only have a few lingering images from seeing the Gregory Peck film in the 1950s—Queequeg’s tattoos, Ahab caught up in the harpoon lines waving farewell, the miniature whale ramming the model of the Pequod—so keen to add more detail from patient perusal of the actual text! I too ‘did’ many classic texts at school, writing essays culled from crib notes and remembering little or nothing.

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  8. Alyson Woodhouse

    Somehow, Moby Dick and I never crossed paths either at school or university. In the years since, I’m afraid nothing save shame about not having read it has ever tempted me to pick it up. Is that a strong enough motivation, I wonder? Hmm. I look forward to your own thoughts and experiences with it anyway.

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    1. Shame is a sort of spur for me, Alyson — not that I feel guilty for not having read it, more that having started it I barely gave it a chance before stopping. (And I don’t count all the reading around it and about it.)

      So, despite believing in the mantra Je ne regrette rien, there has always been this residual feeling, this itch that required scratching. And, having pretended for so long that I knew what it was all about, it’s time to put that certainty to the test!

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  9. I’ve tried Moby Dick a couple of times but struggled to really get into it. I’d be really interested to hear your take on it. I do, however, have Night Birds on Nantucket on my “to read” pile, right underneath Black Hearts in Battersea. This is the “to read” pile next to my bed too rather than the more distant pile in the living room!

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    1. Night Birds would be a good amuse-bouche for Melville’s classic, I would imagine, Jo! But only after Black Hearts… 😁 And if it’s got as far as the bedside pile that’s an encouraging sign!

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  10. buriedinprint

    I didn’t note the connections with Mieville’s two books and Moby Dick. Now that’s just the kind of thing that can capture my interest in a classic (even with a bit of stubborn resistance in place). But it seems to take me a couple of years to warm up to even the idea of reading a “classic with a commitment” now. And I’ve still got two chunksters – though perhaps not classics, or maybe ‘modern classics’ at best – that I’m hoping to squeeze into this year (Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, which I’m halfway into now, and Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, if you’re curious). But you did make me consider it for a spell. You two would make fine company I’m sure. Oh, and I bet you’d make a map, wouldn’t you?!

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    1. I’ve been tempted by the quincunx novel for a while, Marcie, as many years ago I read Thomas Browne’s famous essay The Garden of Cyrus (in conjunction with a bowdlerised version of Urn Burial) — I really must reread both sometime. The Winsor book I don’t know at all but will check that out.

      A chart for Ishmael’s journeys? I’m sure it must be available somewhere but if not… 😁 Anyway, I might be ‘classicked’ out for a bit after the Melville and completing Jane Eyre and go for some froth for a spell, but we’ll see!

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