Saturday 3 March 2012

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

herman melville moby dick

A touch of classics, anyone?

It's been a while since my last posting, but that's only because of the very first thing you need to know about Moby Dick - it draaaaaaaaags. 

But you cannot be nearing thirty without having read Moby Dick, am I right?  I'd hazard saying that it's one of the most often referred to books in literature.  Hell, even while I was reading it, I chanced to watch a Star Trek movie (First Contact I think it was) where captain Jean-Luc Picard was compared to captain Ahab in a heated argument with one of his ship's passengers.  Yes, Melville's classic had been on my reading list for a long time and finally I got it. 

It was totally unlike I imagined it.  I pictured maddened chases after the noble (and rather cheesy - do excuse my imagination) white creature, with the captain being a cruel tormentor of his slaving crew.  I imagined a dynamic adventure novel, something like Robinson Cruzoe, only happening on a ship rather than on a deserted island.  I imagined...  well, I imagined a lot of things but very few proved to have any coverage in reality. 

If you ask me, the book is not about Moby Dick at all, and not even about chasing after this particular animal.  It is a book about whales and whaling, with the famous hunt only thrown in as a background, as a skeleton on which all the rest is spun.  Pages and pages of Moby Dick describe whaling boats, whaling equipment, processing of whale carcasses, whale's anatomy, whale's behaviour, whale's history, literary references to whales, pretty much anything whale-related you can think of is included.  Even worries about whale's extinction as a species.  That in the end they do battle the white giant - well, I guess it was inevitable, after all it's a novel, not a scientific treaty (although it reads like one). 

I'm seriously wondering whether all this whale knowledge should be treated as sound and true.  Probably not - even school children know that a whale is a mammal, not a fish, and if Melville got this very basic piece of information wrong, how can a reader trust the rest?  But it reads well and sure as hell it sparks curiosity. 

I mentioned earlier that Moby Dick drags - yes, you have to survive over a hundred pages before the Pequod ship even leaves her harbour.  I actually started enjoying it after 300 pages or so...  Might be just me, might be the book, consider yourself warned. 

In the introduction to my copy, Patrick McGrath wrote that Moby Dick 'is now considered by many to be the best novel ever written in the English language'.  Luckily, it isn't so.  English literature would indeed look rather grim if Moby Dick was her ultimate achievement:  the language is pretty nightmarish and structurally, I've read many a better novel, but even so - it is decent.  Fairly decent, that's all. 

I'm off to learn something more about whales.

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