Friday, November 06, 2020

the last book I read

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

Hasten ye back with me now, if you will, to the wild and woolly days of the mid-19th century, where men were men, women knew their place and if you wanted a light to see by during the hours of darkness you were obliged to fire up some dangerous contraption powered not by a couple of hundred volts of nice convenient alternating current out of a hole in the wall but by the literal rendered life-essence of a colossal sea creature, who didn't just hand it out willingly to passers-by but had to be relieved of it somewhat invasively by being protractedly speared to death, peeled, boiled and wrung out into barrels by hordes of malodorous rum-crazed sailors.

It's tough work, roving the seven seas searching for giant aquatic mammals to violently murder and butcher, and carries some risks: scurvy, starvation, drowning, falling off a mast, being speared with your own harpoon or being smashed into mince by the thrashing fluke of an enraged whale. Nevertheless young men are queueing up to be taken on by a whaling vessel, including our narrator, who introduces himself in the book's famous opening sentence. He has travelled from New York to New Bedford, Massachusetts to enlist on a whaling ship. Stopping off at a crowded inn for the night, he is obliged to share a room and a bed with exotic South Sea Islander Queequeg, who it turns out is also seeking similar work as a harpooner. 

Striking up a friendship, Ishmael and Queequeg travel to Nantucket together to enlist as crew members on the Pequod, soon to set sail around the world a-slaughtering and a-rendering, aiming to return three years hence stuffed to the gunwales with enough whale oil to make everyone's fortune. They meet with the ship's owners to discuss the terms of their employment but don't get to meet the captain before the ship sails. They do learn something of his reputation, though: Captain Ahab, a harpooner in his youth but now a fierce and a grizzled fiftysomething sea captain, recently inconvenienced by having one of his legs chomped off at the knee by a sperm whale. 

The ship trundles off and the crew go about some standard sea-going business, giving the reader the chance to meet some of the crew: mates (in descending order of seniority) Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, each of whom commands a whaling boat with a harpooner, all of whom are of exotic race: Starbuck has Queequeg, Stubb has a Native American called Tashtego and Flask has an African called Daggoo. It later transpires that Ahab has brought along his own secret team of crack oarsmen and his own harpooner, a Parsee called Fedallah, who seems to be a bit of an amateur soothsayer and issues some slightly Macbeth-esque prophecies about events that will have to come to pass before Ahab can die.

Ahab eventually puts in an appearance and explains the unusual nature of the Pequod's mission: find Moby Dick, the white sperm whale who took his leg, fuck his shit up and ultimately pop a cap in his ass. All other considerations are secondary, including the usual bagging of as many whales as possible on the way. Since the acquisition of as much whale oil as possible is the direct means by which the crew get paid, this causes some consternation, but Ahab's crazed enthusiasm carries the crew along with him.

And so the Pequod and her crew set off on a journey round the Cape Of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific, where Ahab expects to find Moby Dick. On the way they do manage to bag a few whales, just to keep their eye in, which gives the narrator an opportunity to explain in some detail certain aspects of harpoon and lance technique, processing of whale carcasses, extraction of oil, and also to examine the distinctions between different whale species (the Pequod is a ship specifically designed for hunting sperm whales and Ishmael is somewhat scornful of the mainly European crews who hunt other varieties, mainly right whales) some aspects of the whale's anatomy, including an entire chapter (chapter 95, "The Cassock") devoted to describing how to make a trench coat out of a whale's foreskin

The Pequod also meets a few other ships on the way, and Ahab is keen to quiz their respective captains about sightings of Moby Dick. Eventually as they head south-east from Japan towards the equator, they start to hear news of recent sightings, and eventually a spout is sighted attached to an unmistakable white humped back, and Ahab smells the sweet sweet scent of revenge. There then follows a three-day chase with several excursions in the whaleboats and much furious thrashing of those boats into matchwood by Moby Dick while the crews manage to stick a few more bits of iron into him to slow him down. Eventually the climactic battle sees Moby Dick turn on the Pequod and stave its side in, sinking it, while also dragging Ahab down to Davy Jones' locker by getting him entangled in a harpoon rope. While everyone else either goes down with Moby Dick, drowns, or is eaten by the circling sharks, Ishmael manages to climb upon a piece of buoyant wreckage and floats for a couple of days before being rescued.

Moby-Dick is the sort of book where it's almost futile to express an opinion, its critical status being so unquestionable, partly because of its age (published in 1851, the only entries on this list which pre-date it are Pride And Prejudice (1813) and Fanny Hill (1749)). For what it's worth, though, I found it to be a rollicking adventure story, though not without some thick and chewy language in parts which demands your full attention and a series of digressions into tangentially-related topics which some might find baffling or irritating but which I found, in the main, fascinating. Obviously it's not just about slaughtering whales and making luxurious outer garments out of their genitals, it's also about obsession in a more general way, and its corrosive and destructive effects on those who harbour it and on those around them.

I found that I was already familiar with quite a bit of the terminology through having read Willard Price's Whale Adventure many times as a child. What was vaguely apparent to me then and blatantly so now is how totally implausible the central plot conceit was, i.e, that there existed in the world of the 1950s whaling boats which conducted themselves, for no obvious reason, according to the technology-free conventions of a century earlier, keel-hauling, manual harpooning and all. In hindsight this contrivance was shoehorned in solely to enable Price to swipe large chunks of plot and whale-related exposition from Moby-Dick and only introduce modern-day stuff like helicopters at the end when the Hunt brothers needed their asses conveniently rescuing.

I also recall watching the 1956 film a couple of times on TV during my youth; the only bit I (or anyone else) remember is the ending where Gregory Peck shouts at the whale for a bit before lashing himself to its back and being dragged to a watery grave. Chunks of Ahab's final rantings (the "from hell's heart I stab at thee" speech) also crop up at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

I've had the old Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick on my shelves for probably upwards of 25 years; what prompted me to read it was partly the feeling that it was about time for another Project, but also a rather odd article in the Guardian featuring quotes from a whole host of people who took some pride in never having read it (an article which I slightly annoyingly now can't find) which just tweaked my contrarian instincts enough for me to promote it to the top of the to-read pile. Like a few other books on this list with a daunting reputation for difficulty and general indigestibleness (House Of Leaves and Lanark being two fairly recent examples) I was pleasantly surprised at its readableness; it's probably only fair to observe that the current lockdown conditions are pretty much ideal for concentrated reading of attention-demanding books, while being a massive pain in the arse in many other ways. 


Emma said...

I remember reading your copy of 'Whale Adventure' and also being dimly aware that the setup seemed anachronistic. I think I remember Hal Hunt being sentenced to a lashing with the cat o' nine tails at one point. Can't remember whether he skilfully ducked out of it but I imagine so.

electrichalibut said...

I think so, yes. The bit that seems most absurd to me now is where the old sailmaker gets keel-hauled and subsequently eaten by a mako shark and everyone just shrugs it off with a "hey, that's whaling". Seems unlikely that the authorities would take a similar view on their return to port; I imagine it as being a bit like the scene at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the police steam in and usher all the knights into the back of the van.