Well, that was some read. I read quickly (it’s my only useful skill) and this has taken me weeks. It’s on a par with Richardson’s Clarissa in terms of the stamina required, but I’m glad I’ve read it – and unlike my experience with Richardson’s epic tome, I wasn’t being whipped along by the demands of a uni module reading list, so there’s perhaps a greater sense of personal satisfaction. I’d listened in to Radio 4’s excellent In Our Time programme on the novel and it had sparked an English-Grad-type-angst about other top novels I’d never got around to reading. And so my own personal 2018 Reading Challenge was made.
So – Moby Dick. Published in 1851, this, for the first two-thirds at any rate, felt more like an Eighteenth Century epic novel. It’s picaresque in its structure, moving quickly from one scene to the next (and some chapters are literally play-scenes), or from one focus to the next. Its opening line, ‘Call me Ishmael’, sets up the intimate voice that will take us around the world on a Nantucket whaling ship and tells us absolutely everything about the nature of such a voyage. Ishmael may well call himself a ‘simple sailor’, but his narrative draws on classical literature, Shakespeare, contemporary nature writing and politics. Whole, albeit quite brief, chapters are given over to categories of whale and to technical implements of the trade (‘The Dart’, ‘The Crotch’) and I now know what ‘ambergris’ is. Far from finding this reading a self-imposed chore, I found that the sheer weight of information and description meant I was totally immersed in this rather distant world.
At the heart of the novel, of course, is the fanatical Captain Ahab’s hunt for the white whale, Moby Dick, the leviathan which robbed him of a limb. The crew of the Pequod are caught up in Ahab’s need for vengeance and Melville’s captain is a study of brooding, and possibly slightly mad, anger at forces beyond man’s control. But Melville’s brilliance is to have this running throughout the novel, without it capsizing the whole thing too soon. Ishmael dwells on his Captain’s motivations but also provides us with lighter, comedic moments inevitable on a ship of men of different personalities and stations. It’s Ishmael’s narration that keeps the whole thing afloat (sorry – I’ll stop with the bad metaphors now). Any storyteller who has used his own body as a means of note-taking, ‘But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a bank page for a poem I was then composing – at least, what untattooed parts might remain – I did not trouble myself with the odd inches,’ is worth following, however long the journey (ahem). I can’t do it justice here – that would be the work of years- but it is a brilliant novel and I’m glad I’ve finally read it.