Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

June 14, 2012 at 09:32 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )


Nobody writes like this any more, and more is the pity. Had Herman Melville handed in this 200,000 word monstrosity today, he would surely have been laughed out of his publisher’s office. A more kindly-disposed editor would have brought up a few of the obvious problems with the book, and would surely have slashed the lengthy encyclopaedic descriptions of whales and their relations in the first edit.

Undoubtedly these encyclopaedia sections are one of the most difficult characteristics of the book to trawl through, and it is impossible to help wondering whether they were strictly necessary, even if one is otherwise captivated by Melville’s thick and heavy pen. After all, the pesudo-scientific asides spaced with deadening regularity through the story are either unnecessary peripheral fluff, or else ham-fisted exposition.

“The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower…Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all brokem and deformed. Some were storied weapons. With this once long lance did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset.”

-Moby Dick

Take but a moment to linger in one of these parenthetical partitions, however, and subtler flavours begin to leach out. Arrogance and starry-eyed wonder, bitter racism and pompous buffoonery, tender joy tempered with excitement; all these are available in spades, within the driest explanation of prehistoric aquatic mammals, and while they do not make these sections exciting, they do smooth the edges marvellously, and ensure that the asides are not gratingly different from the pace of the book. They are written in a different voice and different style, and yet are clearly the thoughts and earnestness of Ishmael.

An apologetic for one of the hardest things about this book, then. But Melville does not shine in the sections that must be explained: he shines in the thick and visceral settings of scene. Writers today are warned against spending an entire chapter describing the inside of a tavern, let alone the countenance of a gloomy man. But Melville proves that this is because writers today seldom possess the skill to do so lyrically and imposingly, capturing the attention and the imagination of a reader and refusing to let go. He proves it can be done, if done well.

Any writer desiring to improve his prose would do well to study Melville: borrow from him if necessary. He strikes a perfect balance between shifting the attention of his gaze, and drawing attention to a particular detail and there holding it implacable.

“Call me Ishmael.”

-Moby Dick

Everything about this book is as bold and stubborn and unreasonable as its iconic captain, and even the searing slowness and lack of fulfillment, the cry for meaningful action, places the reader in the shoes of wicked old Ahab, so that reader and character alike will be crying, “just give me one glimpse of that accursed whale!” This is not a modern novel, and is missing so many of those things that have come to be staples and expectations. There is no romance and precious little adventure, for all that it is so clearly a mammoth of an adventure novel. Ishmael serves as an impartial observer for the most, and there is very little change or growth in Ahab himself. The entire thing is a journey towards inevitability, and whenever character or plot waver slightly, it is only to emphasise the inexorable path of the fates, or the demon will shared by Ahab and the whale alike. Again, this is the sort of plot that will lead quickly towards impatience in the reader (and perhaps rightfully so). But it is masterfully told, expertly written, and a finished work of stunning beauty.


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