As a great fan and supporter of Melville’s Pierre, I had the idea that Moby Dick would transplant that book as my favourite Melville, but I’ll say from the outset there’s no chance of that happening. In fact, Moby Dick inclines me to go back, re-read and re-evaluate Pierre, incase I was seriously mistaken about its merits. Having been disappointed by last January’s c19th classic, of which I had high hopes, so it seems I’m fated to be again.
I don’t think I’ve felt the same degree of tedium reading a book since last year’s attempt at Kafka’s The Trial (and I haven’t finished Moby Dick yet, I’ve still got 120 pages to go – too few to give up; too many to find the strength to go on). Never, I think, until now have I been in favour of abridging books: – but Melville’s work could certainly have 5/6ths of its contents removed, and be a far better novel for it. What is there now I don’t know about whales and whale-fishing – save, of course, anything discovered in the last 150 years; – I’m pretty sure I could rig out a ship and go and catch a whale myself; – or, indeed, take up a lectureship in some prestigious university on the subject of whales. For every ten pages of plot, there’s fifty on the subject of whales, their anatomy, their nature, disputes regarding their classification, methods of hunting and capturing them, and then butchering them once they are captured.
It’s a curious method, and one feels not really to the taste of the modern reader – who can’t, of course, abide a mixture of fact and fiction. And now I know nobody in the c19th read Moby Dick either, discerning folk that they were, but the novel did remind me of a few things: – firstly, Defoe: the idea of the made-up first person narrative which is in truth no different to an actual account of the same; the idle fabrication of autobiography; (I never made it through Journal of a Plague Year, another incredibly tedious work); – and secondly, a book I read about only the other week, by a man called du Chaillu, called Explorations and Adventures in Equitorial Africa (publ. 1861), which was all about gorillas (he was the first white man to meet one) and became a sensation. No doubt there was actually a taste for this kind of exotic recounting of exploration and animal species back then; and perhaps it was this Melville had in mind (his earlier narratives are of this kind, are they not?): an adventure story, with a lot of scientific (or non-scientific) ideas interlarded. – Oh, and Jules Verne too: 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is a perfect counterpart, complete with similar scientific and factual tedium, but more of a plot (maybe half, compared to 10%) – the descriptions of the manifold sightings of Moby Dick and the Nautilus I thought remarkably similar.
But it is well-written, I’ll give it that. Yet even I, who admire style above all else, cannot find it serves the useful purpose of obliterating all content on this particular occasion.