April 16, 2010
In my latest post, I wrote about Philip Hoare’s recent book The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea and about its relationship to the writing of W.G. Sebald. Hoare’s book is replete with all manner of anecdotes writers, whales, history, and whatnot, but one in particular stuck with me. It’s only a single sentence, but it’s enough to break the heart of any book collector or scholar. In writing about Thomas Beale’s 1835 book The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, which,as he puts it, provided the “scaffolding for Moby-Dick’s construction,” Hoare notes:
When [Melville's] own copy of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale surfaced a century later, Melville’s marginalia had been erased by an owner who had little idea that they were worth more than the volume itself.
Can you imagine holding a copy of a book from Melville’s library, only to discover that someone has erased all of his handwritten notes? Alas, have no fear. For the task of reconstructing Melville’s missing marginalia has turned into a minor industry. Over at Melville’s Marginalia Online, a project of Boise State University (which, for some reason, Hoare doesn’t cite in his list of websites consulted), it becomes quickly apparent that there are many known volumes that Melville once owned that also suffer from erased marginalia. So who might have erased the traces of Melville’s hand from Beale’s book? Maybe Melville himself.
[David A.] Randall’s account of the discovery shows that Melville’s pencil marginalia were already erased when the book surfaced at G. A. Baker & Company circa 1935, but no further evidence is available to reveal exactly when or by whom the damage was done…. Before the revival of Melville’s reputation in the 1920s, any bookseller who acquired the book would have had understandable motives for making it a “clean copy,” as Randall suggests; and a librarian would have had similar cause for removing pencil markings and notes from the volume. The relevance of the marginalia to the genesis of Moby-Dick may indicate Melville himself performed the erasures, an act that would have been in keeping with his habitual practice of discarding and sometimes destroying manuscript evidence. [from Steven Olsen-Smith's Introduction to Melville's Marginalia in Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale]
And if your curiosity goes even deeper, Melville’s Marginalia Online provides a PDF file showing a copy of Beale’s book (not the one Melville owned) complete with transcriptions of much of the recovered marginalia, as they do for numerous other volumes once owned by Melville. (I think this gives new meaning to the concept of recuperating historical memory.)
For the record, the full title of Beale’s book is A Few Observations on the Natural History of the Sperm Whale, With an Account of the Rise and Progress of the Fishery, and of the Modes of Pursuing, Killing, and “Cutting In” that Animal, with a List of its Favorite Places of Resort. Melville’s copy is housed at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
April 13, 2010
Some eighteen months ago, when Philip Hoare’s book Leviathan, or the Whale was first published in the United Kingdom under the HarperCollins imprint Fourth Estate, I wrote about The Case of the Posthumous Blurb, based on the conundrum that W.G. Sebald, then dead some seven years, appeared to be praising Hoare’s new book with a laudatory blurb. (Trust me, it’s a complicated story worthy of Sherlock Holmes and it’s well worth going back to read…)
Well, the calendar has now scrolled forward to early 2010 and Hoare’s book has just been released in the United States, albeit under the rather sadly reformulated title The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea. HarperCollins seems to have wanted to repackage Leviathan into a natural history book for the American audience; hence the new title, which utterly loses the poetry and majesty of the original, as well as the allusion to the full title of Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick; or the Whale. No matter how you look at it, the spirits that preside over Hoare’s book from the prefatory quote to the final page are Herman Melville and his cast of literary creations – Ahab, Ishmael, and, of course, Moby-Dick.
Much like Melville’s sprawling novel, Hoare’s The Whale is an ungainly treatise that operates on multiple levels: as a biography of Melville, as a literary dissection of Moby-Dick, as a natural history of whales and whaling, and as the now oh-so-commercially-desirable blend of personal memoir/travel narrative. In truth, Hoare generally pulls off this difficult juggling act with striking success, marching back and forth across centuries, circumnavigating the globe, and examining the man/whale relationship from, well, perhaps a few too many angles. Hoare is at his best in the literary quadrants, where his passion and his knowledge are well-balanced. He creates an exceptionally strong portrait of the crucial friendship that developed between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, a relationship that helped transform Melville’s rather routine concept for Moby-Dick into the terrifying, god-defying, blasphemous work that eventually emerged. Hoare handles the natural history elements with great enthusiasm and some passages of fine writing, although several sections threaten to become overlong and repetitive. But I found the now-obligatory first-person experiences (author visits seemingly endless whaling museums, author bravely examines flaccid penis of dead whale, author recounts the lessons his mother’s death taught him, etc.) the most uneven sections of the book. Here, the writing becomes more workmanlike and Hoare’s touristy excursions into the kingdom of whales tend to pale in comparison with the surrounding exploits of real 19th century whalers and Melville’s fictional crew aboard the Pequod.
Reviewers often mention W.G. Sebald’s name in conjunction with The Whale, both for Hoare’s promiscuity with genres and his use of uncaptioned photographs and illustrations. As Ruaridh Nicoll wrote in The Observer last August:
I can see why the two writers might admire each other. It’s all that traipsing about staring at the world with knowledgable, sad eyes, busily sticking pictures in a scrapbook and happily following intriguing diversions.
And here’s Jonathan Bate in The Telegraph, describing the commonalities he sees between the two authors:
a ruminative mix of memoir, travel-writing, literary criticism and quirky historical reflection, illustrated by grainy black-and-white photographs that looked as if they had been taken on an old Brownie box camera.
Unfortunately for Sebald, travel literature is littered with writers who have “knowledgable, sad eyes” and who will now, and perhaps for a long time to come, be associated with Sebald’s completely different output. Comparisons between Sebald and Hoare – or between Sebald and countless other mildly transgressive non-fiction writers – are symptomatic of a widespread misreading of Sebald’s original contribution to literature. Sebald certainly did not invent a new “a ruminative mix of memoir, travel-writing, literary criticism and quirky historical reflection.” Blends like this existed long before him. What is true is that Sebald provided writers like Hoare with a path out of their own boxed-in work. As one writer said in The Telegraph: “Reading WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn provided [Hoare] the intellectual authorisation to pursue the ghosts of himself through his writing – to translate his “inner text” more openly.” Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable.
About the title of my post. I don’t often stop mid-sentence and pull down my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, but I did when subfusc cropped up in the middle of The Whale. “A dark or dusty colour; gloom.” Wikipedia adds that it sometimes also “refers to the clothes worn with full academic dress in Oxford. …” I should have known.
September 1, 2008
In the August 15, 2008 New York Times Book Review, Rachel Donadio wrote about the business of blurbing, that “tangled mass of friendships, rivalries, favors traded and debts repaid, not always in good faith.” Recently, Fourth Estate, a HarperCollins (UK) imprint, published a book by Philip Hoare called Leviathan – with an approving quote by W.G. Sebald. Since Sebald died in 2001, I was instantly curious.
Hoare has written on subjects as disparate as Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and the Pet Shop Boys. In a profile of Hoare in The Telegraph, the unnamed writer says of Hoare that “reading WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn provided the intellectual authorisation to pursue the ghosts of himself through his writing – to translate his “inner text” more openly.” On the HarperCollins website Hoare’s Leviathan is described as “an extraordinary journey into the underwater world of the whale – to tie in with a BBC film-length documentary hosted also by the author,” Below that is the Sebald quote:
‘Philip Hoare’s writing is quite untrammelled by convention and opens up astonishing views at every turn.’ W.G. Sebald
The Sebald “blurb” is obviously not for Leviathan. Instead, HarperCollins describes it as “praise” for Hoare’s earlier book, England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia, which first appeared in 2005, which is still four years after Sebald’s death. So obviously, the sentence from Sebald was not truly “praise” for England’s Lost Eden either.
One possible answer to the confusing posthumous blurb can be found in an obituary of Sebald written by Hoare and posted on the website of The Independent. There, while writing about “the sell-out talk given by W.G. Sebald on 24 September  at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London – his last public event in England”, Hoare mentions how his personal connection to Sebald came about.
Having published a somewhat obscure book on a military hospital earlier this year, I received a letter, out of the blue, in Sebald’s elegant script (I later learnt that his dislike of computers ensured that all his work was done in longhand). In this, and subsequent letters, he expressed the kind of encouragement and complicity underlined when we met that September evening, as I followed him to his reception – he the last to arrive at his own party, surreptitiously drawing on a cigarette. Tall, precise, neat, he evinced professorial gravitas – yet when I had introduced myself, he greeted me with a tangible warmth, and promptly asked if I minded him stealing bits from my book.
The book that intrigued Sebald was Hoare’s Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital published in 2001. At least one reviewer of Spike Island noted the kinship between that book and the writings of Sebald – Andy Beckett at The Guardian. A review by David Vincent on Amazon.co.uk suggests to me why Spike Island would have appealed to Sebald:
Hoare invests his tale with a gothic splendour, from the introductory history of the nearby Cistercian abbey that subsequently inspired operas, prints and tales, to his own pre-occupations, as a youth, with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, David Bowie and then punk. At times he wears a brooding decadence on his sleeve like chevrons, as befits the author of Noel Coward and Wilde’s Last Stand, but by bolstering his narrative with personal ballast, revealing intimate glimpses of growing up in a backwater, and the deaths of his brother and father, he also provides an evocation of the suburbs comparable to Edward Platt’s Leadville. To a rewarding degree a reconciliation of Hoare with his origins and childhood environs, Spike Island speaks of the nature of fear and creeping memory, and lingers in the mind as hauntingly as the ghostly, shadowy presences it so movingly traces. David Vincent
So, it began to look to me as if the source for the Sebald quotes might have been contained in the letters he wrote to Hoare (suggesting that Hoare himself might have provided his publishers with the quotes). But as I kept probing, things got murky again. On the websites of several British booksellers (including Waterstone’s and Foyles) I have located another quote attributed to Sebald on Spike Island and said to be from the Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year.
Spike Island is a book that has everything a passionate reader could possibly want – a subject that far transcends the trivial pursuits of contemporary writing, concerns both public and private, astonishing details, stylistic precision, a unique sense of time and place, and a great depth of vision. W.G.Sebald, Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year
Curiously, though, while The Telegraph website does have a listing that for their Books of the Year for 2001, there is no mention of Hoare’s book, nor is Sebald a contributor to the list. I have failed to connect the dots here. So here are two queries for readers of Vertigo.
First, can anyone shed any light on the suggestion that Sebald nominated Hoare’s Spike Island for the Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year in 2001 (or any other year, for that matter)?
Second, is there actually a Sebald quote printed on the dust jacket of any of Hoare’s books? (If so, I’ll want to get first editions for my Sebald collection.)
NOTE: just as I finished this post I saw that Attic Fantasist has written a couple of posts about Hoare and Sebald in the last few days. Look for two posts on August 29 and another on August 24, 2008