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.