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Posts from the ‘Herman Melville’ Category

Moby Dick: The Exhibition

In less than a decade, the work of W.G. Sebald has been the inspiration for a number of exhibitions in which curators and visual artists respond to his books.  So I was fascinated to find an ongoing series of exhibitions at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (San Francisco) based on iconic American novels.  I was especially attracted by the catalog for their recent exhibition on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which was designed by Jon Sueda.  (By the way, in case you recall my recent post regarding abridged books, in which I wrote about two shortened versions of Moby-Dick, it’s fun to note that the Wattis catalog contains a chapter called Moby-Dick in 1,000 Words, which is exactly what it says it is.)

Here’s the description from their website:

Moby-Dick is the second show in a trilogy of Wattis Institute exhibitions that are based on canonical American novels. The first, The Wizard of Oz, was presented in fall 2008; the third will be Huckleberry Finn, in fall 2010. All three stories have major themes related to exploration and (self-)discovery, and the corresponding exhibitions function as metaphorical journeys through which the audience experiences various notions of America’s reality, both contemporary and historic. Established and emerging contemporary artists from around the world are invited to address the key themes of the books and the historical moments in which they were written. Many of the artists create new commissions specifically for the shows.

The Case of the Missing Marginalia

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.

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953 (SFMOMA)


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.

Mind the Gap – Reading Literary Condensations

At my grandparent’s house there were hundreds of books that ranged from rose gardening to Scottish poetry to three-decker novels by Bulwer-Lytton, all nestled in the arts and crafts bookcases that adorned nearly every room.  Every year I spent entire days at their house reading and absorbing new subjects and consuming 19th century novels.  By contrast, my parents had only several shelves of unread Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and an encyclopedia set that I refused to consult.  Even as a young child with a library card and a voracious appetite for books I remember thinking it was somehow wrong to reduce a book’s wordage, although I couldn’t articulate what my rationale was at the time.  So perhaps it was inevitable that I would become a literature major as an undergraduate as a way of sorting all this out for myself.

I hadn’t given condensed books much thought for, well, let’s just say several decades, until Penguin announced in 2005 the posthumous inclusion of something called Young Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald in its series of seventy titles celebrating the 70th anniversary of their Pocket Penguins series.  I was horrified at the mere idea of Austerlitz reduced to 68 pages.   Young Austerlitz, it turned out, much to my relief, was not an really an abridgement, but a word-for-word – and illustration-for-illustration – excerpt from Austerlitz.  In 2005, as part of the celebrations of its 70th anniversary, Penguin (which owns Sebald’s British imprint Hamish Hamilton) issued excerpts from 70 titles spanning its publishing history. Austerlitz was chosen to represent the year 2001 and so a 58-page excerpt from Austerlitz was published in a slim paperback under the title Young Austerlitz.  The excerpt covers pages 44 to 96 in the American edition, in which Austerlitz describes part of his childhood in Wales.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Stacks), 1999, plaster, polystyrene and steel. (Image: Anthony d’Offay Gallery)

I was reminded of this episode with Young Austerlitz sometime last year when the Summer 2009 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction landed in my mailbox and much to my delight and puzzlement the cover announced a “Special Fiction Issue” devoted to “Herman Melville’s ; or The Whale“, edited by Damion Searls.  In his playful Introduction, Searls explains that “; or the Whale is a lost work from Herman Melville’s major period (1851), never before published … until 2007.”  In truth, ; or the Whale is a reverse abridgement of a 2005 publication called Moby-Dick in Half the Time, which is part of a series from Orion Books called Compact Editions – “Small(er) is beautiful”.  Like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, ; or the Whale is an exploration of the negative space that occurs when a novel is condensed.  What Searls had done was to painstakingly construct yet another condensed version of Melville’s novel by including only the bits cut out by Orion Books, using as his title the deleted half of Melville’s original title Moby Dick; or The Whale.

Reading Searls’ loving reconstitution of Moby-Dick was surprisingly fun.  But rather than writing up my own response, it seems only fitting to simply steal the press release issued by the publisher of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Dalkey Archive:

Moby-Dick in Half the Time, an abridgment by Orion Books which Adam Gopnik notoriously described in The New Yorker as “all Dick and no Moby,” has now called forth an spirited rebuttal. In an act of arguably Ahabian obsessiveness, writer Damion Searls has pulled together every chapter, word, and punctuation mark that Orion’s abridger cut from Melville’s original Moby Dick; or The Whale. The result—inevitably called ; or The Whale—has been published as a book-length special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, making it the first contemporary fiction by Herman Melville to appear in almost 150 years.

“I have nothing against abridgments, I make them myself,” says Searls, who holds a Ph.D. in early American literature.  His one-volume abridgment of Henry David Thoreau’s 7,000-page Journal, produced with traditional methods, will be published by NYRB Classics later in 2009. “After all, the original is still there for anyone who wants it. I just think we should ask what we value, what we want to abridge for. Orion went for a straight-ahead story with a clear plot arc, but what makes Melville Melville is digression, texture, and weirdness. If you only have time to read half the book, which half the time is more worth spending?”

In a cover story for The Believer magazine (“Carving the Whale,” September 2009), Searls describes Melville’s new novel as a good read, filled with humor and  unexpected poetry. Chapter 62 consists of a single word, “hapless”—the only word Orion’s abridger cut from the chapter, trimming a 105-word sentence to 104; the book’s first sentence is “methodically”; the final hunt for the white whale dissolves into pure punctuation. And the emotional arc of the book is the same as in Melville’s original, because Melville’s excess comes at moments of emotional intensity, and that excess, trimmed from Half the Time, is what makes up ; or The Whale. Searls describes it as like watching a DVD on fast forward, and it may get you closer to what Moby Dick is really like than the other abridgment does.

Bringing readers closer to others’ works is the goal of many of Searls’s efforts. He translates from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch, bringing classic writers like Proust and Rilke and less known writers like Ingeborg Bachmann and Jon Fosse to American readers. His new book of short stories, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, is a collection of “cover versions”: present-day stories inspired by Nabokov, Hawthorne, and other writers from around the world. For the Review of Contemporary Fiction, though, ; or The Whale is not just a version of Moby Dick but a work of literature in its own right: “Otherwise we wouldn’t be publishing it,” insists editor Martin Riker. The quick cutting and narrative elisions are very 21st Century, irrespective of whether the author wrote 19th Century classics too.

Author Herman Melville could not be reached for comment.

For example, here is Searls’ version of Chapters 10 and 11 in their entirety:

    1. CHAPTER 10

A Bosom Friend

    1. long-drawn
    1. It may seem ridiculous, but
    1. He made no advances whatever; appeared to have no desire to enlarge the circle of his acquaintances.
    If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, soon thawed it out, and
    1. CHAPTER 11


    1. what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and
    imposed                                   and I no more felt unduly concerned for the landlord’s policy of insurance.

Damion Searls, by the way, is the translator of Melancholy by Jon Fosse, which I have written about earlier.

If it seems like the posts on Vertigo have been few and far between lately, it is because a pair of monster-sized books are really slowing me down.  I’m making my way through Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which alternates between fabulous moments and long dry spells.  And I’m reading yet another abridged title for which Damion Searls is responsible: a newly  edited version of The Journal by Henry David Thoreau, which nevertheless comes in at 667 pages.  More on Thoreau later.

Sebald, Uncomfortable Modernist

Over at the Green Integer Blog there is a thought-provoking post in which the author tries to come to terms with his irritation upon reading W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo.  (Curiously, the essay was posted July 10, 2009, but it concludes with a writing date of December 23, 2001, about 18 months after Vertigo was released in the US.)  At first, the author of the post senses an internal contradiction within Sebald’s work, perhaps even a fatal failure:

In short, there is a sense of angst to Sebald’s world, and the writers he features, Stendhal and Kafka, share his feelings of displacement. It is as if Sebald were a high modernist who has discovered himself in a postmodern world, and he is not at all happy about that fact. He often seems to be working at odds to his own tales, as if all the disconnections, accidental photographs, and odd peregrinations he recounts were an expression of his failure to create a more coherent whole.

He points to one example in Vertigo (the rape scene involving the hunter Schlag and the barmaid Romona) where, he feels, Sebald “was purposely withholding information, refusing to reveal any logic in a world where he has painfully determined to be utterly mystifying.”  This leads the author to his final conclusion:

It is this desperate search for coherence under conditions where memory and significance are so vague, I believe, that draw so many readers to Sebald’s books. Like Sebald, they feel utterly ill-at-ease, even sickly, when they face the inexplicably dangerous terrain standing before them. I simply do not share the great dis-ease, and am somewhat irritated for having to endure it.

I think it is absolutely correct to say that Sebald was an uncomfortable modernist, especially in the sense that one of his basic concerns was epistemological: how do we know the past?  At the same time Sebald was deeply skeptical of modernism, having traced its true history from Napoleon through Hitler’s Germany.  As Sebald showed, modernism’s inherent belief in human progress was overtly false.  Only technology progressed, the very technology that made it easier and easier to enslave and murder millions, all the while hiding the truth behind a shimmering veil of lies.  In his conversion from pure academic to prose fiction writer, Sebald was venting his frustration with the limits of traditional scholarship to get at larger truths and, it seems to me, he dedicated himself to the task of trying to find a better way.  What Sebald did then was rather curious.  He borrowed some of the techniques of post-modernism – embedding photographs and the like –  and, in effect, smuggled them back across the border, brought them back through time, and he employed them in what was a very modernist enterprise.  I don’t imagine that Sebald ever had a desire to completely leave modernism behind, for modernism is, if anything, based on the firm belief that, at its very core, it is an undertaking of a very high moral order – as opposed to the seeming amoralism of the post-modernism.

Several times Sebald shows us his despair at his possibly Sisyphean task, and he does this most clearly in the final pages of Vertigo, where the narrator sits in a London train among a “defeated army” of commuters, reading Samuel Pepy’s diary, only to suddenly have a dream of walking through the Alps to come to the edge of a bottomless chasm.  Sebald briefly describes a post-human vision where “not a tree was there to be seen, not a bush, not even a stunted shrub or a russock of grass; there was nothing but ice-grey shale.”  The scene then shifts back to Pepys and another apocalyptic vision: Pepys’ description of the Great Fire of London.  The ending to Vertigo make me think of nothing so much as the conclusion of Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is just about as post-modern as any true modernist novel ever written.  In the end, mankind is nothing in the larger scheme of this universe.  Nothing.  (Perhaps Sebald was the last true artist of Romanticism.)

Caspar David Friedrich wandererCaspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

The writer at Green Integer states a preference for a post-modern author like Javier Marias, who “is far more like a kind of amateur sleuth, who will gladly take on his adventures, but is more often just has happy to find no apparent answer.”  That’s the very premise of post-modernism – that there is no single answer, no single viewpoint.  In a funny, round-about way, this leads me back to my previous post on the exhibition at the Tate Britain called Altermodern.  Maybe it is time we defined something to supplant both modernism and post-modernism, something that can be committed to truth and history all the while knowing there is no single perspective.  It strike me that this is, in a sense, what a hologram achieves.  Every point of view is absolutely true and absolutely different from any other, yet it all adds up to one coherent image.  But I can’t bear the idea of calling this new ism “holomodernism.”

[Green Integer, in case any reader of Vertigo doesn’t know, is an essential modern publisher dedicated to “Essays, Manifestos, Statements, Speeches, Maxims, Epistles, Diaristic Jottings, Narratives, Natural histories, Poems, Plays, Performances, Ramblings, Revelations, and all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least.” So says their website.  Go visit and buy books.]

The Labyrinth of No: Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby and Co.

Vila-Matas Bartleby & Co

Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co. is a metafiction about the very nature of literature itself. Bartleby, of course, is the character from Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, the tale of a bland office worker who is “inhabited by a profound denial of the world” (Vila-Matas) and responds to every query or demand by saying “I would prefer not to.” Nothing less, nothing more. Hence, for Vila-Matas, Bartleby becomes the emblem for any writer who can’t – or won’t – write any more.

Like some of the works of W.G. Sebald, especially Vertigo, Bartleby & Co. reads like the work of a literature professor who has burst free of all academic constraints to write about literature in an entirely new way. The book is simultaneously very personal and yet deeply concerned with history. Bartleby & Co. is written in the form of a diary that covers much of 1999, although the only real events mentioned are personal events in the narrator’s life. What we know about the narrator we learn in the opening sentences:

I never had much luck with women. I have a pitiful hump, which I am resigned to. All my closest relatives are dead. I am a poor recluse working in a ghastly office.

I suppose that is meant to explain why the narrator has largely abandoned real life in favor of a life within literature. His eighty-six diary entries – or footnotes to literature, as he calls them – reflect his musings on writers who at one time or another entered the “labyrinth of No.” There is no plot to Bartleby & Co. and no grand conclusion, just a succession of short essay-like jottings on books, writers, and literary characters. Some are well-known, like Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pyncheon, Robert Walser, Robert Musil, and J.D. Salinger. Others are completely new to me, like Luis Felipe Pineda and Klara Whoryzek (if they are even real).

Vila-Matas’ project is to try to understand where literature is and where it can go in the future, and his jumping-off point – writers who engage in “non-writing” – has a brilliant, if perverse, logic. Bartleby’s “company” includes those writers who can no longer continue to write (through fear, inability, writer’s block, and so on), those writers who declare an end to their writing career, and those who stop writing through the ultimate statement of suicide. He also throws in a few literary characters and some novels that don’t exist, all in service of trying to understand this calling that obsesses him.

Can the act of not writing be considered a form of writing? Is it a legitimate literary statement to deliberately put down the pen? It’s actually a fairly straightforward Duchampian proposal. Since Marcel Duchamp’s first “readymade”, an artist has been able to declare anything a work of art, whether that be a urinal, a Campbell’s soup can, or a seven-day walk across England. The artistic license declared by Duchamp allowed John Cage to “compose” 4 minutes and 33 second of silence as music and paved the way for conceptual art of many forms spanning much of the twentieth century. So it stands to reason that a writer can say that the act of not writing has a distinct meaning. And, as Vila-Matas suggests, every act of non-writing needs to be understood within its own context. No two negations are the same.

As you can read here and here, I am not a big fan of Vila-Matas’ more recent book Montano (written in 2002, but not translated into English until 2007). In Montano, the overly-unreliable narrator simply ennervated me by turning the tables so many times that I finally realized that I didn’t care any more. But Bartleby & Co. is a much stronger, more open-ended work. (It’s no wonder that one of the books Vila-Matas appears to admire is Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. It, too, opens up more avenues than it closes off, leaving the reader dazzled with new possibilities.) Vila-Matas has written something on the order of eight or nine works that precede both of these books, but unfortunately none of them have been translated as yet, so it is really hard to get the full sense of Vila-Matas’ big project.

Bartleby & Co. was first published in Barcelona in 2000 and translated into English in 2004.