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.
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:
- CHAPTER 10
A Bosom Friend
- It may seem ridiculous, but
- 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
- CHAPTER 11
- 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.