Sunday, June 10, 2007

Moby Dick

Only two books have ever defeated me: "Ulysses" and "Moby Dick." I tried to read both of them during my eager first year of University, and I put both of them down halfway through.

"Ulysses" annoyed me because the references seemed deliberately obscure, and I felt that I didn't have a hope in hell of understanding even the simplest layer, let alone any of the layers that would make the struggle worthwhile.

But why didn't I like "Moby Dick?" I'm loving it now -- like, I'm REALLY in love with it -- and I can only assume that, back then, I expected faster pace and less florid language. At that time I was reading Ballard, Barth, and Barthleme, so Melville with all of his wordy digressions sounded like a bloviating old coot.

Maybe I've grown to appreciate bloviating old coots, or maybe my long-ago first attempt has softened the way a bit. The book is constantly surprising me. It's inventive and detailed, and Melville manages to describe the stark world of whalers in a paradoxically rich way. The cannibal Queequeg is a special delight, both in his satirically primitive oddness and in the gentle way that Melville treats him. Of all the "Christian" men, Queequeg is the most worthy...and also the funniest.
He put his hand upon the sleeper's rear, as though feeling if it was soft enough; and then, without more ado, sat quietly down there.

"Gracious! Queequeg, don't sit there," said I.

"Oh! perry dood seat," said Queequeg, "my country way; won't hurt him face."


Eric Little said...

I was wondering what your attitude would be towards Melville's style; I am very happy that it's proved to be no obstacle to your enjoyment of the novel.

I'd say more, but I don't want to appear to be condescending as well as bloviating (I'll save that for my comment on your Neil Young post).

Well, just one bloviation: maybe it's because that photograph of Melville where he looks like he's read to try out for ZZ Top makes him look old, but. as I have to keep reminding myself, he was only 32 when "Moby-Dick" was published.

Adam Thornton said...

The "ZZ Top" photo may have been adapted for the illustration of Melville in the book's flyleaf; he looks 90 years old with that beard!

Incredible that he was only 32...time to do some Melville research.

Anonymous said...

Life is too short to waste time reading James Joyce. :0
Except for the small fact that two authors that I have a LOT of respect for - namely George Orwell and Alfred Bester - have gone on record to praise him. :-)

Anonymous said...

I so share your surprise at my own delight in Moby Dick, which I started a couple of weeks ago, and have nearly finished. I feel you've nailed it with the "constant surprise" comment. There's a lot of dross, but oh, so much treasure, as well. I can't believe he wrote the danged thing in a year and a half.

You might enjoy some of my posts while reading this classic, especially this one and this one.

Hope you enjoy; feel free to comment if you do!

Nice blog!


Eric Little said...

jj--Orwell and Bester! All reet!

Muffy--Ballard? Ever read "The Cloud -Sculptors of Coral D," which I still think is the most evocative story title I've ever heard?

As far as Shem the Penman goes--I read "Ulysses" the way I'm rereading "V." now--slowly, and with Joyce, I used plenty of notes. But that's the way I had to read Dante--at least four different translations for their notes. After I worked through the allusions, then I would read the Joyce chapter on its own--for Dante, I would read the Italian aloud (usually sotta voce).

These comments do not apply to "Funnegans Wake."
(STET the typo.)

(These bloviations have been certified carbon-neutral.)

Adam Thornton said...

I will only attempt "Ulysses" again if I get my hand on an annotated version.

This "Ulysses" curse might be related to the fact that my copy (a used book) was the only thing I ever stole. It was in awful shape, was overpriced, and the guy at the used bookstore was a jerk.

Doesn't excuse theft, which is why I never did it again...

Adam Thornton said...

A wonderful blog, Harry...I'll need to keep up with it! And your posts about Moby Dick are dead-on; Melville seems almost to be parodying himself as the pathetic librarian of the opening pages, trying to catalog things that cannot be catalogued (as he confesses during his "Cetology" chapter).

What I'm enjoying most -- besides his keen insights into, well, everything -- are his playful interjections. During a piece of dry and detailed exposition he'll suddenly address a joke to the long-suffering reader...and it will be a FUNNY joke! It's like sitting with an occasionally tedious obsessive compulsive who suddenly stops and gives you a hug.

Adam Thornton said...

I HAVE read "The Cloud Sculptors of Coral-D," but it was WAY back when I thought Ballard was all "Crash" and "Atrocity Exhibition." I was completely disillusioned by his more straight-forward work.

Then, while digging around my parent's attic, I found an old box set of his first four novels...odd but otherwise straight-faced distaster stories. Stuff like "Cloud Sculptors" suddenly seemed downright experimental in comparison (not that it wasn't, of coruse).

Anonymous said...

To Harry: All reet! For

I am afraid we "lit" types have a huge vested interest in hijacking this blog away from Muffy's other friends. :-)

To all three of you:
I too have had my lapses of sanity when I have purchased a Naipaul or a Ulysses just because I know it is supposed to be hard work. :-)

But really, we are blessed enough to have many, many worthy avenues for that kind of masochism in the real world. What kind of twisted value system is it when we put a author up on a pedestal for being deliberately obscure? It is the AUTHOR who is supposed to slog hard and make it all look effortless. :-0

Adam Thornton said...

Hijack away!

I have my own theory about "difficult fiction." Besides the silly prestige of being part of an "elite readership," the real joy of a difficult book is that it forces you to DECODE.

In a regular book there is very little work involved: everything is either explicitly stated or implicitly understood. In a more difficult book you need pay attention in order to understand what's going on (so your experience is already enhanced), and -- more importantly -- you enter into a more intense relationship with the author-book-reader group. Your own interpretations don't just matter, they're ESSENTIAL. Melville doesn't tell you WHY he's just spent ten pages exploring the cultural ramifications of "whiteness." It's up to YOU to decide what it all means and why (if) it's important.

In the case of somebody like Pynchon (and arguably Burroughs et al) is that -- in my opinion -- traditional prose styles aren't sufficient to convey what they want to convey. So the words are more or less ENCODED. If you manage to decode it, you not only get the satisfaction of success and the feeling of epiphany, but you also "get" the author's ideas far better than you would if they'd been expressed in a simple way.

This gets more interesting when you acknowledge that all books are open to enough interpretation to make two opposing epiphanies possible...

Anonymous said...

Hmm, What you are saying makes a lot of sense but still, contrast all the epiphany that a miserable sod like Meville is capable of giving you against the insights that a true great ( can give you.
After that background info in the wiki, read the following. It might be very difficult reading, but once you grok this amazing essay - oh my!

Anonymous said...

I am of course way overstating the case. Of course it is fun to plough through Moby Dick. What sane man would not love a passage like this:

from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster- tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

Eric Little said...

And to think that "Moby-Dick" started out as a simple adventure yarn that would make Melville some money.

Part of the process of decoding, of course, entails "getting" what the author throws into the work. With Melville, it's the facts of whaling itself, which he is able to make fairly transparent: you don't need a diagram of The Pequod to enjoy the novel.

Joyce throws in almost everything. To approach decoding Joyce fully, you need some familiarity with Dublin and Irish politics at the beginning of the 20th century, which even Joyce had forgotten when he came to write "Ulysses." So when Nabokov teaches "Ulysses," he draws a map of Dublin, with Bloom's and Stephen's journeys traced out. Unfortunately, that's only a small part of the decoding that can go on. Is the decoding worth it, in the case of "Ulysses"?

Look at the decoding that can, but does not necessarily have to, go on while reading "The Lord of the Rings." Languages never seen before. Creatures unlike any others in other mythologies. A history made up of Three Ages. Do you need to know that when you first read it to enjoy it? No.

But then the decoding of the other works of literature alluded to in the book can occur. Can you enjoy "Moby-Dick" without having read Shakespeare? (Reading Hawthorne and Shakespeare lit the fuse that led to the explosion of "Moby-Dick.") Yes.

Can you enjoy Joyce without having read the Odyssey? Yes.

Can you enjoy "V." without having read Melville? Yes.
But it helps, enriches the reading. Why albino alligators? Why the step-by-excruciating-step description of a nose job? Is Benny Profane a portrait of Ahab as a Young Schlemiel? I think that when you think of "V." again, after having read Melville, it will be in a new way--just as rereading "V." now makes me recast my thoughts about Conrad ("Heart of Darkness," "Nostromo") and Durrell's "The Alexandria Quartet."

Strike through the mask!

"But sometimes I think there's naught beyond."