I read a brilliant biography of Melville a few months back by Andrew Delbanco, called Melville - His world and work The biography, as its title suggests, puts Melville’s writing within the context of his life and the society he was a part of. It really is a great read.
I’ve tried a few times over the years to read Moby Dick but never got much further than the first fifty or so pages. It was just so slow. But something in Delblanco’s portrayal of Melville led me back to my 1930 Everyman copy.
I always love to imagine how the first reader of every old book I have turned to the first page of their brand new book - whether it be my 1895 copy of Middlemarch, my 1937 copy of The Rights of Man or my 1930 copy of Moby Dick - and I wonder what sort of person they were. Sometimes they have inscribed their name on the inside cover - a tradition I find endlessly fascinating. Sometimes - as with my copy of Moby Dick book - the original owner will remain forever anonymous.
So, I turn to the first page, and begin. I follow Ishmael and Queequeg onto the Pequod, and sail with them into the wide blue yonder. I meet Starbuck, Flask and Stubbs, Tashtego, Daggoo, Pip and the rest of the crew. It soon turns out this is no ordinary voyage, As Ahab gathers us all on deck, we realise this is no ordinary whaling voyage. The captain informs us the sole purpose of the voyage is to kill Moby Dick - the white whale that chewed up Ahab’s leg. He asks if we are with him. And we are.
I supplement my reading with the brilliant Librivox audiobook of Moby Dick https://librivox.org/moby-dick-by-herman-melville/ and before I know it I am nearing the end of the journey. There are vast swathes of the book where nothing happens, page after page of Melville describing the biology of whales, how whales are depicted in art, the etymology of the whale, and a hundred other digressions. These are things that made me throw myself overboard on earlier attempts to read the book. But on this voyage, I persevere.
And I understand. I am no longer a reader. I am a part of the crew, experiencing the monotony of a whaling voyage. The vast swathes of the book where nothing happens is the timeless, measureless ocean. When one of the crew spies a whale I get that same adrenalin rush as the rest of my shipmates. At last, something is going to happen.
Metafiction at its very finest.
Moby Dick is a book the like of which I have never read in my life. I feel in one read, I have barely skimmed the surface (pardon the pun). There are depths (again, apologies) here I know nothing about, a darkness beneath these waves that will take a lifetime to penetrate. I plan to read the book every year until I do. I want to follow every reference and allusion, dive down every rabbit hole. And there are hundreds. It’s almost as if this is another level of the novel - a journey for the reader to set sail on.
One thing I want to talk about before I wrap this up . . .
Something I talk about when I teach creative writing is that thing where sometimes if you remove the first sentence or paragraph from the beginning and the end of your draft you get a better beginning or ending. Well, I think this might apply to Moby Dick. Not that I feel placed to edit Melville, but it is just a thought. My copy has 493 pages. Ten pages from the end, is the following:
So once more the sail was shortened, and everything passed nearly as on the previous night; only, the sound of hammers, and the hum of the grindstone was heard till nearly daylight, as the men toiled by lanterns in the complete and careful rigging of the spare boats and sharpening their fresh weapons for the morrow. Meantime, of the broken keel of Ahab’s wrecked craft the carpenter made him another leg; while still as on the night before, slouched Ahab stood fixed within his scuttle; his hid heliotrope glance anticipatingly gone backward on its dial; set due eastward for the earliest sun.
Now, in the ten pages that follow, comes the climax of the whole novel. And it is as great a climax to a novel as I have ever read. But, part of me would like Melville to have finished the book with the above, leaving Ahab sailing the ocean on his eternal hunt.
And I know, on my next read, that is probably where I will leave him.