Thursday, September 03, 2009

Moby Dick

I often find classics disappointing and either wade through them dutifully or plain give up. I remember failing miserably to finish the Brothers Karamazov because I kept getting confused about who was who - those Russian patronyms and everyone having multiple names. Anyway after enjoying In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbright, about the sinking of the whaling ship Essex by a giant sperm whale, I decided to check out Moby Dick - which Melville based partly on the Essex incident. And what a treat it was. I suppose I had expected something portentous and doom-laden, with Ahab a tragic existential figure. Instead you find that a lot of the book takes the piss out of him as do his unfortunate crew. There's a droll tone to the whole escapade - even the tragic conclusion seems but a merry jape. And the language, despite the many archaicisms, zips along like the whaling boat attached to Moby Dick. There's a modern feel to the way the author refers to his creation. At one stage we're told to pay attention as this is the most important chapter in the book. On another occasion he tells us that we should believe his story because of the real-life precedents that he can recount - these include the Essex's misadventure. The book is very good on the characters on board (Starbuck and Stubb), the logistics of whaling, the hierarchies of dining, and there's even a prolonged meditation on crow's nests (the lookout kind). The opening section on land is a bit tedious but once you climb on board the Pequod it's plain sailing. Buy it. Try it. You'll really like it.