Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

The Untouchable by John Banville

When a novel is all about a character being unmasked as a Russian agent, it seems like you’d be expecting a bit of a suspense thriller. Real cloak and dagger type of stuff. The Untouchable by John Banville isn’t quite like that. Elderly Victor Maskell has been unmasked as having spent much of his life as a Russian agent, demonized and even his knighthood stripped away though curiously not even arrested, but from there the book mostly takes the form of a slowly moving retrospective memoir.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Anita Shreve and 7th for Robert Wilson)

Victor Maskell is highly placed in English society as WWII approaches. He’s not exactly fabulously wealthy, but he is distantly related to the queen. He attends Cambridge and moves in the right circles. The sort of circles that with his Socialist ideals get him recruited by the Soviets:

I knew what was going on; I knew I was being recruited. It was exciting and alarming and slightly ludicrous, like being summoned from the sideline to play in the senior-school game. It was amusing. This world no longer carries the weight that it did for us. Amusement was not amusement, but a test of the authenticity of a thing, a verification of its worth. The most serious matters amused us. This was something the Felix Hartmanns never understood.

He also starts working for the English secret service. A double agent. Thrilling, right? Well, he’s an art historian.

Victor doesn’t jump out of windows or watch shop windows to see if he’s got a tail waiting to bump him off with prussic acid. He just hangs out in high circles and relays gossip. In his work for the British secret service, he sometimes passes along memos he comes across. There isn’t big adventure here, not the pulse-pounding sort at least:

“Do?” he said, putting on an arch, amused expression; his earlier, violent mood had subsided and he was his smooth self again. “You do not do anything, really.” He took a draught of beer and with relish licked the fringe of foam from his upper lip. His blue-black oiled hair was combed starkly back from his forehead, giving him the pert, suave look of a raptor. He had rubber galoshes on over his dancer’s dainty shoes. I twas said that he wore a hairnet in bed. “Your value for us is that you are at the heart of the English establishment—”

“I am?”

“—and from the information you and Boy Bannister and the others supply to us we shall be able to build a picture of the power bases of this country.” He loved these expositions, the setting out of aims and objectives, the homilies on strategy; every spy is part priest, part pedant.

No, Victor is old. He’s been disgraced…but he’s living quietly at home and remembering how it all came about. No locking him in a room and throwing away the room, just memories. How he was recruited, how he served, how he was betrayed, his homosexuality, his wife and children, all that. It’s a quiet book. For a spy novel, The Untouchable is very quiet.

The Untouchable wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s more remembrance, and much more slowly paced than I thought it would be….not much of a thriller at all. It’s well done, but the prose is fairly dense and the pacing is a little slow for my tastes. Really, it struck me more as a literary examination of a character’s life. The spy stuff was just details.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray subtitled his sprawling serial novel Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” (in the collected form, apparently as a serial it appeared with a different subtitle. I don’t know about that. Seems like there are two to me, but maybe Thackeray couldn’t regard them as such due to conventions at the time.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for John Banville and 1st for Thomas Mallon.)

After all, Vanity Fair mainly follows two women (though it is true that much is what happens to them as opposed to what they do, so maybe that’s where the no hero thing comes in), Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp, and the various friends and family that surround them. Having gone to school together, Amelia is a sweet twit who comes from a good and established family whereas Becky is a conniving orphan. Though Thackeray seems to be painting Amelia as good on the surface and Becky as bad, it really seems like he is really much more ambiguous on the pair.

But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia, there is no harm in saying, at the outset of our acquaintance, that she was a dear little creature; and a great mercy it is, both in life and in novels, which (and the latter especially) abound in villains of the most sombre sort, that we are to have for a constant companion so guileless and good-natured a person. As she is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her person; indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short than otherwise, and her cheeks a great deal too round and red for a heroine; but her face blushed with rosy health, and her lips with the freshest of smiles, and she had a pair of eyes which sparkled with the brightest and honestest good-humour, except indeed when they filled with tears, and that was a great deal too often; for the silly thing would cry over a dead canary-bird; or over a mouse, that the cat haply had seized upon; or over the end of a novel, were it ever so stupid; and as for saying an unkind word to her, were any persons hard-hearted enough to do so–why, so much the worse for them. Even Miss Pinkerton, that austere and godlike woman, ceased scolding her after the first time, and though she no more comprehended sensibility than she did Algebra, gave all masters and teachers particular orders to treat Miss Sedley with the utmost gentleness, as harsh treatment was injurious to her.


For it may be remarked in the course of this little conversation (which took place as the coach rolled along lazily by the river side) that though Miss Rebecca Sharp has twice had occasion to thank Heaven, it has been, in the first place, for ridding her of some person whom she hated, and secondly, for enabling her to bring her enemies to some sort of perplexity or confusion; neither of which are very amiable motives for religious gratitude, or such as would be put forward by persons of a kind and placable disposition. Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice. This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody; nor can it be expected that twenty-four young ladies should all be as amiable as the heroine of this work, Miss Sedley (whom we have selected for the very reason that she was the best-natured of all, otherwise what on earth was to have prevented us from putting up Miss Swartz, or Miss Crump, or Miss Hopkins, as heroine in her place!) it could not be expected that every one should be of the humble and gentle temper of Miss Amelia Sedley; should take every opportunity to vanquish Rebecca’s hard-heartedness and ill-humour; and, by a thousand kind words and offices, overcome, for once at least, her hostility to her kind.

I mean, he seems softhearted toward Amelia for her goodness, but seems to regard her as a useless ninny. At the same time, he seems to decry Becky for her ruthlessness, but he seems to understand that there was nothing else she could really do as an independent woman in that time and place in the world. Society as a whole he seems to regard as foolish.

There is certainly no complete clarity in what happens to the women, unlike other English novels of the time period. Their fortunes oscillate over time. One does good while the other suffers, and then they reverse. Really, neither do too bad.

Both get married, both against wishes of various families. The Napoleonic wars muddle things up a bit. Fortunes are made, fortunes are lost, all kind of what you expect in a sprawling serialized novel.

For a book of this kind, I actually found Vanity Fair a great deal more readable than I expected. I was delighted by how the morality was much more complex and hidden than in other contemporaries. I certainly can’t fault the scope or the quality of depiction. I heard there were come continuity problems since the immense book was done as a serial, but I didn’t notice any of that. I’m not completely wild for Vanity Fair, but it was well worth my time.