Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Leviathan or, The Whale" - Philip Hoare

“Leviathan” is a whale of a book. Ah. Obvious I know, but it is four hundred something pages long. Impossible not to think Philip Hoare was going for some sort of “whose is longest” contest with the mythical whale book “Moby-Dick”. Unfortunately, length does not equal reading pleasure and Leviathan proved to be a somewhat frustrating experience.

Whales might be the closest thing to aliens living right here on Earth. Their sheer size makes them incomprehensible. Their longevity doesn’t much help either. Their mysterious communications skills hint at a complex mind, wholly foreign to our terrestrial understanding. Not only do they move through a fantastic realm of deep waters but they also cover amazing distances, yet they surface, to breathe through lungs and share our mammalian heritage.

“Leviathan” started on a promising note of personal narrative. However it soon lost me in subsequent chapters. Halfway through I was close to giving up on the book, but decided to read the last two chapters where the author goes to the Portuguese islands of the Azores to track its whaling history and provide closure to his fear of deep waters by swimming with whales. I was hooked again. This is what it’s about. This was what the book should have been about all along: the fear and fascination these giants elicit.

I went back and found the second half of the book much more pleasant, now focused in British whaling history, Antarctic exploration, the shift from the economical to the scientific exploration of whales, the first efforts to protect them and the politic and economic factors that combined to hinder it.

So, what was it about the first half of the book that made me dislike it? In two words: Herman Melville. It felt like Hoare was paralysed by the spectrum of “Moby-Dick” and its author, constantly compelled to refer back to it and dwelling altogether too much in Melville’s biography. As the author himself explains, “Moby Dick” might be about a whale but it’s about a lot of other things – chiefly about writing a great masterpiece capable of paying homage to the pessimistic worldview of Nathaniel Hawthorne with whom Melville became supremely infatuated.

Plainly put, to start a contemporary book on whales taking Melville as a guide felt unoriginal. The chapters where the author tours ancient whaling ports of New England felt dead on the water, and taking into mind that later in the book Hoare goes back to the history of whaling at a much earlier date (in Europe) it felt like the chronology was wrong. Why start in the middle?

The other problem I had with “Leviathan” is that there is too much of it. Look, you know that scene in “Wonderboys” where the Katie Holmes’s character has just read Professor Tripp’s mammoth of a book and says “I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all.” Not that I’m saying Philip Hoare wrote this “under the influence” but I could hear the book crying for an iron-fisted editor. There are so many little pieces of information and little conducting line to guide the reader along – it’s more like fighting against drowning at times. For instance, Percy Stammwitz, a character deserving of his own biography, appears in chapter III, as the author makes an historical detour of a few pages through the building of the huge whale model in London’s Natural History Museum. How I’m I supposed to remember him two hundred pages and some hundreds of different historical episodes, characters and facts later, as the author picks up his story again, now to follow his travels as he collected specimens worldwide for the museum?

There is an large interlude about Henry David Thoreau, in which his interest in whales is chronicled, the point of which is a connection between the beach he once walked and whale fossils discovered in the same place, seemingly an introduction to the palaeontology of whales, but actually not, because the author only spends a few paragraphs on the subject before going on to the next thing: myths of sea serpents. Do you get the picture? Ok, if you look hard enough there are references to whales everywhere (but you don’t need to cram every single one in the book, dude). We get it; but to say “Walden” is “a corollary to Moby-Dick” stinks of trying too hard to prove a point.

It almost feels as though there are several books here, all jumbled up. One about the history of commercial whaling, another about the whale as object of scientific study and later, conservation icon and a final one about the natural history of the animal, strictly speaking (which is definitely the shorter part). Now, all of these might be combined of course, but in Leviathan somehow it didn’t really come together. And to top it all, there is the personal narrative of the author, which starts the book in such an auspicious note but, somewhat like a whale, surfaces seldom and then erupts, unexpectedly into a two page detailed account of the author’s mother’s death. I felt embarrassed to, without warning, be plunged into a deeply intimate moment. I can’t imagine why Hoare felt it belonged in these pages.

To be fair, from chapter IX onwards I did feel a renewed cohesion in the book (but maybe influenced by the fact that I had read the final chapters first). In the end there was a lot of interesting bits of information but the reading of “Leviathan” was more of a trial than anything else. I wouldn’t say she blows (get it? hilarious) but either you’re completely nuts about whaling or you should probably sit this one out.


Eva said...

I expected to love this one (I loved Moby Dick when I read it last year and usually I enjoy the Samuel Johnson Prize winners), and then I just didn't. I'd seen only positive things about it before, so I'm actually a bit relieved to see a less-than-glowing review. I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't connect with it!

bookworm (inês) said...

I haven't read actually read Moby-Dick - although I must have started the thing about 20 times by now - but yes, I found it odd how much everyone seems to love this book...

Jeane said...

O dear. A lot of those tidbits you share sound interesting, but the book as a whole sounds awfully tedious.