Saturday, April 05, 2008

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (A Whale of a book)

Moby Dick by Melville is considered by many to be the greatest American novel ever written. To come up with such credentials is no meek achievement for a novel, that was floating in wilderness for first sixty years of its existence. The 1851 novel was at best ignored by readers and critics alike, till in the beginning of twentieth century, D. H. Lawrence declared it to be "An epic of the sea such as no man has equalled." Thereafter two critics, Carl Van Doren (1921) and F. O. Matthiessen (1941) managed to convince the generations that followed that Moby Dick was not only a great novel, but perhaps one of the greatest work of fiction ever written. My only intention to quote this history before I write my own review is to point out that this whale of a book comes with contexts and content that make it a remarkable study. If I were to judge the book with dead objectivity, I think I would have sided with the reception this book got in the first sixty years of existence. Now I am burdened by biases created by people in last hundred years. But in what follows, I will speak my mind, in spite of what impressionists, critics, symbolists and literary hoi polloi might have inferred due to an imposing reputation that this novel has begun to acquire.

Moby Dick is an encyclopedia on whaling. It is an almanac about how the products that can be extracted from the body of a whale. It is a tome that contains endless entries about ships, whaling, oil business and zoology of a whale. As an epic, which it is touted to be, it cannot light a candle to the epics of the ancients, say Homer or Ved Vyas. There is an obsessive Ahab, captain of the ship Pequod, whose only motive is to kill the white whale, Moby Dick. He sets out on the journey with a set of "barbarian" harpooners, and the book presents the imperialistic, (White Man's Burden) thoughts of the age, in an honest portrayal of the non-white races.

The ocean roars in the background, sharks chase dead whales, the hunting of whales is described without creating much adventure and then it is usually a notebook entry about this or that. The story in itself can be told in a few lines, but Melville choses to take us on an endless journey, where interlocking ships converse to fill in the interminable sailing time. For all the diversions and digressions into the plethora of facts and rumors Melville manages to supply us with, I would have liked him to put little more effort into those celebrated elements of novel as a form of fiction: plot, characters, story, climax and drama. The characters are "flat", i.e. they don't get altered by experiences. If I would wish to read a fable, I will always prefer the ones by Aesop or the ones by Vishnu Sharma (Panchtantra).

On the whole, Moby Dick is a readable book, for it does contain some remarkable passages. With some editing, it could have risen in my estimation, and fared better in the era before symbolists explained that what is presented is not as important, as what metaphors, what allusions, (what illusions) it can inspire. Since the book is sold as the battle between the whale and the Captain Ahab, I must add that the face-off between these occurs only in the last thirty pages of a six hundred and fifty-five page version I read. The build-up to the battle begins so far into the novel, that by then most people who read for readings sake, would have given up. The reader is as exhausted as maybe Melville was when he brought his epic struggle of writing this to an end.

Surprisingly, while I did find that I had marked at least hundred pages as worth revisiting (and that in my typical estimation makes it an awesome novel), I was more disappointed than not, after finishing the novel. Even in translation, the Russians and the French find favor from me and I feel transformed after reading them. I prefer and prescribe Lawrence, Maugham, Hemingway, Nabokov, Victor Hugo, Virgina Woolf, Dickens, Joyce, Marquez, Tolstoy, Tagore, Dostovesky, Prem Chand, Pamuk, Gogol, Austen, Forster, Rushdie, and many more over Melville. Be it for entertainment, word play, historical or mythical content or for sheer imagery, I will recommend at least few dozen novels that must enter your reading room before this Whale rams its way there.

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