Friday 31 July 2009

'Ah the world, oh the whale.'

Leviathan, Or The Whale
by Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare is one of those authors who, like Geoff Dyer, would provide a great subject for a sweepstake: What will their next book be about? Dyer may be more diverse and genre defying with his writing making him much harder to second guess, whilst Hoare is essentially a biographer, but even so his subjects have ranged from the brightest of the Bright Young Things, Stephen Tennant, to the military hospital on Spike Island, and the little known religious leader Mary Ann Girling in the New Forest of Victorian England. Now we have his all encompassing work on his life's obsession, the whale, a book already described as a future 'classic' by Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the judges for this years Samuel Johnson Prize which Hoare won in June. It's a sad indictment of something or other when you find it close to impossible to locate a copy of a book which just the day before has won one of the most prestigious literary awards. Retailers got their act together eventually and it was well worth the wait. Combining history, natural history, biography and literary criticism, Hoare has written a book worthy of the planet's largest inhabitant and one which has the stature to stand alongside its equally gargantuan counterpart in literature: Moby-Dick.

Hoare begins with a personal view, surprising one with the view that whilst whales have been a fascination of his for much of his life he himself has always been afraid of deep water. Unable to swim as a child it wasn't until his mid twenties that he finally taught himself in a chilly East End pool.

...I discovered that the water could bear up my body. I discovered what I had been missing: the buoyancy of myself. It was not a question of exercise: rather, it was the idea of going out of my depth, allowing someone else to take account for my physical presence in the world, being a part of it and apart from it at the same time. In a way, it was a conscious reinvention, a means of confronting my fears.

I too have a fear of deep water (well not even that deep really) after one of those moments when I saw something I wasn't expecting when I put my mask under the water (some kind of ray which in my ignorance I have always assumed was deadly) so I sympathise. Fear is an important theme I think when confronting the whale, one which permeates our thoughts about it and our reaction to it. Melville's novel itself is one which many, including myself, have found daunting or difficult to read, and Hoare thankfully is one of us too.

Like many people, I found the densely written chapters of Herman Melville's book difficult to read. I was defeated by its size and scale, by its ambition. It was as incomprehensible as the whale itself...After my first visit to New England, I looked at it again; just as I was ready to see whales, I was ready to read Moby-Dick.

You do have to be ready but once you are it is an extraordinary book, its characteristically compendious and erratic nature described by Hoare as 'like a nineteenth century search engine'. By examining the themes of that book along with the personal history of its author Hoare's own book acts as a kind of reader to run alongside the classic text, finding informed ways to illuminate its inception, development and impact. Throughout the book the scale is massive, the import huge, quotations from the bible resonate, the focus on Melville's friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne shines a light on even the dedication on the book's opening page.

That scale is due to the animal itself of course and firmly part of its fascination. Hoare takes the time to look at several species and in this generously illustrated book manages to cram in impressive amounts of natural history. It's filled with the kind of tidbits that you can't help but share with others: That impressive head filled with precious oil could for instance be the source of the whale's sonar ability allowing it not only to 'see' it's prey but almost to scan it, even detecting pregnancy for example, or there's the Christmas gift that JFK never received: a whale's tooth that Jackie had had engraved with the presidential seal, laid with his body in the coffin on the day before his funeral - 'the king of Camelot interred with a talisman of a heroic age'.

Here was an animal close to me as a living creature - one that shared my heart and lungs, my mammalian qualities - but which at the same time was possessed of a supernatural physicality. Whales are visible markers of the ocean life we cannot see...yet they are entirely mutable, dreamlike because they exist in another world, because they look like we feel as we float in our dreams.

That description of a whale could only have come from a man living in the modern age for through his examination of whaling and its history Hoare shows how perceptions of these giants have changed, the Sperm whale in particular has gone from being a fearful foe to a placid, gentle giant of the seas. 'The distance between these two notions is the distance between myth and reality, between legend and science, between human history and natural history.' There is still so much unknown about these creatures but our knowledge at its most advanced stage tells us that the potential lifespans for these giants could well be into double centuries and beyond, the important word there being potential given the reality of continued whaling under the guise of research, in spite of the threat of extinction. But there is no soapboxing or activism, just the relaying of facts imbued with a clear love and admiration for animals which we have only just begun to understand.

That word fascination keeps popping up again and again in my mind. Whether it's the evocative description of the approach to that 'cathedral of science', the Natural History Museum, a building which manages to thrill just as much as an adult as it ever did when a child, or the magical closing chapter when Hoare returns to a more personal perspective, conquering that childhood fear to share the water with those giants we have come to know so much more about, an emotional climax to a thrilling journey. I couldn't begin to do justice to such a definitive book in a short review but only hope that for anyone tempted to make that journey I may have pushed you a little closer to the water. The writing is skilfull, the knowledge impressive, but underneath all of that what makes it live is the heart beating within.


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