Thursday, November 11, 2010

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (a novel)

US 1851. Read in the Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library edition, 1988, with a foreword by Nathaniel Philbrick, 2001. Published in Penguin Books in 2001, and in a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition in 2009.

Revisited Herman Melville's great novel which I had read only once before, as a boy, in an abridged version in Finnish. The novel has been translated into Finnish four times, and the latest edition, translated by Antero Tiusanen in 2002, is reportedly superb, but it is out of print. I tried to find it in about a dozen second-hand book-stores. Nobody had it, and when I asked them to put my name on a waiting list they said it would be no use as any copy of the novel would be sold at once anyway, and there would soon be a waiting list of a hundred names. So I read this novel in English despite the difficulties of specialist and obsolete language.

I got the inspiration to re-read the novel from John Huston's Moby Dick (1956) which I revisited on dvd last summer. I like Huston's film because it manages to convey several dimensions of the novel: the mythical and religious dimension, the realistic and semi-documentary dimension and the sense of adventure. The great flaw of the film is the miscasting of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. He does not have the confidence in himself as Ahab, and neither do we. But John Huston and Orson Welles (who plays Father Mapple) were great Melvilleans.

There is a rare irresistible, magnificent drive in Melville's novel. It has been said that every great novel reinvents the form, and this is true of Moby-Dick, as well. It has no single predecessor, but Melville pays tribute to dozens of them. The greatest predecessors are works like The Bible (Jonah), Homer's epic poems (the odyssey format) and Shakespeare's tragic megalomaniacs (Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth). Melville amazes by incorporating the most diverse of materials including passages that are like articles for an encyclopedia, chapters that could belong to a dictionary, and quotation lists that would fit a bibliography. Although there is a consistent storyline in the form of the quest and the odyssey, the story is incessantly interrupted by dozens of digressions. Some of them are beautiful short stories with independent value. Melville even changes the mode to the format of the play with stage instructions. But he never loses the drive of his novel.

"Call me Ishmael" is one of the great opening lines in fiction. This is a Biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean tale, but the storyteller is a simple sailor who invites us to listen to his story on a first name basis. In languages like Finnish, French, and German, where there is a separation of the informal and the formal in the second person address (sinä/te/Te, tu/vous/Vous, du/ihr/Sie), the correct translation has to be the informal one. Checking the internet I find "appelez-moi Ismaël" and "nennt mich Ishmael", both correct, but I would slightly prefer "appelle-moi Ismaël" and "nenn mich Ishmael". The original English can be understood both ways, in the plural and in the singular, but I feel that Ishmael is addressing me in the singular.

Moby-Dick is full of puzzling ideas and inventions. The crew of the whaling ship Pequod is truly multi-cultural and multi-religious. Captain Ahab's men in his whaling boat are Persian Zoroastrians, and his personal harpooner is called Fedallah.

Read in 2010, with the current situation of the world climate change, the allegory is getting more urgent. We are Captain Ahab trying to catch the White Whale, but in the end it will be the White Whale who catches us.

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