Day 1046: The Whale: A Love Story

Cover for The WhaleIt seems as if I’ve read several novels lately where Herman Melville is a character or Moby Dick a theme. Such is the case with The Whale, a story about the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The novel begins with a literary outing. Melville is invited along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and others by Melville’s editor while Melville is vacationing in the Berkshires. The reclusive writer Hawthorne is also of the party, and Melville falls in love with him at first sight.

Melville is also dealing with Moby Dick. He is supposed to be nearly finished with it, but he is unsatisfied with the ending. His philosophical and literary discussions with Hawthorne inspire him to massive rewrites. In a way, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale represents Melville’s pursuit of a meaningful relationship with Hawthorne.

For, there is a mutual spark, but as a friend, Jeannie Field, tells Melville, Hawthorne is a Puritan. While Melville tries to get Hawthorne not to deny his true feelings, Hawthorne is determined to avoid an entanglement. Yet, he gives Melville a certain amount of encouragement.

Although I enjoyed this novel very much, I felt it was a little too modern in this regard. I couldn’t imagine a man in the mid-19th century trying to convince another man not to deny these feelings and being so obvious as Melville was at times. At this time and place, Melville would have been trying to hide it. I also have no idea what basis in reality this story has, although the author cites affectionate letters between the two. I was not sure whether Beauregard was aware that at this time men expressed themselves more affectionately than they do now. It’s fiction, though, which does not require any basis in reality.

Still, with language sometimes echoing that of Moby Dick, with really exceptional dialogue, with a fully realized Melville in all his self-absorption, this novel was really a treat to read.

Related Posts

Moby Dick or, The Whale

The Night Inspector

The Art of Fielding

 

Day 655: The Night Inspector

Cover for The Night InspectorWilliam Bartholomew is a survivor of the American Civil War, but in many ways he is also a casualty. His face was destroyed, so he wears a mask, but he also bears less discernible scars from his work as a sniper for the Union army.

Bartholomew is working as a commodities trader when he meets the writer Herman Melville. He has read and admired Moby Dick, but the novel was mostly met with mockery by the critics and ignored by the public. Unable to take care of his family with his earnings as a writer, Melville takes a job as a deputy customs inspector.

Bartholomew has a relationship with a Creole prostitute that he considers deeper than the usual one of client. She asks for his help in a venture that seems laudable but is illegal. To pull it off, he must involve Melville.

At first, I wasn’t sure where this novel was going. It is dark and sometimes disturbing, and I even thought it might become a mystery. It does not, but it fully captures the consciousness of a man who is tough but has had to fight to keep from being shattered by circumstances, his own actions, and his conscience.

It is also a vehicle for depicting Melville. There, I was not so sure it was going to be successful in making Melville interesting until the denouement of the novel.

Related Posts

Moby Dick

Ahab’s Wife, or The Star-Gazer

The Invention of Wings

Day 272: Moby Dick or, The Whale

Cover for Moby DickThose who know me well will be surprised to see me reviewing this book, because one of my stories is of my horror, when first trying to read it, to find an entire chapter about one rope. At that point, Moby Dick became the first book I ever stopped reading. However, I got interested in trying it again by listening to the Moby Dick Big Read. I listened to the beginning chapters and finally picked up a copy to finish it.

The plot, of course, is about the sailor Ishmael, who decides to go whaling for the first time, the people he meets, and his experiences–and about the obsession of his captain, Ahab, to kill the whale that took his leg.

Moby Dick is not for everyone. The novel is not simply an adventure tale about whaling but also a dissertation on whaling history, a series of philosophical essays, an explication on types of whales, on the different parts of a whale, on pieces of whaling equipment (hence, the chapter on the rope), even a musing on the color white.

The novel also has a sort of schizophrenic narration, starting out as first-person limited from the point of view of Ishmael, but then at other times taking the point of view of Ahab. The writing style rips back and forth from simple story telling to a kind of heightened, bombastic oratory. Characters do not so much speak as give speeches.

The novel is immense, but it is meant to be immense–the way Melville saw America and its possibilities. I have over the years read different interpretations of this work (the whale as a symbol of evil, etc.), but one that strikes a chord with me is that it is a reflection on some of the American political ideas of the time, particularly Manifest Destiny. While seeming to admire the grandiosity of such ideas, Melville is, with one whaling story, also warning of their possible effects and ramifications.

I can see why some academics have devoted their careers to this work, because it can be endlessly examined and interpreted. I finished reading it this time, but I can frankly admit that it is still a bit too much for me and is probably better suited for someone who is more contemplative in his or her reading.

Day 159: The Art of Fielding

Cover for The Art of FieldingI’m not a sports fan, and I don’t really understand why some people view baseball skills as art. This next statement may be heresy to some people, but I also did not enjoy reading Moby Dick. What do these two things have in common? The Art of Fielding, a contemporary literary novel by Chad Harbach. The book would seem to not be a good fit for me. Nevertheless, I was curious about where the plot was leading. I found the book very readable, littered with Melville references though it may be.

The Art of Fielding follows the course of a few important characters. Henry Skrimshander just wants to play baseball but has no particular ambitions until he is spotted in a game by Mike Schwartz, the team captain for the Harpooners baseball team from Westish College in Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Mike recruits him and devotes himself to training Henry to be a great shortstop, to the neglect of his own academic career. Soon, Henry is on the way to breaking a record for no errors held by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, the author of The Art of Fielding, a zenlike opus on baseball that Henry has carefully studied.

Henry’s college roommate is Owen Dunne, a brilliant student and baseball player who is also gay. He becomes involved in an affair that will have far-reaching consequences.

The college president Guert Affenlight is happy because his daughter Pella has left her husband and returned home. Affenlight is a Melville scholar, and Westish College adopted a Herman Melville motif at his suggestion because Melville made a lecture stop at the college long ago.

Pella, a difficult and rebellious woman, abandoned a promising college career to drop out of the last few months of high school and run off with an architect she met at a lecture. Guert and Pella have been estranged ever since. Both of them want to make amends but are not quite sure how.

Everything seems to be working out for everyone until Henry makes his first error in years, a disastrous throw. The characters are forced to reassess their own views of their lives.

Harbach is a careful writer who occasionally uses brilliant imagery. At heart, though, the novel is rather slight and shallow. It was 2011’s Big Book and critics raved about it, but those giving it a second look seem to be a little more critical. I enjoyed The Art of Fielding, but my enjoyment was mild.