‘Call me Ishmael…’
Perhaps the most famous opening line in literature. Well, most famous short one, anyway. And by the by, who put the hyphen into Moby-Dick? Herman Melville’s brother, apparently – and the title is, as far as I can see, the only time the hyphen appears. The rest of the time the great white whale is just plain ‘Moby Dick’. If you think this is a crushingly pedantic point, then you are not going to enjoy this book. Why? Because if Melville can digress then he surely will – the history of whaling, the categorisation of whales, interesting things to do with harpoons and so on. It takes some getting through, to be honest. After being swamped by a few of these extended passages, I skipped the rest because when he just sticks to the story it’s exciting. Even though Melville’s methods can be frustrating, you’ve got to admire his range: one chapter is entirely in play form. It’s all a bit off-Broadway, as though the characters (SICILIAN SAILOR, 1ST NANTUCKET SAILOR, OLD MANX SAILOR and so on) are going to burst into song. Actually, why not produce a song-and-dance version of the story?* And for all the longeurs, many scenes are just stunning: a man is lost overboard, rescued, but turned insane by the experience; in the midst of a whale hunt, a boatful of sailors admires female whales and their calves swimming serenely below the surface; frenzied sharks rip into the carcass of a whale which the ship is towing. The novel is a lengthy story of vengeance: Moby Dick has torn the leg off Captain Ahab, who as a result has turned into a full-blown mentalist, obsessed with tracking down, and killing, his mutilator. The crew of the Piquod just has to go along with it. They might have done better to mutiny.
*Ha! Someone already has: Moby Dick!† The Musical is described as ‘a mixture of high camp, music hall-style smut, and wild anachronism overflowing with double entendres’. With all that talk of whale sperm I can see there being quite a few titters. Melville’s work is clearly nothing if not malleable.
†Hmmm…no hyphen. Poor show. Memo to Cameron Mackintosh.