Top positive review
Miles of sprawling prose breached suddenly and wondrously by arcs of glistening poetry.
Reviewed in Australia on 4 April 2021
“Poet, painter and philosopher” a reviewer once called Melville. His subject matter and writing style are welded together as firmly as the 12 intertwining steel rods that make up Ahab’s harpoon and the fate of Ahab and the whale itself. The epic process of trawling through until the final confrontation mirrored The Pequod’s journey to same.
As the end approached and I caught whiff, through one nostril, of the white whale’s proximity in the final pages, I deliberately slowed down my reading to more fully appreciate the journey, and because by now my reading eyes had synced with Melville’s Shakespearean rhythms, swirling poetry, dry wit, and grandiloquent turn of phrase, the final chapters were more joy than reward.
The wit - after the crew had hauled all the heavy oil barrels up on deck:
“top-heavy was the ship as a dinnerless student with all Aristotle in his head”.
“The (whale’s) milk is very sweet and rich; it has been tasted by man; it might do well with strawberries.”
“In the face of all the glad, hay-making suns, and softcymballing, round harvest-moons, we must needs give in to this: that the gods themselves are not for ever glad. The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers.”
The tormented Shakespearean soliloquizer:
“what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.”
“consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life”
And the haughty self-referential:
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”
Never was a book’s plot more secondary to its themes. It’s man versus everything; fate, circumstance, demons, ego, expectation, classism, religion, God, nature, empathy, understanding, brotherhood, the universe.
An unforgettable and hard-won experience.