Culture Nature

Moby Dick

I thought I ought to reread some of those Great Novels which are sitting on my shelves and I haven’t read for years. I’m not sure why I picked up Moby Dick in particular, but after a few pages I was thinking oh, man, I’d forgotten how funny this book is, and so brilliantly written. But after a couple of hundred pages I remembered why it has a reputation for being unreadable, or at least unfinishable.

whaling scene

The opening scenes, where he meets Queequeg, and goes to the whaling chapel, and joins the Pequod, and the crew are all introduced, are truly superb: grotesque and funny. But then after they get to sea, the book loses forward momentum. Partially because there’s not much plot going on, and it’s very episodic, but especially because of Melville’s (or, I suppose, Ishmael’s) long discourses on whales and whaling. Even those are interesting, and frequently well-written and entertaining. But there’s an awful lot of it, and it’s just rather pale and conventional compared to the weirdness of the narrative stuff. It’s as though Bram Stoker had decided that Dracula would be greatly improved by a few chapters about folk customs in Romania and the best techniques for garlic cultivation.

So the book is rather becalmed. But towards the end it picks up again and builds to a suitably grotesque crescendo when they finally track down Moby Dick.

In all seriousness, although I do think this is a great novel, I also think you could greatly improve it by judicious editing. You could cut it down to about the half and length and change it from a sprawling, discursive tome into something short, dark, strange and intense. Like Heart of Darkness with whales.

Since it’s out of copyright, I suppose I could do it myself. As a public service.


American Pastoral by Philip Roth

According to the blurb, this is Roth’s masterpiece. To which all I can say is… meh.

I don’t know. It’s a good book, a broad-sweep fat novel of the old school, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I don’t think Roth is much of a prose stylist, for a start. Perfectly competent, and sporadically rather better than that, but not one of the magicians.

And it’s just a bit… shouty. Perhaps that’s what the Guardian had in mind when they described it as ‘raging and elegiac’. He’s like the Bellman in the Hunting of the Snark: ‘what I tell you three times is true’. And he does say everything three times, hammering away at each point. Bang. Bang. Bang.

There may be a bit of trans-Atlantic disconnect going on here, but for whatever reason, this didn’t push my buttons.


Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

This is a Hungarian novel from 1937. I don’t really know much about it; I found it while I was sorting books into some new bookshelves. It’s the kind of thing I can imagine myself buying, but I don’t actually remember doing so. But it had lots of glowing blurbs on the back, including one from litblogging’s favourite Anglo-Hungarian (Hungaro-Briton?) so I thought I’d give it a go.

And I enjoyed it. It feels very much of its time. Not in a bad way; in fact there was a pleasant sense of recognition that ah, this is one of those European inter-war novels. Kazantzakis, Lawrence and Hesse spring to mind. The characters don’t actually spend that much of the book having earnest conversations about death and sex and love, but you feel they might start at any minute. It’s fundamentally serious and rather highly-strung: which is probably a fair reflection of Europe between the wars politically as well as artistically.

Which makes it sound like it might be rather hard work, but it’s not; it’s quite short, it moves along at a fair clip, and it’s full of striking imagery. While I wouldn’t necessarily want to be stuck on a desert island with any of the characters, they’re an engaging bunch. And while I say it’s fundamentally serious, it’s also quite funny.

Anyway, I’m not going to attempt to offer any kind of thoughtful analysis of it, but if you’re looking for something to read, you could do a lot worse.

» That photo, Night in a venetian alley, was posted on Flickr by Damiel and is used under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa licence. It is loosely relevant to the novel but I mainly posted it because the blog seems a bit short of pictures at the moment.


Making Money by Terry Pratchett

This was a welcome relief from my ongoing attempts to get Internet Explorer to behave itself. Making Money picks up the story of Moist von Lipwig, the former con man who took over Ankh-Morpork post office in Going Postal. In this one Vetinari offers him the chance to run the Mint.

Folded dollar bill

I said that one of the things I liked about Going Postal was that there weren’t too many genre jokes and clichés surrounding post offices for Pratchett to plunder, so it was more character and situation driven; the same is true here. This one isn’t perhaps quite as strong. Good though.

» Since I don’t have a lot to say about the book, I mainly posted this reviewette as an excuse to show that neat origamied dollar bill, which is taken from Eric Gjerde‘s Flickr account and used under a by-nc Creative Commons licence.

Culture Other

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I bought The Satanic Verses in irritation at all the fuckwits who were complaining about Rushdie getting a knighthood. Not surprisingly perhaps, having bought it as a gesture rather than because of an urgent desire to read it, it ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile. It didn’t help that it has a bit of a reputation as being unreadable.

section of ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ by William Blake

You know what, though? It’s actually a really good novel.

It’s full of inventive ideas and images, playful use of language, barbed social comment and, you know, good novelly things generally. It’s magical realism – two men mysteriously survive falling from an exploding plane, only to find themselves transforming, one into the image of the archangel Gabriel and the other into Satan – but the realism part of the equation is strong enough to keep the book grounded in the real world of London and Bombay.

I can understand why quite a few people found it hard to finish, though. It has that rambling quality that quite a lot of Serious Literary Novels have had ever since modernism: lots of characters, lots of narrative threads which are only loosely connected, long digressions which seem a bit irrelevant. I have to admit it’s not a quality I find particularly attractive. It seems like an excellent recipe for a book which is less than the sum of its parts. And a great way of reducing the book’s forward momentum; I don’t demand that everything I read is an un-put-downable page-turner, but I do like to feel it’s going somewhere. There were times, reading The Satanic Verses, when it felt a bit becalmed.

On balance, though, I enjoyed it.

detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel from the dome of St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

I suppose I can hardly review the most controversial novel since Lady Chatterley’s Lover without some comment on the controversy. Mohammed is a character in the book – or at least the Gabriel character has dream visions in which Mohammed appears – and he is presented as self-serving, opportunistic and not a real prophet. Which I can understand might irritate Muslims. But actually it wasn’t nearly as inflammatory as I thought it might be. Compared, for example, to the portrayal of Moses in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted On The Voyage, it’s really very gentle. It just portrays Mohammed as human.

picture credits: the first is a detail from William Blake’s ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ from Tate Britain; the second is a detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel in the dome of St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.


The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This is marvellous. I haven’t read any Marquez for a bit, and I’d forgotten just how good he is. It describes the decline and death of the dictator of an invented Caribbean country, with each chapter as one long, run-on sentence. It’s beautifully written, dark and absurd and I guess you would call it surreal, although if you’ve ever read much about the courts of real dictators, the incidents start seeming less far-fetched.

For example, at one point he discovers that all the modern buildings he’s seen from his presidential limo are just facades, put up to fool him into thinking that progress is being made. Well, when Mao was travelling through an area, people used to plant the rice paddies near the train tracks at super-high densities so it would look like his great plans for improving rice production were working. The rice duly died, of course.

The whole atmosphere of the court—paranoid, corrupt, hedonistic, violent, capricious, self-deceptive—and the relationship between the dictator and those trying to anticipate his wishes seems convincing to me. It would be a pity if the surreal touches led people to think the book is unrecognisably exaggerated from reality.