Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Philip Hoare — ‘Leviathan; or, The Whale’

Threatened sperm whales will stop feeding, swim to the surface, and gather to each other in a cluster. Assembled nose to nose around their calves, the form a tactical circle known as a ‘marguerite’, bodies radiating out like the petals of a flower. They present their powerful flukes to any interlopers, protecting their young in a cetacean laager. In an alternative version, they touch flukes, heads out and jaws at the ready. (p. 78)
This reminded me of the behaviour of musk oxen, as described in Barry Lopez’s fantastic book of nature writing, Arctic Dreams. Both animals form a defensive circle around their young, and both make themselves vulnerable to man by doing so. Leviathan contains far less nature writing than Arctic Dreams, as it is more of a cultural history, examining the way in which mankind used whales during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as industrial product (oil for lamps, baleen for corsets); and also the hold that whales and whaling have on the human imagination, primarily through Moby Dick. The variety of uses that whale product was put to grew over a century and a half until by the 1960s, it was everywhere:
Their bright shiny faces were washed with whale soap, and having tied their shoelaces of whale skin, they marched off to school, past gardens nurtured on whale fertilizer, to draw with whale crayons while Mum sewed their clothes on a machine lubricated with whale oil, and fed the family cat on whale meat. (p. 340)
This miscellany of uses is reflected in a rather miscellaneous structuring of the book. By and large, it is chronological, so the international whaling ban which took effect in 1987 comes near the end, and early chapters skip around between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. For roughly half the book’s length, I was wondering when the section about Herman Melville and Moby Dick was going to end: interesting though it was, it didn’t seem to be constrained by chapter boundaries, and this is, after all, not a book of literary criticism or biography, is it? But it is, some of the time. Which had a rather peculiar effect on this reader: while the book never lost my interest, I find it hard now to say what its cumulative effect was, or if it really had one. Appropriately for a book which repeatedly gasps at the scale of whales too big to be perceived (or, more gruesomely, weighed) in one go, it is hard to sum up. W. G. Sebald springs to mind, except, except...

Except that Philip Hoare is not the writer Sebald was. The first thing that struck me about his writing is that it can be imprecise. On page three, in a paragraph about school swimming lessons, we are told that ‘I never did learn to swim’; the following paragraph has: ‘It was only later, living alone in London in my mid-twenties, that I decided to teach myself to swim’. One of these things cannot be true. On page 418, Hoare swims ‘eye to eye, fin to fin, fluke to fluke’ with a whale ‘bigger than our boat’ (p. 417), and it’s a nice phrase, but sadly impossible, even if you allow the equivalence of pieces of swimming gear with parts of the whale’s anatomy. These examples are symptomatic of a certain low-level sloppiness in the book’s language that I found distracting. How can you trust writing which disproves itself? There were smaller stylistic problems, like the over-use of the word ‘cetacean’ when anthropomorphication was being committed. There was missing information: in a section about how captivity truncates the lifespan of orcas, their natural lifespan was never mentioned. But you can look it up on the internet (Wikipedia gives it as 50 years on average, up to a maximum on 80-90 years. Captive orcas live ‘usually less than 25 years’). Leviathan feels like a very internet-age book, in fact, with all the jumping around between subjects, and the copious, well chosen illustrations.

Talking about the section on orcas reminds me of a nugget of information about their name: that ‘killer whale’ is a mistranslation of their Latin name, which actually means ‘whale killer’. This is clue, perhaps, to the way Leviathan works. It is less an Arctic Dreams about whales, than an elongated QI about them. By the end you’ll have built up your store of whale facts, and they will pop up in your memory, triggered by other whale facts. And you’ll feel as though you know these great creatures just a little better.

SPOILER ALERT: It does also completely give away the ending of Moby Dick.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

C. S. Lewis – ‘The Magician’s Nephew’

Oh the stress, this week, for some reason. Which is fine occasionally, and it’s good to retreat into a comfort read every so often. To jump between pools into other worlds where no-one will ever find you. That in-between world of pools was about all I remembered of The Magician’s Nephew from reading it as a boy; that, and the cab-driver’s horse who accidentally ends up in Narnia, blessed with both speech and the power of flight. I remembered, too, that the horse, Strawberry, used his newly conferred gift of speech to grope backwards into the murky memory of his old London days. Here he considers his old master, a ‘thing’ very mysterious from his new vantage point:
‘I’ve a sort of idea I’ve seen a thing like this before. I’ve a feeling I’ve lived somewhere else – or was something else – before Aslan woke us all up a few minutes ago. It’s all very muddled. Like a dream. But there were things like these three in the dream.’
‘What?’ said the Cabby. ‘Not know me? Me what used to bring you a hot mash of an evening when you was out of sorts?’
I say ‘old London days’, but in fact, Strawberry’s London life ended only a few hours previously, and as he says himself, he was ‘woken up’ just a few minutes ago, when Aslan chose him as one of the animals to be given speech, as he went around creating Narnia. It hardly seems a fair aspersion to cast on all dumb animals, that they barely have consciousness or memory, but it’s a striking thought, nonetheless. The way in which Strawberry previously thought of the cabby must have been different, at least. Language turns him from a slave into an equal – at least, until Aslan makes the cabby into a king.

It’s not going to do, is it, to examine this too closely? You might think that there would be an egalitarian subtext to the elevation of a working horse to a Pegasus, but there isn’t, and The Magician’s Nephew is full of hierarchy. Only some of the animals in Aslan’s newly-created Narnia are given speech; the majority are left dumb. He instructs them to be magnanimous to their former contemporaries, so it is clear he is setting up an aristocracy even before he appoints a king and queen. And above the wordly hierarchy is the religious one, with Aslan as its god, and Jardis (later the White Witch) as its devil. There is a clever reversal of the Garden of Eden story, in which, instead of Eve being tempted by the snake to eat the apple, Digory has to fetch a silver apple from a very Eden-like orchard, without eating it, for the good of others. The apple which would be fatal to the soul of the self-seeker, is a power for good when used selflessly. So there’s that. But it’s all contained within a hierarchy of power and approval. In this new world, everything is instantly rigid, which seems a waste of all that magic.

There’s still fun to be had, though, if you can turn a blind eye to all of that (probably easier if you’ve read it before, and it didn’t occur to you). There’s a good bit where all the animals emerge upwards out of the earth, and the stags’ antlers look like trees. There’s a sweet jackdaw who is so terribly proud to be the subject of the first joke in Narnia (he thinks he’s made the first joke, until Aslan spoils it by pointing out that everyone’s laughing at him). Most of all there is Digory’s Uncle Andrew, the cowardly magician of the book’s title, who deserves all the ridicule he gets, which is plenty:
During the afternoon [the Bear] found a wild bees’ nest and instead of eating it himself (which he would very much like to have done) this worthy creature brought it back to Uncle Andrew. […] The bear lobbed the whole sticky mass over the top of the enclosure and unfortunately it hit Uncle Andrew slap in the face (not all the bees were dead). The Bear, who would not at all have minded being hit in the face by a honeycomb himself, could not understand why Uncle Andrew staggered back, slipped, and sat down. And it was sheer bad luck that he sat down on the pile of thistles. ‘And anyway,’ as the Warthog said, ‘quite a lot of honey has got into the creature’s mouth and that’s bound to have done it some good.’ They were really quite fond of their strange pet and hoped Aslan would allow them to keep it. The cleverer ones were quite sure by now that at least some of the noises which came out of his mouth had a meaning. They christened him Brandy because he made that noise so often.
Bees seem to be well down the social scale in Narnia, don’t they? And in the intuition that Uncle Andrew’s noises are intended to convey meaning, there is a tantalising egalitarian green shoot (maybe the animals who weren’t selected by Aslan make meaningful noises too). But I’m twisting the sense too much: this is a book in which a boy and a girl stumble upon the creation of a magical world, and escape from drabness, taking the reader (and a witch, unfortunately) with them.

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