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.

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