Friday 9 April 2010

Leviathan by Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare began his writing career as the biographer of Stephen Tennant and Noël Coward. More recently, his work has turned into something harder to categorise: amazing feats of history and imagination that take you to places within yourself - never mind the places he is actually describing - that you did not even know existed. Leviathan or, The Whale is one of these feats and it is as elusive a beast as the great, unknowable creature that is its inspiration.

Leviathan or, The Whale

Philip Hoare
Fourth Estate £18.99
Harper Collins/Fourth Estate £8.99

It begins as memoir, then moves deftly through biography, literary criticism, social history and, finally, nature writing, in a muscular freestyle so compelling and all-encompassing that it cast a spell on me that endured for days after I had done turning its beautifully illustrated pages. Hoare has long been acclaimed as a brilliantly unconventional writer; WG Sebald was among his most devoted fans. This is the book he was born to write, a classic of its kind.

If you are going to write a book that deals, in large part, with the literary monolith that is Moby-Dick, then you had better be sure to have a good first sentence; Melville's three little words - 'Call me Ishmael' - are so unsurpassably resonant they might have come from the Old Testament. Hoare knows this well - he cannot get the book out of his system ('Every time I read it, it is as if I am reading it for the first time') - and he has conjured a pretty good first sentence himself: 'Perhaps it is because I was nearly born under water.' Hoare grew up in Southampton. In the days before his birth, his parents visited Portsmouth's dockyard, where they were taken on a tour of a submarine. As she climbed into its belly, his mother began to feel labour pains.

The boy she gave birth to - at home - was terribly afraid of water, only learning to swim as an adult, at which point he became perversely bewitched by the universe of the sea and by its gargantuan inhabitants, whales - so benign and yet so monstrous (cetacea, the order that includes whales and dolphins comes from the Greek ketos, for sea monster). This unlikely obsession began to haunt him; once he had seen a whale - in a murky tank at Coney Island; in the sea off Provincetown, New England - his head, like Ishmael's, was suddenly full of insistent images: 'Two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale'. Leviathan, then, is an attempt to discover the reasons for this briny haunting.

But it is also an examination of humankind's tortuous relationship with the whale, for the creature that we have pursued and exploited almost to extinction inhabits our collective imagination like no other on this planet. As Ishmael has it: 'I know him not, and never will.' Ishmael, of course, knew a thing or two. How prescient he was. It was not until 1975, long after we had seen Earth from space, that a whale was first photographed under water; no wonder the creature exercised such a fierce hold over the minds of men. Hoare tells the story of Melville and how he came to write the greatest American novel (even if no one thought it so at the time), tracing his footsteps, and that of his narrator, to New Bedford, once the richest city in all America, from where both set sail on voyages that were to change their lives.

But this story has been told before. It is in other details that this book comes into its own. First, there are his descriptions of sperm whales, the most valuable, and thus the most hunted, of all the great whales: a sperm whale's brain weighs 19lb; its heart beats only 10 times a minute; it can live to 80 and beyond.

Then there's his analysis of the vast economy that these animal islands bankrolled: a world lit - literally - by sperm oil. Before kerosene, the primal darkness could be expunged only with whale oil. Man needed the whale to die, but he needed the species to live on, else darkness would fall. Finally, there is Hoare's account of the dangerous work of bringing barrels of this oil home. The passages in which he describes the 19th-century whale ships are marvellously exciting, yet full of pity: the tiny boats bobbing on the water; the terrible waiting ('An experienced whaler would know how long an animal would stay down by its size ... the longer they waited, the greater the monster they faced'); the moment of attack itself. Men would faint clean away, faced with a whale.

And afterwards, the horror as the catch was rendered, the ship's deck slippery with oil and blubber. So many facts and yet Hoare still finds time to dive headlong into myth. Is it possible for a whale to swallow a man and for that man to live? (Answer: perhaps, but his skin would be bleached hideously white by stomach juices and his mind unhinged by fear). And what of the giant squid and sea serpents, which so many whalers claimed to have seen locked in mortal combat with whales? These beasts are here, too, in all their gelatinous, sucker-covered glory.

Hoare, like Melville, sees the whale as a metaphor for the crazed extent - the disease - of man's ambition. He notes that, between starting his book and finishing it, one species of cetacean, the Yangtze River dolphin, has been declared extinct and that others are bound to follow. But while Moby-Dick, that devilish and devilishly difficult novel, could never have had a happy ending, Hoare's Leviathan has a beautiful, consolatory postscript. I hope I will not spoil it for you if I tell you that, off the coast of the Azores, where the water is two miles deep, our narrator swims with a sperm whale. 'Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant and yet not quite,' he writes. 'Recreated in her own dimension, in the dimension of the sea, I was taken into her otherness, my image in her head. As the whale turned past me, I saw her eye, grey, veiled, sentient; set in her side, the centre of her consciousness. Behind it lay only muscle, moving without effort. The moment lasted forever and for seconds.' Then she's gone, back into the black. He goes on: 'Only as the distance between us increased - as the silence of her descent became hypnotic - was her enormity revealed; something I had seen, and yet which I could not quite comprehend.'

It takes a special kind of writer to undo the work of 400 pages and admit that, in spite of all his researches, he is still no closer to knowing - really knowing - the creature with which he is so infatuated. But what poetry there is here and what a balm for the soul. What Ishmael found so terrifying - 'I know him not, and never will' - comes to us, people who know far too much, only as a relief. The spectre, thank God, swims on.

Philip Hoare's source notes for Leviathan:

The Hunt for Moby Dick:


  1. "In their way they saw many whales sporting in the ocean, and in wantonness fuzzing up the water through their pipes and vents, which nature has placed on their shoulders."

    Sir T. Herbert
    Voyages to Asia and Africa

  2. This is such a great book! Love it!