Signed up for the Nantucket Sleigh-ride

The Leviathan

Verdict first: yes, I shall read Moby Dick. Based on the first 53 pages I’m happy to be press-ganged by Herman Melville into joining his narrator on his maritime peregrinations in pursuit of the Leviathan. Having taken against the diversionary second chapter in The Master and Margarita, I could be accused of inconsistency for loving the first 20 pages of this book that were extracts from other writings about whales. I revelled in them though because, far from being diversionary, they established from the beginning the mystique and terrible might of Ishmael’s chosen adversary on the High Seas.

I have chosen the word ‘chosen’ carefully, for Ishmael tells us early on that he is over qualified to be a sailor before the yardarm. He chooses to go to sea. We join him as he sets out for Nantucket Island,* where the whalers are, breaking his journey with an overnight stop in New Bedford.

Melville’s writing here is spellbinding as he describes Ishmael’s first evening when he is searching for cheap lodging. I loved the casually inserted aphorism that ‘A purse is but a rag unless you have something in it’. This leads into riff on money: ‘… considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven, Ah! How cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition’*.

Ishmael secures a shared bed for the night in The Spouter Inn, and in a scene written alternately with humour and terror he introduces the perturbing figure of Queequeg the harpooner, whose tomahawk lay in the bed ‘as if it were a hatchet-faced baby.’

Next morning, after watching Queequeg wash and shake himself ‘all over like a Newfoundland dog fresh from the water’ Ishmael walks through the town in the ‘murky light of that darkened doleful day’ and visits a church. Melville reproduces on the page examples of the marble tablets that commemorate whalers lost at sea*.  Thus, we are persuaded by the powerful ebb tide of Melville’s prose to drop everything and follow Ishmael on his perilous adventure*.

  1. Surely “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most well-known first sentences in literature. It is also an instructive lesson in the use of the vocative comma. “Call me, Ishmael” would have started a completely different book.
  2. Coincidence 1: I have recently finished reading the draft of a non-fiction book for a friend. It’s an ambitious project structured around his return journey from Kidderminster to Kazakhstan as a truck driver. Chris graduated from university with a first-class degree in French. Despite his over-qualification he followed his childhood dream to be an international truck driver.
  3. Ishmael is already well-travelled when we meet him. Melville reinforces this economically when Ishmael describes June 21st as, ‘The longest day of the year in our hemisphere.’ I can’t think of many better examples of the creative writing teacher’s exhortation to “show, don’t tell”.
  4. Coincidence 2: Chris’s book concludes with a proposition that humankind’s survival will only be possible in a money-free society.
  5. Coincidence 3: Another writer friend, Bruce, is currently working on a project inspired by a marble tablet on the wall of a church. Something eerie is happening here.
  6. I was asked in a quiz recently, “In which occupation was a Nantucket Sleigh-ride a danger of the work.” It happens when, having harpooned your whale from a flimsy boat, you are towed behind it at unimaginable speeds until its injuries cause it to tire. One of the marble tablets depicted on page 52 of my copy of Moby Dick is dedicated to, ‘One of the boats’ crews of The Ship Eliza who were towed out of sight by a whale, on the off-shore ground in the Pacific, December 31st, 1839.’

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Robert Ronsson

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02 2019

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