the observer Sat 01 August 2009
My copy of Moby-Dick is a treasured possession. It's not because of the special font, but rather the woodcuts spread through the text that, as I read, feel like postcards sent back from Ishmael as he goes about his agonising odyssey.
So Leviathan has a head start with me, what with its photographs, woodcuts and drawings illustrating Philip Hoare's meditative journey in search of the great beasts of our oceans, a copy of Herman Melville's novel in his pocket. Coming face to face with a whale off Massachusetts, Hoare's initial reaction was to cry: "Fuck!" Then he began to follow them, from an aquarium in Coney Island, to the sample rooms of London's Natural History Museum, to swimming in the two-mile-deep waters of the Atlantic.
It's a strange, mournful journey, conducted by this man who feared the whales. Indeed, Hoare's initial reaction on seeing a whale from a boat doesn't shift much when, later in the book, he dives in to swim with a sperm whale and ends up peeing himself.
Yet within these pages is so much information, from the size of sperm whale's brain (bigger than ours) to the size of a right whale's balls (far, far bigger than ours) to the myriad ways we have used the flesh, bone and blubber. At its heart, though, this is a prayer for the whales' survival. Hoare apologises for anthropomorphising the creatures, before provoking sadness at the damage we've wrecked. Whales, it turns out, are heroic at looking after one another, yet the tactic sperm whales use to protect themselves from orca, by creating a laager around their young, allowed ha rpoon men to kill them by the score.
WG Sebald praised one of Hoare's earlier books and I can see why the two writers might admire each other. It's all that traipsing about staring at the world with knowledgable, sad eyes, busily sticking pictures in a scrapbook and happily following intriguing diversions. I still feel the loss of Sebald and so I am delighted to discover Hoare. I hope he doesn't get swallowed. That he allowed me to see Moby-Dick anew feels like a blessing. This is a beautiful book.
the guardian Fri 24 July 2009
Philip Hoare has always been afraid of deep water, yet is obsessed with whales. From childhood memories of the huge skeletons on display in the Natural History museum to adult encounters swimming with them off the Azores, he is fascinated by their inimitable mix of mammalian qualities and "supernatural physicality". Looking "like we feel as we float in our dreams", they live an improbable existence, moving through a world we know nothing about. The fact that they also have bad breath, shit reddish water and collapse under their own weight, pathetically incapable of self-preservation when they are out of their own element, somehow seems only to add to their charm. Winner of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, Leviathan is a magnificent monster of a book, combining a huge wealth of whale lore, zoology, literature, history and personal account. Written with great elegance, enthusiasm and insight, it takes us on an enthralling voyage into the underwater world of the whale and to the heart of an obsession.
the guardian Fri 12 September 2008
A performing killer whale at Windsor Safari Park provided the young Philip Hoare with his first experience of whalekind, but it was a sad-eyed beluga whale in a tank at Coney Island ("a huge ghostly baby fixing me with its stare") that sparked a continuing fascination. This enjoyable trawl through the history, literature and lore of whales shows that Hoare's time has not been misspent. He seems more attuned than most of us to what motivates these "charismatic megafauna". Cetologists have yet to explain why whales leap out of the water, for instance, but I suspect Hoare's far-from-scientific explanation is closest to the truth: because it's fun.
Leviathan is in part the story of how Hoare, who was terrified of water as a boy, became a man at ease in the ocean: "The sea is always in my head," he says, "the means by which I orientate myself to the Earth." This respect for the sea ("the last true wilderness") informs his admiration for whales.
Ultimately, the ocean gives him what he is searching for, which he calls a sense of "surroundness", experienced most intensely while whale-watching. Whales are big. They make us feel small, and this, perhaps, is what Hoare wants, although it is hard to slough off the ego entirely. Swimming off the coast of the Azores, he is confronted by a sperm whale. A helpless speck beside her, he is aware of being "surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense". And then he adds: "I felt insignificant, and yet not quite."
Hoare's surroundness resembles the "oceanic" feeling that Freud acknowledged was present in others, but which he himself lacked: "a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded", an almost religious feeling; and indeed, Hoare suffers a little from what Nietzsche called the theological instinct. He cannot resist assigning "supernatural" properties to this enormous marine mammal. Whales can live for more than a century, and they are intelligent, but they don't need to be endowed with mystical powers to amaze us. For Hoare, however, whales represent a lost purity ("animals before the Fall, innocent of sin") and the surroundness he experiences has prelapsarian overtones: "It was as if humans had never happened, as if the ocean had reverted to another Eden." He envies the whale's grace in the water, its freedom ("perhaps they pity us for our enslavement to gravity"), which makes it seem the beneficiary of another kind of grace.
The late WG Sebald admired Hoare's uncategorisable prose and the two writers are often compared. Hoare sometimes adopts a slow Sebaldian succession of subordinate clauses, and his books, too, are peppered with black and white photographs, challenging the typesetter to squeeze the text in around them. Similarly, Hoare's prose slips between genres - is it memoir or travel writing or natural history? - and there is also the same sense of the author striving to join up the dots and uncover a pattern of some kind, although whereas in Sebald this proves ultimately elusive, Hoare finishes the design. Leviathan is, after all, exploring what Herman Melville called "the overwhelming idea of the great whale".
In any book about whales there's no getting away from Moby-Dick, and Hoare expertly unpacks the story of Melville's tormented life and of how intensely he researched his story of the white whale. I had no idea just how much Turner's paintings of whalers influenced Melville. The scenes of Melville in London are nicely done, as is Hoare's account of the strange, almost conspiratorial friendship between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, which helped to transform Moby-Dick "from a romance to a fearful, fated work".
Could one survive inside a whale, like Jonah or Pinocchio's father? The evidence is not reassuring. Hoare cites an account from 1893 of a sailor swallowed by a whale that was swiftly harpooned and slit open. "Gastric mucosa covered the victim like the slime of a giant snail," says Hoare, while the man's face, hands and legs had been "macerated and partly digested". All of which contradicts the notion of the whale's belly being a cosy, womblike space, the idea so central to Orwell's "Inside the Whale".
As well as being a showcase for descriptive prose of great beauty, Leviathan is full of fascinating facts. Hoare shows how the study of whales was crucial in the development of marine acoustics in the second world war; and how ambergris, the scent much prized by Chanel and other perfumers, is actually "whale shit", an incomplete digestion of squid beaks. How apt, too, that this pungent faeces is applied to the British monarch during coronations.
The age of whaling is over, but Japan, Norway and Iceland continue the practice (running rings round the International Whaling Commission). And if whales aren't infected by man-made chemicals or deafened by noise pollution, thousands are killed every year as "by-catch" of commercial fishing. Meanwhile, as the oceans warm, their food sources dwindle. These are tough times for whales, but Hoare brings to light an endangered world of cetacean savoir vivre that mocks our best efforts to be happy.