Friday, 29 March 2013

Three things Moby Dick will teach you about life

Moby Dick is a must read. But it doesn’t belong on a top-shelf of stuffy classics coated in dust. It lives, and breathes, and everyone needs to read this book. 

‘Call me Ishmael’, the book begins, and from there it’s a headlong descent into an obsession-fuelled madness. And, because the levels of meaning run deeper than a whale’s dive, it will challenge your mind and take you places - weird, strange places - that you otherwise wouldn’t go. And that doesn’t just mean a whale-ship off the Cape Horn; it’ll take you on a journey down into your own mind too.

If you want to see everything, do everything -  and who wouldn’t -  reading Moby Dick shouldn’t just be on your bucket list, it should be on tomorrow’s to-do.

Here’s the top three things that Moby Dick will teach you.

1) Walk the line

There’s a fine balance between being passionate and obsessed. Reading Moby Dick will teach you exactly what it takes to find that balance.

You cannot necessarily trust the people around you to tell you when you’ve crossed the line into obsession. The captain, Abraham, manages to convince the crew to go on his crazy whale hunt. He is convincing and evangelical and unwilling to listen to reason. 

Every achievement requires some kind of single-minded focus. And being blinkered to criticism can be necessary for success. However, if you are obsessed with something - especially if it’s the wrong thing - it is unlikely that you will be able to accept good feedback. And that means people won’t want to give you it. 

It’s a tough balancing act. If you are put off by every negative comment, you won’t be able to do anything significant. But if you don’t listen to criticism, you might spend years doing the wrong thing, wasting your resources.

Moby Dick shows us how to find that midpoint. Listen to specific people you trust. But most importantly, be the judge of your own actions. The best way to tell if you are obsessed with the wrong thing is seeing its effect in the world. Do you have to say or do crazy things to justify your beliefs. Are you circumventing the globe chasing your very own white whale?

2) Meet your shadow

Abraham, the captain, becomes obsessed with killing a white-whale that ‘reaped’ his leg. This famous obsession is infinitely interpretable. The ferocious, unbending anger that Abe feels towards the Sperm-Whale, ultimately, is symbolic of the anger that is inside us all. Abraham’s fury, pointless and driven, has lived in all of us at some point: with a boss, parent, friend, or partner. We’ve all felt that flash of white rage when you just want to put your fists up and fight. 

Moby Dick forces you to confront your inner demons - and experience the futility of them. By letting you live, vividly, the nightmarish, logical conclusion of this blinding anger, it will let you see - feel - how utterly foolish it is. It shows you that you’ll end up bent on ripping up the world with hate, chasing around the world something that only exists inside your mind.

3) Do your dues

Decks need scrubbing, food needs making and whales need catching. In the life of an adult there is a certain amount of life-admin that just needs to be done. You’ll always need to wash up and polish your shoes. Work needs to get done.

Moby Dick teaches you that however tumultuous life is, there is nobility in keeping your life in order. A ships deck gets dirty constantly, it always needs cleaning. How much easier to let it stay dirty. But being able to create a home is one thing that separates us from animals. And a well-run ship is the one thing that keeps the tempestuous ocean at bay.

Moby Dick is a foundational piece of literature, and reading it is an experience to be treasured. Like all great novels, when you’ve made the journey and look back - you'll be able to enjoy more than just the view. It will change you too.


Moby Dick is available on Amazon - only two pounds!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Madame Bovary

Madam Bovary is a novel that tells the most well-trodden of stories. A bored housewife, Emma, cheats on her boring husband Charles, an average provincial doctor. And yet this book is something very special. 

Delving a bit further into the plot doesn’t show us why though. Emma marries Charles, but soon realises she can’t love him. She despairs and becomes increasingly difficult and capricious. Struggling to deal with the paucity of love in her marriage, and her burgeoning passion and emotion, she gets swept off her feet by a passing rake. Emma’s heart opens and the world rushes in, but her life soon begins to untangle.


The plot isn’t what makes this book. It’s all the other stuff. Flaubert’s writing is, at its best, wonderous. Tens of pages go by with nothing but description of Emma’s emotional state. It feels real, immediate and alive. Her hopes and dreams, and passions are written of in the same way, and with same artistry, as the provincial world they live in. I especially enjoyed the description of Emma living vicariously through mediocre books.

‘You head is empty, he continued, the hours slip away. From your chair you wander through the countries of your mind, and your thoughts, threading themselves into the fiction play about with the details or rush along the track of the plot. You melt into the characters, it seems as if your own heart is beating under their skin’

The writing seemed to me very like a film. There are defined sets-pieces - in the opera, at a funeral, in the pub. And these sets are described vividly, with the characters moving through these scenes much as they would in a film. There’s other cinematic elements too. Often scenes take place with contrasting visual motifs - a philosophical conversation next to a dead body for example. And much as it is cinematic to continually reference certain visual patterns, Flaubert returns again and again to certain key descriptions, like Emma’s boots.

Looking deeper

I like some of the critical interpretations too. Many see Madam Bovary as an exploration of 19th Century gender identify. I can understand that - Emma refuses to exist in the cage of ‘doting housewife’, and she seeks to free herself and explore her passions and pleasures. And by doing that she takes on some masculine traits, to the extent that, with her last lover, she acts as the man, and he the women. 

I can see how Madam Bovary explore class relationships as well. In a way Emma is the prototypical bourgeois, shopping, getting into debt, always wanting more, more, more. The writing is noticeably non-judgemental, but the facts of Emma’s personality engender the same revulsion that I understand Flaubert felt for that ‘Parisian’ way of living. Emma is unable to enjoy simple things, and notably only disdains the beauty of the countryside around her.

My thoughts

I found this book easy to read. The joy of the writing is such that your eyes feel like they are bouncing over the words, everything flows so. It’s an easy book to read fast. In fact, I think it’s a good book to read faster than you normally would, even to the extent that you’re not comprehending every single word. Doing this for me, built up these descriptive scenes into incredibly vivid mosaic worlds in my minds eye.

For me, the description of Emma’s inner world was my favourite part. I didn’t find though, despite a touching plot, that it tugged on my heart strings. Emma is quite dislikeable - she’s capricious, selfish, insatiable and doesn’t seem to care for her child. I found it difficult to really care what happened to her. So I read the book critically, not caught up in the rush of Emma’s passions, but observing it all like a beautiful flower. 

‘never touch your idols; the gilding will stick to your fingers’.


Reading Bovary made me feel optimistic about life. For Emma, passion covers her life like a lacquer. Without it, life is flat, dull and depressing. With it, life is open to almost infinite meaning and pleasure. I took that, perhaps wrongly, as endorsing a kind of ‘make your own meaning’ existentialism. 

Perhaps the emotional varnish isn’t just there in life. Maybe you have to make it and work at stoking your emotional fire. You don’t have, like Emma to find it in adulterous liaisons; it can be anywhere. The joy is, learning to be creative with your emotions - learning to get more out life by feeling great things - isn’t just play acting. If you feel it, it’s real.

Which translation?

I picked my translation quite carefully - and was influenced by Julian Barnes review in the London Review of Books. I went for the translation by Wall. Lydia Davis's translation has been whipping up quite a storm, but I purposefully didn’t go for it. I like to read translations that are most faithful to the original even if that makes the text sound a bit jerky or old-fashioned. I tend not to notice that, but actually Wall’s translation was neither, and I thought it superb. There were a fair French words left in, and words that I didn’t know, but I like that too.

It’s petty, but something else prejudiced me against the Davis's translation. In the bookshop I could only find it in Penguin ‘deluxe’ edition which I hate. For some reason they irregularly cut the pages (perhaps to seem old fashioned). I think it’s ridiculous. Firstly, I can see the pattern in the rough cut pages, so it looks cheap and imitative like the handwriting font on a computer. Secondly, I think it takes a lot of the beauty out of book. I love new books! Why would I want them to look old when I buy them. They’ll look tatty enough when I’ve finished reading.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)

I read this little book in an hour and a half. I like short books, they have such a high joy to time-investment ratio.

The book's title is a quote from one of Burns' most famous poems, To a Mouse, (also where we get saying ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry’ - nicely sent by Eddie Izzard). The tale is of a gentle, but mentally-challenged, giant not clever enough to control his own strength. It’s a good little story, and I found it an easy read.

The book is also certainly very evocative, and Steinbeck’s description of the dusty California countryside of ranches and barley buckers made me feel like I was half there.

And I liked the themes too. These characters stuck in dead-end lives - more so than almost anyone in the Western World these days - manage to make their lives bearable by powerful escapism and dreams. It is also telling how meagre their dreams were back then (during the Great Depression) - simply to own a small piece of land and work on it themselves!

I have to say though, all in all, I couldn’t quite see why this novella is so revered. The story, whilst interesting, didn’t take on quite the archetypal feel of many other short novellas I’ve read (to me). By this, I mean I didn’t find the narrative structure had the ‘eternal echo’ - that the best stories do - into the constant, recurring patterns of our lives. Nor did I see many psychological undertones (as in, say, Heart of Darkness), nor much symbolic richness. Perhaps I just missed it all, but, in the end, I just didn’t find it very thought-provoking.

The language in the book - almost all dialogue - is very natural, and the characters, Lennie and George, for such a short book are very real. And I agree with the blurb on the back of the book that I read that Of Mice and Men is ‘stamped with the mark of permanence’. It’s just a short tale, told without flaws.

I think everyone probably should read this book, but that’s partly because it takes so little time to read!


Of Mice and Men is available on Amazon

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Moby Dick is a classic in the same way as a Rolls Royce. Everyone knows what it’s about. But few people these days have been in it and enjoyed the ride. And that’s a shame. Everyone knows that Moby Dick is about a white whale and a ship’s captain - Ahab - who is obsessed with killing it to wreak his terrible revenge. But as soon as you delve inside, it becomes clear that it’s about a whole lot more.

‘They might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory’. 

As so, Herman Melville warns his readers off considering his whale as an analogy. But he must have been playing for laughs. Almost every sentence, every chapter and the theme of the whole book is big scaffold of analogous meaning. Each page folds like Russian dolls into a wider web of meaning. It’s like... I’d say peeling an onion, but I don’t need to. Melville gave us a better metaphor to use; his chapters go through - often literally - every single layer of the whale until we get to the dark, vacuous, core of human obsession. 

And so it’s not so strange, that on reading it, I started to see my life in terms of whales. Because Melville finds he can describe all of life’s activities there. For example, describing how blubber coats whales to keep them warm in the icy waters of the arctic, Moby Dick pithily probes the protective armour that coats all of us, and keeps us apart.

For a book with ‘no plot’, Moby Dick has everything. From a touching treatment of homesexual love, to the basis for all moral law - Melville finds it all in the whaling industry. And then there is the book’s ‘mighty theme’ itself, the tale of one man’s destruction at the hands of his own fiendish obsession with killing a white whale - which suitably, sublimely could be a symbol for almost anything. As DH Lawrence said ‘I doubt if even Melville knew what’. 

This infinite interpretability, and symbolic richness often makes chapters seem to swoosh up to the heavens. It’s quite a mind-opening experience - one moment you are reading about the physical specifications of a whale skeleton and then suddenly your mind is tumbling and reeling, as Melville has laid bare some essential moment of the human condition in language that is now, all at once, abstract, biblical, symbolic and emphatic

I also enjoyed reading this book straight too. It’s an adventure story, with a twist on a car chase from before there were cars. And why whales? Perhaps Melville believe this was an undervalued occupation. And so his book is a ‘hymn to the art and practice of whaling’. This books stamps in the ground. Hell,  if big game hunting can have books written about it, why can’t whaling? A profession that used to light the world, that daily engages in brutal, dangerous struggle with the biggest beasts on earth. There might be no glamour in it, but can’t there be just a little romance?

And there’s so much more here too. The madness, the horror of it all - the utter brutality of killing these intelligent, noble mammals; could there be a better advocate for vegetarianism?

Moby Dick should be read slowly, and sipped. Each chapter does something - why not read one a day?


Moby Dick is available on Amazon - only £2!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

War and Peace - Part 2

War and Peace (Tolstoy) - 35 pages from the end

Imagine a carefully made structure of lego. And then suddenly a big football crashing down on it. Multicolour pieces scatter everywhere, parts fall of the table, everything is a mess and chaotic. And that’s what War and Peace is like. Society builds all these refined social structures full of soirees and champagne and social frivolity during  times of peace. But when the big monster of war comes along everything breaks down. Suddenly there is chaos, the narrative structure breaks down, and the war itself becomes the most important thing. A huge gravitational force, the reader, like all the characters in the book, is pulled into its all-consuming embrace.

It was a contemporary Russian novelist, I think, who described War and Peace as a ‘loose baggy monster’. That description is quite fitting; there is certainly a lot going on without anything that could really be described as a plot. The novel has themes of personal growth, death, finding God, fatalism. And, of course, the philosophy of war. Tolstoy rails against hero worship and wants us to understand the mechanics of the machine, not just the man whose job it is to push the button. 

I’m still 35 pages from the end at twenty past twelve on a Thursday, and I promised myself I would finish it today. I don’t think that I enjoyed reading this as much as Anna Karenina. I found parts of it a little boring, especially the science of war parts; by and large I just didn’t care about Tolstoy’s opinion on this. He gave it so often and so repeatedly that I can only assume that, on publication, it was profound and contrary point of view. But I found the opinion a rather obvious one. That said, I think W&P has a lot more too it than Anna Karenina, and certainly doesn’t warrant criticism - occasionally hurled at Anna K - that it is about only the frippery of aristocratic society.


PS - I read the version translated by Volokhonsky and Pevear as I think it is most faithful to the original text. It retains the French  and provides a translation in the footnotes. I found this slightly hard work during the opening part of the book which is French heavy (I had to keep looking down and then up) but overall I think it was a good trade off.

See also: Part 1Part 3