Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville

R: The White Whale and I have become great friends on this trip; and although I finished reading Moby Dick nearly four months ago, I thought it a fitting book with which to end my literary odyssey.

I’m not a great reader on the bus, suffering as I do from text-induced motion sickness. Planes and trains are no problem, but buses (and Fijian boats) are necessarily prose-free areas for me. With this in mind I left the UK with an unabridged audiobook of Melville’s classic.

Through bursts of Frank Muller diction the whale has followed me along Brazil’s Costa Verde, through Peru’s Sacred Valley, around Lake Titicaca, across the Altiplano, down the Chilean coast and twice over the Andes. And it has helped break the monotony of overnight rides from Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Byron Bay and Bali to Java. In Singapore Moby Dick disappeared amid the gloom – the backlight of my iPhone packed in – before resurfacing in Thailand, where, in Kindle format, I eventually made it to the book’s climatic final scene.

So what of the book itself? At first Melville’s style – long sentences, archaic language and florid descriptions – is a little difficult to penetrate, but as the mist clears you are soon pitched headlong into a salty, oily world of whales, whaling and harpooners.

But Moby Dick is as much famed for its verbosity as its virtuosity, and there is no denying that Melville’s prolixity can often frustrate and even defeat the pluckiest of readers. Arguably, nearly half of the one hundred and thirty-three chapters do not concern the main narrative, exploring instead the history, science and culture of whales and whaling. In fact, a more appropriate title for the book may have been Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Whales But Were Afraid to Ask.

But the hardy reader is rewarded, as the accumulative effect of each digression serves to both build suspense and enhance the central metaphor of the whale. I say central metaphor, as there are probably as many meanings as there are chapters in the book. But what does the White Whale itself symbolise? God, nature, immortality? And what is the significance of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest? Sin, hubris, or just plain old-fashioned revenge? Arguably, the key meditation of the book concerns the limits of man’s knowledge: that no matter how many ‘facts’ we gather about the world – about nature, about life, about ourselves – there are some things which remain forever unknowable.

Elsewhere I have lamented the attempts of others to write The Great American Novel; and it is from Melville that any aspirants must wrestle this title. In Moby Dick Melville does not speak of America but of the world, not of a whale but of life. This is why he takes his rightful place among the literary heroes of this trip.

But it is in the metaphorical richness that Moby Dick achieves its greatness. Its layers are so numerous, its weft and warp so tightly packed, that the reader is free to invest his or her own meaning. For me, Moby Dick is a metaphor for both the limits and the glories of travel. And I will leave Ishmael with the last word on both.

On the limits:

‘Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.’

And the glories:

‘How vain and foolish for timid untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton, stretched in this peaceful wood. No. Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly livingly found out.’

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Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot

R: If I had written this a week ago you would have been reading a very different set of ramblings. You see, there are slow burners and there is Middlemarch. In fact, with seven hundred pages read and with only two hundred remaining, I would have put forward Slowplod as a more apposite title. But if I can return to my first metaphor: it is well worth following Eliot’s long fizzing fuse.

Set during the first half of the nineteenth-century in a fictitious town in middle England, Middlemarch charts the fortunes of several marriages – some firmly rooted, some in first bloom, and some yet to seed.

Without spoiling too much of the plot the young, beautiful and pious Dorothea marries the old, pale and procrastinating academic Causabon; her spurned admirer Sir James, a good-hearted but socially antiquated nobleman, weds Dorethea’s sister Celia, a comically infuriating sibling; Lydgate, a bold and ambitious doctor new to Middlemarch, ties his future to Rosamond, a girl whose stupidity is perhaps only matched by her beauty. And let us not forget the long-married Bulstrodes – Nicholas, the town’s wealthy banker and zealous philanthropist, and his wife Harriet, kind, loyal and always well-meaning. Nor Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, childhood sweethearts whose future marriage is a certainty only seen by them.

Into this matrimonial mix of long been, just becoming and soon to be, Eliot casts Will Laidislaw. A brilliant but hot-headed young man of uncertain origins, he is the naked spark that eventually sets Middlemarch alight.

And it is the word eventually that must be emphasised, for the bulk of the book I found rather dull, dry and uninvolving. Many of the characters seemed tiresome, egotistical and emotionally repressed, their relationships characterised by a profound inability to communicate feeling. It was only the quality of the writing, and the book’s reputation, that compelled me to read on.

But delayed gratification is always more powerfully felt than easy pleasure, and during the last two hundred pages the glowing fuse finds its way beneath the piled up, barrelled gunpowder of all those interconnecting lives; and the detonation of one keg sets off an explosion which both illuminates and terrifies, and ultimately rocks Middlemarch to its core.

Since its publication the book’s critical reception has changed with the times; and I won’t dwell on whether it is an anti-feminist or a pro-feminist work, a heroic or an anti-heroic masterpiece, a slice of romanticism or the highest form of Victorian realism. I will only say that its avoidance of cliché and its resistance to the easy charms of a mawkish climax more than justify the long and at times arduous journey.

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” This is the rhetorical question that the innocent Dorothea (if anyone, the hero of this tale) offers us as a self-evident truth. And it is in the depiction of small but heroic sacrifices – sacrifices that make shared lives possible – that lies the quiet glory of Middlemarch.

Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Swann’s Way’ By Marcel Proust

R: No one writes like Marcel Proust. No one unfurls the same long, lilting, lugubrious sentences; no one fills those sentences with the same innumerable curling, parenthetic clauses; no one punctures his prose with the same dizzying firmament of commas, semi-colons and colons; and no one delights, indulges or enchants with the same bejewelling layers of metaphors, analogies and similes. The Proustian style is at once both alluring and incomparable; and any attempts to emulate this divinity are rendered futile by the mortal limits of the impostor’s mind, and his pen. You got to have a go though, haven’t you?

As you may have already discerned, spending time with Proust can have a profound and bewildering effect on the reader. It can leave one exhilarated but exhausted, enlightened but confused, inspired but dispirited.

Perhaps more than any other literary device Marcel likes an extended simile; and not just one. He lines them up like the stacked lenses of an optician’s phorometer, each eyeglass bringing into greater focus, and sharper relief, the object or scene before us. Or, like a composer, who doubles the wind parts and divides the strings to give richer, thicker textures to his musical motif. You know, that kind of thing.

But aside from the style, how would one summarise the plot? Well, it’s a very lengthy exposition of a very short story; Marcel really does squeeze a lot of literary juice out of his narrative lemon. The book starts with our young protagonist in bed, it continues with our young protagonist in bed, and then it builds to our young protagonist – out of bed by this stage, you’ll be relieved to hear – eating a piece of madeleine cake (apparently a very famous scene in literature, if you move in the right circles). This wild and wilful act transports him back through time and memory to an earlier world in which his great aunt, obviously a guiding light in our young protagonist’s life, spends a good deal of time in bed.

Hardly giving the poor reader an opportunity to recover their breath, our young protagonist then relates a long and extremely detailed account of an affair between Charles Swann, a gentleman of impeccable taste, and Odette de Crecy, a lady of questionable virtue. Such is the pathos and passion of this tale – a tale which echoes Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde – that this section can often be found as a standalone novella, serving as a set text for lovelorn French students.

At the end of Swann’s Way we return to the stirring exploits of our young protagonist. I won’t spoil the ending, but let me just say that he manages to remain out of bed, and even makes it to the park. C’est magnifique!

It could be said that this book is a little light on substance and heavy on style; lacking in events but full of erudition. But it should be pointed out that Swann’s Way is only the opening volume of a much larger work – In Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time, depending on which textbook you used in second-year French. And although Swann’s Way is no pamphlet – around 550 pages – the work as a whole stretches to over 3,000 pages. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Dumas could be accused of idleness by comparison. Just what were they doing with their afternoons?

Set in the Belle Époque era of French society Swann’s Way can also be read as a satire on the bourgeois classes. Proust is certainly at his acerbic and comical best when he is lampooning the vacuous lives and dubious tastes of the Verdurins, a middle class couple whose dinner parties serve as the backdrop to Charles and Odette’s blossoming love affair. But then one wonders who, apart from the Verdurins – or perhaps an idle backpacker – would have the time or the inclination to embark upon a novel which is more than one and half million words in length.

But the only real criticism I have – if I dare reproach the first volume of what many regard as the greatest novel of the twentieth-century – is that something gets lost, and it’s not just time. By delving into the minutiae of human experience, by examining life as if through a literary microscope, the reader can sometimes lose sight of the characters at large; just as a description of DNA may lay bare the building blocks of life, it does not explain what it is like to be human.

But any reservations seem a little churlish, and certainly premature; akin to dismissing Dennis Taylor as a journeyman player after watching only the opening eight frames of the 1985 World Snooker Championships.* And it is perhaps here that I break (pun intended) with Proust, as I understand he never employed any billiard analogies. Marcel’s and literature’s loss.

*Despite losing all eight opening frames of the final, Dennis Taylor went on to record an 18-17 victory over Steve Davis. The match culminated in a black ball finish, and although it ended well after midnight it was watched by a television audience of over 18 million, around a third of the UK’s population. It is not known if Marcel Proust was watching.

Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky

R: This is my third Dostoevsky novel of the trip; and although I’m loathed to start things on a negative note, it was the most disappointing of the three.

‘The Idiot’, we are to presume, refers to the novel’s main protagonist, one Prince Myshkin. A 27 year-old sufferer of epilepsy, he returns to Russia from Switzerland where he has for the last five years received treatment to alleviate the worst aspects of his condition.

His lifelong affliction has meant that until now he has had no direct experience of Russian polite society; but the childlike naivety and unthinking honesty he has retained as a result of his isolation renders him a fascination to the very same society with which he is so ill-acquainted. He also inherits a small fortune, which no doubt goes some way in sustaining the interest of his new found peers.

But upon returning to St Petersburg, our hapless hero quickly becomes embroiled in a love triangle that could well have tested the patience of Casanova.

First, he is drawn to the insanely beautiful but plainly insane Nastasya Filippovna, whose self-loathing both attracts her to and repels her from the pure-of-heart Myshkin. To say this woman is complex and capricious is to say that Roy Hodgson reminds one only a little of Harold Steptoe.

Second, Myshkin also manages to fall in love with the equally beautiful but more conventional Aglaia Epanchin. But, again, matters here are not straightforward. Perhaps my ignorance of nineteenth-century courting practices betrays me, but Aglaia’s refusal to admit her love for Myshkin, her constant efforts to humiliate him, and her plotting and intriguing with other suitors would, I think, be enough to bring foam to the lips of even a non-sufferer. That Myshkin holds out for as long as he does, is to his eternal credit.

Add to all this a consumptive nihilist who refuses to die despite several farewell speeches, a conniving lawyer who specialises in outlandish interpretations of the Apolcalypse, an old general who out-walts and out-mits Walter Mitty, and the jealous and murderous Rogozhin, who attempts to kill Myshkin early on in the novel and haunts him forever after – add all this to the pot and you have the usual barmy brew of Dostoevskian madness.

I do realise that Myshkin’s saintly soul is supposed to provide a gleaming mirror in which to hold up to Russian polite society; and I realise that his apparent simple-mindedness is supposed to represent both truth and beauty. As a method of satire and a means of social commentary this works well. But Myshkin as the book’s hero suffers from the same drawbacks as Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov: saints make for very dull protagonists; very dull indeed. I imagine that it was not the done thing even in 19th century Russia to slap an invalid around the whiskers, but you can’t help wanting at least to give Myshkin a good shake.

The book also suffers from a profound lack of coherence. The first quarter is tight and focused enough; and the last quarter, with its admittedly memorable and chilling denouement, just about does enough to rescue the novel; but the middle half is confused at best, and incomprehensible at worst. Part of this, I am to understand, reflected the itinerant and chaotic lifestyle of Dostoevsky at the time. We should also bear in mind that Dostoevsky was also blighted with epilepsy for much of his life. But rarely is the corpse best placed to perform the autopsy.

So is ‘The Idiot’ a half-realised example of art imitating life, or a half-incoherent product of a life striving to imitate art? The answer is, as always, deliciously elusive. But one thing is certain: I do not envy any man who attempts to imititate Dostoevsky, for that way only madness lies.

‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck

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R: I liked this book, I really did. It was big and bold and ambitious; and the beautifully informal writing put me in mind of a quote by Picasso: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

East of Eden is arguably Steinbeck’s most ambitious work, a book for which he felt all his earlier writing had simply been preparation. It is a re-telling of the Book Of Genesis, more specifically the story of Cain and Abel. Set in California during the fifty or so years before WWI, it follows the lives of two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks.

East of Eden is a tale about good and evil, about sin and redemption, and ultimately about the freedom of man to choose virtue over vice. The themes are admirable and the characters memorable, but the book is laden down with what I can only describe as self consciousness on Steinbeck’s part.

Perhaps I have read the ‘wrong’ American authors, or perhaps I have just read them wrongly; but I can’t help being struck by their overeagerness to write The Great American Novel. As I said elsewhere, this monomania seems to sacrifice much in the hope of fulfilling this ambition.

There seems no corresponding mission among, say, great English, French or Russian writers; their aims seem to stride successfully the universal and the particular, telling tales which speak both of one man and all men. Certain American writers, however, see their country and the world as one and the same, and therefore always risk alienating the non-American reader.

But, again, perhaps my witterings belie a narrowness of reading and a shallowness of understanding. Perhaps the quest to pen The Great American Novel is quixotic in nature because the country is more vast and disparate than any other; a melting pot of nationalities and cultures which both encapsulates the world and explains its literary elusiveness.

It is an internal irony of my own reading these past nine months, that neither Kerouac nor Steinbeck – and certainly not Picoult – have managed to evoke for me the strongest sense of an American past, or an American place. That honour has fallen rather peculiarly to a Russian, the inestimable Vladimir Nabakov.

A gold doubloon has not been pinned to Nabakov’s lapel just yet; there is still some three months of my odyssey remaining, time enough for at least one other monomaniac to wrest it from him.

‘The Count Of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas

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R: With wonderful serendipity I lifted up ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ just as I was laying down ‘War & Peace’, turning as I did, electronically, from Tolstoy to Dumas.

I had heard that ‘Monte Cristo’ was a masterpiece in thriller writing but was ignorant of the fact that it was set in France in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. I also hadn’t realised the scale of the work – abridged versions exist which are around 600 pages in length, but for the full unexpurgated tale you are looking at a commitment of 1,300 pages. This is firmly in ‘War & Peace’ territory.

Dumas’ epic is the tale of a man, Edmond Dantes, who is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and interned by enemies he viewed as friends. After being abandoned for many years in a prison keep, he eventually escapes and sets out to avenge those who betrayed him.

The first 300 pages zip by at a breathless pace, reminiscent of Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’. The term ‘page-turner’ would not be sufficient to describe the manner in which I whipped through these early chapters. But one of the things – and there are many – that sets ‘Monte Cristo’ apart from other adventure stories is the manner and mode in which our hero exacts his revenge. If Dantes spent many years incarcerated in his prison cell, he spends just as many at liberty planning his retribution.

Unfortunately the wonderful, multifaceted denouement comes at a price; and it is this painstaking, albeit necessary, build up which bogs down the second and third quarters of the book. Now 600 pages is quite some time to spend wading through the sticky swamp of Dantes’ revenge, but it is journey well worth taking. The final 300 pages resume the urgency of the first, and with it a pace and verve which outdoes even those initial chapters. And even when in the midst of this breakneck speed I felt the dawn of a dull inevitability, Dumas threw in surprises which were anything but conventional.

But it is not just the similarity of historical backdrop which Tolstoy and Dumas have in common, nor is it the uncanny coincidence of length – both writers share that rare ability to cast light on the human condition. The strength of this light is what separates great literature from good writing, and good writing from gaudy dabs of the pen. And Dumas, amidst much waxing of moustaches and buckling of swashes, forms many pearls of wisdom. Tolstoy’s gems I did not share with the reader but I will leave you with a diamond cut by Dumas:

“There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die, that we may appreciate the enjoyments of living.”

‘War & Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy

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R: I’m not sure how you go about writing a review of Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’, even in the short and hackneyed form these blog entries have assumed. The phrase ‘War & Peace’ is often used as shorthand for something which is overwhelming long, and therefore any attempt at a pithy review seems inadequate. But after reading Tolstoy’s epic I also realised that it also refers to something which is wholly comprehensive in nature, and therefore, once again, any attempt at a review seems impossible. But here I go, helped more by ignorance and naivety than knowledge and experience.

War & Peace is not a novel. Or at least, it is not just a novel. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleanic Wars, the Little General’s march on Moscow and his devastating subsequent retreat, it centres on the lives of two Russian families, the Bolkonskis and the Rostovs, and charts their fortunes over the course of more than a decade.

As the book progresses however – particularly from the midpoint onwards – it is dominated more and more by military history, as Tolstoy attempts to restore the reputation of Russia’s commander in chief, Kutuzov, and decries the beatification of Napolean at the hands of French historians. And it is particularly during the last few chapters and especially the second epilogue, that Tolstoy’s desire to rewrite history begins to detract from, rather than provide support to, the novel.

This troublesome second epilogue, which brings 1,300 pages to a close, upsets the balance of the book; and like a boat laden down with unwanted luggage, it threatens to submerge the whole enterprise. In these last pages Tolstoy ultimately attempts to restore the presence of a deity as the arbiter in human history. He does this through the rather torturous construction of a somewhat solipsistic argument.

First he rejects both the notion of chance and powerful leaders in influencing events, then he goes on to discuss the merits of a history directed either by complete human free will or complete inevitability (dictated by fixed but not wholly understood laws). He seems unable to admit the existence of more than one factor, and eventually rejects the former in order to prove the latter.

Tolstoy’s almost complete dismissal of both chance and the ‘great man’ theory of human history seemed rather curious to me. One wonders if his views on the first would have been altered if he had lived to see the birth of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or the second if he had been around long enough to witness the rise of Adolf Hitler.

My advice for any future reader would be to set aside the second epilogue and read it some time after finishing the book; because from the very start to the very last word of the first epilogue, you are reading one of the greatest books ever written. All life is here. And it is life rendered as real as any writer could with only letters and words at his disposal. As Isaak Babel has remarked: ‘if the world could write, it would write like Tolstoy’.

Within the pages of this book also sits the means to man’s happiness – or at least Tolstoy’s take on it. And for the atheist or agnostic reader it is not inextricably melded to the existence of God. And unlike the countless self help books which proliferate the best-seller lists, Tolstoy’s revelation contains more than just fortune cookie philosophy. What this revelation is I shall leave for future readers to discover for themselves, if perhaps not to act upon.

A critic observed that ‘one doesn’t read War & Peace, one lives it’; and despite its 1,300 pages, I just wished I had lived it longer.