Whale Music

March 22, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 1 5 min read

1.
I have a feeling I owe the US contract for my third novel to Herman Melville.

Call me a lucky bastard.

coverGalore opens in the mists of early European settlement in Newfoundland when a group of starving fishermen butcher a beached whale and discover a man in the creature’s belly. The man is alive—pale, mute and stinking to high heaven—but alive. And the book gets a little nuttier from there.

Even those publishers who liked the novel saw little upside in terms of marketing and sales, and it was hard to argue with their reservations when they passed. I had almost given up on publishing in the States when Galore found its way to a young editor at Other Press who forced everyone in-house to read and, at the very least pretend, to love it. She’s been out there ever since, like some Ancient Mariner, haranguing strangers with the bizarre story, God bless her.

coverHer admiration for the book made me actively wish to never disappoint her. But in a discussion with my publicist about feuds in literature (there’s plenty of that in Galore as well), I innocently admitted I had never cracked the cover of Moby-Dick. News travelled. My editor wrote to let me know she is a Melville devotee. A hardcore devotee.

Evangelical, even.

Apparently being from New Hampshire goes some way to explaining this. Regardless, I had clearly dropped a notch or two in her estimation.

“I’ve read ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’,” I wrote back. “Isn’t that enough Melville?”

If it’s possible to give an “are-you-fucking-kidding-me?” look over email, she gave me that look. And I was forced to stand behind the shabby little bulwark erected to protect myself from the raging sea of classics I’ve ignored over the years. “I don’t read anything longer than five hundred pages,” I said. “Life’s too short.”

Just before Christmas a package arrived containing what I imagine is the only extant edition of Melville’s leviathan that—excluding preface, reviews, letters, commentaries, and scholarly articles—comes in shy of five hundred pages. The tiny print like lines of black pepper ground over a white sauce. It made my eyes water just to look at it. But I felt I owed her a literary debt, and I waded in.

2.
Unlike Melville’s cetaceans, the whale in Galore doesn’t occupy much fictional real estate. It gets barely a mention through the generations that follow that opening scene, before reappearing on the last page where it acts as a kind of folkloric talisman to bring the book full circle. There’s nothing like a whale—that “portentous and mysterious monster,” as Ishmael calls it—to bring something full circle.

From June to mid-August, the ocean off Newfoundland’s east coast is teeming with whales on the northern end of their annual migration between Labrador and the Caribbean. Humpbacks are the most common, arriving in the hundreds to feed on schools of herring and capelin and making a spectacle of themselves in the process. Whale-watching excursions on the Avalon Peninsula’s southern shore are packed with tourists willing to pay to take it in—the whales steaming in pairs, or in pods of half a dozen and more, raising their massive flukes lazily as they sound into deeper dives, lolling within arms’ length of the boats, the white undersides of their flippers showing pale-green through the water. People watching with a giddy, almost religious wonder, as if they’d been granted a vision of the Virgin Mary or an audience with the Dalai Lama.

By virtue of their size and antediluvian appearance, their murky origins and occult habits (90% of their lives is spent underwater), whales have been freighted with more than their share of creaturely hagiography. The whale has always borne some imaginative connection to the “unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world,” from the Biblical Jonah to indigenous creation stories, from East African myth to deification among peoples in southeast Asia. Their hold on us seems as strong today as it was on Ishmael himself, in that urge to “grope down into the bottom of the sea after them.”

My father and I took some friends on one of those excursions twenty years ago, sailing out of Bay Bulls just south of St. John’s. It was late afternoon and the whales were at their most active, chasing the boat, rolling to slap their flippers on the surface, breaching their full sixty foot length into the air before falling back in a spray of foam. Their size made everything they did appear to unfold in slow-motion, as if the physical laws of the universe were altered slightly by their sheer bulk. They arched under the keel of the boat, passing beneath our feet with an unhurried, implausible grace. Dad grew up on the ocean and whales were no novelty to him, but even he was visibly moved to be so intimately in their company.

Ostensibly Moby-Dick is a defence of the ancient and “heroic” whaling industry. But the strongest sense it left with me is one I recognize from my own limited experience with whales: how a visit to that other “and still stranger world” of these unlikely creatures makes your own existence seem a more singular and fragile and magical thing. Ishmael’s meditations on the transcendent wonders of the whale read like a nascent call to arms for the modern environmental movement. And they seem completely antithetical to his equally deft descriptions of the slaughter and butchering at the heart of the Pequod‘s voyage. But in Melville, reverence and barbarism sail hand in hand.

3.
The 20th century came late to Newfoundland. The communities my parents knew during the 1930s and 40s would not have been out of place in mid-19th century New England. Until a single generation ago, outport Newfoundland was an Old Testament landscape in the same way that Moby-Dick is an Old Testament novel: full of the “heartless voids and immensities of the universe” which underline the Biblical assertion that “As for man, his days are as grass.”

As a youngster, my father visited a whaling station on his way to the Labrador cod fishery, and he sometimes spoke of the enormous warehouse where the whales were rendered, the insufferable stink of the place. The way sheets of blubber were ripped off the carcass with a block and tackle, as if they were pulling up sections of old carpet from a floor. My mother remembers a time when schools of pothead whales were herded out of the open sea by men in dories, banging pots and pans over the surface to drive the whales into a cove’s shallow water where they were slaughtered en masse. My parents grew up without the luxury of sentimentality and they never expressed shame in talking about these things. At most I sensed a shy self-consciousness in them, to admit they were born in a time when decent people embraced barbaric practices. Willingly and enthusiastically.

The same paradox see-saws through the length and breadth of Melville’s novel—a sense of the mystery and sanctity of life hard alongside a zealous destruction of the most mysterious, most wondrous of creation’s mortal creatures.

The starving settlers in Galore have no idea how to go about killing the beached whale they find in the opening pages. They drive a stake that sets it bleeding steadily and they decide to wait then while it expires, before rendering the animal for food and oil. Collectively, they have a sense that to do otherwise would be a desecration of what they see as an unexpected and Providential gift. That savage contradiction lay at the heart of life in Newfoundland for three hundred years or more.

I was innocent of this connection while I was writing, of course. But in hindsight it makes sense that a Melville aficionado might take note of Moby-Dick‘s internal schizophrenia in parts of Galore and consequently see some value in the novel beyond questions of marketing upsides and potential sales.

I was just lucky enough to find one.

(Image: Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae 29 July 2010 from mikebaird’s photostream)

is a novelist and poet and has been nominated for the Giller Prize, the IMPAC Dublin Award, and Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Canada. He lives in St. John's, Newfoundland. His latest novel is Galore.

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