Moby-Dick, or, the Whale

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Difficult Books: Richardson, Sterne, Melville

Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady (1747-8): The difficulty of Richardson’s masterpiece lies almost exclusively in its length: the outsized Penguin Classics edition (9×5.5×3) is 1,500 pages and weights nearly three pounds. I’m not sure it’s the longest novel in English; Richardson’s own Sir Charles Grandison might be longer, and surely the likes of Pynchon, Wallace, and Bolaño have overtaken Clarissa by now—but she is certainly among the longest. Other possible sources of difficulty: the eighteenth-century diction and syntax of Richardson’s masterpiece may seem a little strange or prim at first, as may the social mores of eighteenth-century England, and some readers find the plot insufficient to the length of the book (“if you were to read Richardson for the story,” Samuel Johnson noted,  “your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.”) Many readers, however, are ultimately drawn in by Richardson’s hero and heroine and the incredible psychological depth with which he draws them (Johnson again: “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart”). The nature of the relationship between the beautiful, virtuous, otherworldly Clarissa Harlowe and her lover/tormenter, the aristocratic libertine Robert Lovelace is entrancing. For emotional and psychological complexity, you will not find a more impressive novel in English.

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767): In the words of Steve Coogan (playing himself playing Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom’s film version of Sterne’s seemingly unfilmable novel), Tristram Shandy is “a post-modern classic before there was any modernism to be post- about.” Sterne’s 1759 masterpiece is an anachronism—a case of modern, even post-modern, literary sensibility springing up almost two hundred years before either aesthetic became widespread.  The difficulty of the book is primarily structural: the novel’s jumbled, non-linear chronology is frequently interrupted by hero/narrator Tristram’s taste for digressions, pre-history, and recounting the doings of minor characters instead of his own life story (he does not get around to narrating his own birth until the third volume of the novel). Tristram patches into his text seemingly unrelated tales, letters, and images as he pleases, and (maddeningly) begins recounting events only to stop short of their denouement (a sort of writerly/readerly coitus interruptus). Some readers just don’t enjoy the novel’s intense consciousness of the chaos of real “life and opinions” and the near-impossibility of representing them accurately in literary form (Samuel Johnson, for one: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”). Sterne’s artful literary approximation of the associative, digressive messiness that is the real mode of human thinking and life plots, his attention to the difference between real time and narrative time, and his constant attention to the author’s determinative and problematic role in the story he tells, are not for everyone. But for those willing to mount their hobbyhorses and give TS a go, I recommend watching Winterbottom’s film (a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book) as a warm-up.  Also, as one of our readers testified in the introductory post for this series, “Tristram Shandy is laugh aloud funny. I picked it up a few years ago with no prior knowledge–just wanted a novel from the eighteenth century. It’s a real treat. At one point, Sterne gets 8 pp. out of a piping hot chestnut falling into a guy’s breeches. This is lofty stuff.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick; Or, The Whale (1851): This is one of my favorite books and my choice for the great American novel, but I know others to have found it tough sledding (which, in a Shandian vein, reminds me of Moby Dick’s Nantucket sleigh rides…). The trouble with Moby Dick, as I’ve gathered, is twofold: First, it’s structurally odd, an anatomy more than a novel: a mix of novelistic narration and plot, reverie and essay, a quasi-scientific treatise on whether the whale is a fish (the dreaded ceatology chapter—which I recommend skipping altogether the first time through), dramatic monologues and dialogues, technical descriptions of the craft of whaling, a miscellany of quotations. Second, I have a feeling with Melville (as with his sometime friend and contemporary Nathanial Hawthorne) that the allegory at work in the novel is a little out of my league as a contemporary person (the allegorical habit of mind is rarely evident in contemporary culture—perhaps in Lars von Trier’s Dogville), that I might not have the wherewithal to construe properly: What does the counterpane represent? The whiteness of the whale? The doubloon? Unlike, say, Pilgrim’s Progress whose allegory is totally transparent (Obsinate, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman…), Melville’s symbols have an indissoluble ambiguity, a lingering feeling of disparate possible meanings. But this is how it’s supposed to be, I think, and speaks more to Melville’s genius and his slightly mystical taste for signifiers with multiple signifieds. As with Milton, I recommend hearing this book. Moby Dick is really funny—occasionally verging into slapstick (Ah, the meeting between Queequeq and Ishmael! Oh, the shark sermon!)—and its prose is magnificent from start to finish (though heavy on dialect speech, which can be hard to read). With a recording, someone else (I recommend Frank Muller at Recorded Books) has the trouble of doing the dialect and you just have the pleasure and the beauty. For those averse to audiobooks, I am particularly fond of the Norton edition with illustrations by Warren Chappell and notes and commentary by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.

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