Saturday, 9 March 2019

Reading Moby-Dick in my adult years

From the eponymous 1956 film Moby-Dick directed by John Huston with Gregory Peck as captain Ahab

My last post was about languages and translation. I am continuing that thread adding to it. But first, let me retrace my steps. The talk at the London Library with Jhumpa Lahiri was excellent. It was primarily about her new book, a new translation in English of forty Italian authors which she has edited - curated, rather - and which includes one of her own. Her curation is very personal; the authors she has chosen reveal a personal bias and also mark her own trajectory and her relationship with Italian writing. I have the book, on loan from the library.  Umberto Eco is conspicuously absent, perhaps because his work has been translated ad nauseam. He was also very particular about how he was translated.  Eco had an excellent command of English and would not hesitate to query the choice of words by the translator. But I digress.  One of the authors selected  by Lahiri is Cesare Pavese, poet, novelist and translator, who was among the writers that opposed fascism and enthusiastically embraced American literature, which was not known at all in Italy at the time.   Pavese committed suicide in 1950, following a love affair that ended sourly. The New York Review of Books has a short article about him here, worth reading.
It was Pavese who introduced Herman Melville and his magnificent Moby-Dick to an Italian audience. His translation, which he did at the age of twenty-three (yes, twenty-three) and with a knowledge of English which was imperfect,  is fascinating precisely because it is more Pavese than Melville. It was later revised by Pavese, and in more recent years there have been other translations, more attuned to the original  - I don't like using the word 'faithful', although I realise that one of the aims of translation is accuracy.
But to translate Melville at such a young age is a feat. Indeed reading Moby-Dick at a young age is an impossible task. It is one of the most complex works ever, one that indeed belongs to world literature just as Cervantes, Tolstoy or Homer, among the ancients, do. I know that in America it is a set text in high school and students skip several chapters because Melville's Moby-Dick is not easy to read.
I first read it as a teenager, in Pavese's idiosyncratic translation. I did not grasp it. It was just this story about a frenzied captain, obsessed with a giant white whale and it did not move me at all. I tackled the original several years later and marvelled at the shifts in language register, with the prose sometimes resembling poetry and captain Ahab using a Shakespearean vocabulary (Pavese did not understand that).  The complex nautical lexicon had me grab a dictionary at every turn of phrase, I simply had no idea what all those words meant, being very unfamiliar with ships.


Now an adult, an older person, in fact, I have just begun re-reading it and I promise I will not skip the chapter on cetology which I used to think was so utterly boring. Why read Moby-Dick? why indeed read the classics? The two questions overlap. Moby-Dick is over 600 pages long and cannot be read fast, there have to be pauses and sentences have to be read more than once, to savour them. So it will be a while before I finish.  But one can always dip in and out.
Nathaniel Philbrick has written Why Read Moby-Dick and it is worth picking it up or just listen to the author discuss it on YouTube (above). Philbrick manages to convey the grandeur of Melville's masterpiece. And if you really can't bring yourself to read it, there is the excellent Moby Dick Big Read project, with the book read by Tilda Swinton and other artists, including Nathaniel Philbrick. It is Swinton who begins the Big Read with chapter 1, which opens with that crisp and terse 'Call me Ishmael'. And then the magic begins.

Opening scene from Huston's film "Call me Ishmael"

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