Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale

Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale. Fourth Estate, 2021.

I think I first became interested in whales after reading Moby-Dick as a student. Many years later I read Philip Hoare’s strange book about them: Leviathan, or the Whale. It was first published I think in 2008. A few years before then I’d seen a pod of southern right whales, rolling and blowing in the sea below us off the coast of South Africa. We’d gone there with friends who had an apartment in Cape Town. We saw more whales just off the beach in another bay nearby. These are among the most magical experiences I’ve had.

Philip Hoare Albert & the Whale cover

My library copy has a plastic protective cover, hence the nasty shine in this picture

 Albert & the Whale revisits the world of cetaceans, largely through the quizzical eyes of the German artist-genius, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). As in his earlier whale book, Hoare does this through indirect means: a mix of art history and criticism, memoir, impressionistic detours into the lives and work of the likes of Jung and Freud. Writers are adduced, from Melville himself to Auden and his circle, Thomas Mann and Marianne Moore.

The mix doesn’t always work. At times it’s all just a little too impressionistic and fey. At its best it’s amazing, similar to the more effortless brilliance of Sebald; Hoare is in a lesser league (though he pinches many of Max’s tropes, like the grainy monochrome photos – some of them selfies) – more akin to the less earnest, much funnier Out of Sheer Rage (1998), Geoff Dyer’s eccentric account  of his failure to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence.

On the way there are some hit-and-miss prose poems inspired by the most famous of Dürer’s paintings and woodcuts, including Melancholy, St Jerome (with the weird comet in the background) and St Eustace. The book’s title is a bit misleading, because a whole menagerie of creatures, real and imaginary, feature in the text, such as narwhals and walruses, the armoured rhino with its extra dorsal spike, and octopuses.

Perhaps Dürer’s most famous animal engraving is that of the hare. Hoare’s account of it begins: ‘Like the turf, like her eye, she’s the world’ –

The hare was sacred to the Germans, believed to reproduce parthenogenetically, and so was associated with the Virgin Mary. But the hare quivers as she crouches, un-annunciated. Her ears are smooth and soft-resisting; like her vibrating whiskers, they’re visible sentience, sensing a world beyond our own. She’s wild, ready to be picked up and turned over, to lie entranced in your arms….

This is sensitively done, but it’s a shame that the author prolongs such flights too long (there are five more lines of this: it becomes strained). With just a little pruning this book’s meditation on time, mortality and the relationship between humans and the animal (and wider natural) world could have been even better.

There are seven pages of beautiful colour plates at the end. Together with the many black-and-white images throughout the text, these more than compensate for the purple prose. I learnt a lot, too, about the life and work of Dürer, his influences and those he influenced. I was less interested in the obsessively detailed information about how much Hoare paid for his drinks in cafés, or the price of admission tickets to the many museums he visited.

Flowering currant Spring is beginning to show its colours here in Cornwall. Today’s walk took me past a house at the end of my road where these lovely flowers are blooming; I think they’re flowering currant. Magnolias and daffodils are coming to their peak.

Geoff Dyer, ‘Out of Sheer Rage’

Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage starts like this:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wanted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself.

The grammar is convoluted – he starts with a retrospective statement then a ‘one hand’/’other hand’-‘hard to believe’/’equally hard to believe’ oppositional/parallel pair of structures, each section of which has balanced, complex multiple clauses. This signals what’s to come: it’s a ruminative, fastidiously self-investigative tone, self-deprecating and witty, meticulously and skilfully controlled. The genre, it seems, is going to be autobiography.

But as we read on we find it’s a genre-defying book. It might be a novel about a writer’s inexhaustible capacity to procrastinate; that writer is called ‘Geoff Dyer’, but he may be a fictional construct. He’s endlessly irascible about the world around him, but also about himself and his clinically delineated defects; he’s mercilessly self-accusatory (look at that wonderfully modulated phrase ‘psychological disarray’, to describe what he clearly suggests is his default mental state). When he reveals that it’s Lawrence’s ‘irritability’ that he finds most endearing about the man, it’s obvious why: they are kindred spirits.

The epigraphs at the start are illuminating:

Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.

That serves as a perfect summary of Dyer’s book: it’s not about ‘anything but’ Lawrence; it’s mostly about other things – as the second epigraph suggests:

Endless explanations of irrelevancies, and none whatever of things indispensable to the subject.

This is Gustave Flaubert on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. So we see Dyer fulminating against seafood and its resistance to being eaten and its disgusting taste when finally ingested; the awfulness of films in Italy dubbed badly into Italian; children and people who breed them; people obsessed with telephones…it’s a catalogue of grumpiness.

Then there’s this:

It must all be considered as though spoken by a character in a novel.

This is Roland Barthes, that trickster-savant murderer of the author. At one point Dyer writes:

Perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.

Hence this book.

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer RageDyer has signalled his intentions clearly from the outset then. What’s not clear from all this, though, is it’s often very funny. Not ‘the funniest book I have ever read’, as Steve Martin is quoted as saying on the jacket blurb – it didn’t make me laugh; but I did smile ruefully.

I found the stream of bile and the looping, self-cancelling vacillations (should he take this particular volume of Lawrence’s poems to Greece or not? Right, decided; no, changed his mind. Regrets it…) just a little too relentless.

It’s a travelogue of sorts, too, as Dyer and his long-suffering (and incredibly patient) girlfriend go on a savage pilgrimage of their own in search of the places Lawrence lived, replicating the miner’s son’s endless, doomed quest for a safe, healthy haven (his life was a ‘long convalescence’, said Huxley – a state Dyer characteristically claims for himself after a reckless crash on a moped), from his birthplace in grim Eastwood – become a sort of tacky literary theme park – to Sicily, Italy and New Mexico. There are other, non-Lawrentian pilgrimages mentioned in passing, like Dyer’s trip to Algeria in the steps of Camus.

There are erudite tones, too:  frequent allusions to Rilke, Nietzsche, Barthes and so on. These tend to be counterpointed jovially with earthy, scatological or sexually explicit scenes.

Occasionally among all this knockabout stuff Dyer inserts an aphorism that’s gemlike in its perfection, like this rueful reflection on a statement by Camus about accepting stoically what he is powerless to change:

Not like me. I can’t accept anything, especially things I am powerless to change. The only things I can accept are those that I do have the power to change. This, I suppose, is the opposite of wisdom.

Dyer loves these riffs in which key words are repeated, recycled, savoured in new contexts, positioned next to new verbal partners to see what ensues. The longueurs of this book are worth enduring for moments of brilliance like this.

Dyer makes new combinations of genre, tone and style look effortless and obvious. This is classy writing.

The edition I used is the handsome paperback in the illustration above – strangely there’s no title or author name on the front cover: they’re on the spine. This is in the excellent ‘The Canons’ series by Canongate, published in Edinburgh 2012; first published in 1997.