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Friday, 14 August 2009

Reading as A Writer - E.L. Doctorow on Herman Melville's Moby Dick

This is from a lecture on Moby Dick by E L Doctorow, and s developed further in one of a collection of essays, Creationists. In it, he imagines Melville's novel not as the complete and completed behemoth it might be to the academic or the general reader, as Melville might have thought of it while composing it, a frank acknowledgment that writing is a series of decisions, and that those decisions have consequences that determine the shape, grain and tenor of the novel. This is Doctorow very much reading as a writer.

E.L. Doctorow, “Composing Moby Dick: What Might Have Happened.”

I can claim a personal relationship to Melville and his works, having read MOBY-DICK three and a half times. The half time came at the age of ten when I found a copy in my grandfather’s library --- it was one of a set of great sea novels all bound in green cloth—and it was fair sailing until the cetology stove me in. I first read the book in its entirety, (and Typee, Omoo, Billy Budd and The Enchantadas , and Benito Cereno and Bartleby the Scrivener, for that matter) as an undergraduate at Kenyon College. Then, as a young editor at the New American Library a mass paperback publisher, I persuaded a Kenyon professor, Denham Sutcliffe to write an Afterword to the Signet Classic edition of Moby Dick, and so read the book again by way of editorial preparation. And now on the 150th anniversary of its publication (and after too many years) I have read it for the third time.

The surprise to me, at my age now, is how familiar the voice of that book is, and not merely the voice, but the technical effrontery, and not merely the technical effrontery, but the character and rhythm of the sentences…and so with some surprise, I’ve realized, how much of my own work, at its own level, hears Melville, responds to his perverse romanticism, endorses his double dipping into the accounts of realism and allegory, as well as the large risk he takes speaking so frankly of the crisis of human consciousness, that great embarrassment to us all that makes a tiresome prophet of anyone who would speak of it.


Literary history finds a few great novelists who achieved their greatness from an impatience with the conventions of narrative. Virginia Woolf composed Mrs. Dalloway from the determination to write a novel without a plot or indeed a subject. And then Joyce, of course: Like Picasso who was an expert draftsman before he blew his art out of the water, James Joyce proved himself in the art of narrative writing before he committed his assaults upon it.

The author of the sterling narratives Typee and Omoo precedes Joyce with his own blatant subversion of the narrative compact he calls Moby Dick. Yet I suspect that, in this case, the subversion may have been if not inadvertent, then only worked out tactically given the problem of its conception. I would guess that what Melville does in Moby Dick is not from a grand preconceived aesthetic (Joyce: I will pun my way into the brain’s dreamwork; I will respect the protocols of grammar and syntax but otherwise blast the English language all to hell.) but from the necessity of dealing with the problem inherent in constructing an entire 19th century novel around a single life and death encounter with a whale. The encounter clearly having to come as the climax of his book, Melville’s writing problem was how to pass the time until then --- until he got the Pequod to the Southern Whale fisheries and brought the white whale from the depths, Ahab crying “There she blows --- there she blows! A hump like a snow hill! It is Moby-Dick!” She blows, I note, not until page 537 of a 566 page book – in my old paperback Rhinehart edition.

A writer lacking Melville’s genius might conceive of a shorter novel, its entry point being possibly closer in time to the deadly encounter. And with maybe a flashback or two thrown in. A novelist of today, certainly, would eschew exposition as far as possible, let the reader work out for herself what is going on, which is a contemporary way of maintaining narrative tension. Melville’s entry point, I remind myself, is not at sea aboard the Pequod, not even in Nantucket: he locates Ishmael in Manhattan, and staying in scene every step of the way, takes him to New Bedford, has him meet Queequeg at the Spouter Inn, listen to a sermon, contrives to get them both to Nantucket, meet the owners of the Pequod, endure the ancient hoary device of a mysterious prophecy…. and it isn’t until Chapter 20 which begins “A day or two passed” that he elides time. Until that point, some ninety-four pages into the book, the writing has all been, a succession of unbroken real time incidents. Another ten pages elapse before the Pequod in Chapter 22 “thrusts her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves.”

I wouldn’t wonder if Melville at this point, the Pequod finally underway, stopped to read what he had written to see what his book was bidding him to do.

This is sheer guesswork of course. I don’t know what Melville himself may have said about the writing of Moby Dick beyond characterizing it as a “wicked book.” Besides, whatever any author says of his novel is of course another form of the fiction he practices and is never, never, to be taken on faith.

Perhaps Melville had everything comfortably worked out before he began, though I doubt it. Perhaps he had a draft completed of something quite conventional before his writer’s sense of crisis set in. The point to remember is the same that Faulkner made to literary critics: they see a finished work and do not dream of the chaos of trial and error and torment from which it has somehow emerged.

No matter what your plan for a novel --- and we know Herman was inspired by the account of an actual whaling disaster (the destruction of the ship Essex in 1819) and we know how this was a subject, whaling, he could speak of with authority of personal experience abetted by research, and we know he understood as well as the most commercial practitioner of the craft, that a writer begins with an advantage who can report on a kind of life or profession out of the ken of the ordinary reader --- nevertheless I say that no matter what your plan or inspiration, or trembling recognition for an idea that you know belongs to you, the strange endowment you set loose by the act of writing is never entirely under your control. It cannot be a matter solely of willed expression. Somewhere, from the depths of your being you find a voice: it is the first and most mysterious moment of the creative act. There is no book without it. If it takes off, it appears to you to be self-governed. To some degree you will write to find out what you are writing. And you feel no sense of possession for what comes onto the pages ---- what you experience is a sense of discovery.

“Excerpted from CREATIONISTS by E.L. Doctorow. Copyright © 2006 by E.L. Doctorow. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.”