Partaking of the Miraculous

As mentioned previously in this space, several excellent books on whales and ocean life washed ashore among the flotsam of the first pandemic year, Floating Coast and Fathoms, to name two favorites. So I stopped in my tracks when I chanced upon a review of a new book called Albert and the Whale.


The book is written by Philip Hoare, an eccentric whale-loving Englishman, professor of creative writing, creator of the Moby Dick Big Read, author of books like Leviathan, or the Whale; The Sea Inside; and RisingTideFallingStar. The reviewer (Sue Prideaux, in the New Statesman) wrote so well about Albert and the Whale that I was hooked.

Not far into it, I realized that this book is as much "How Philip Hoare Imagines our World" as it is about how art does -- despite its subtitle. But I like Mr. Hoare and his many interests, his habit of swimming in any water he happens upon (no matter the season or circumstances), the depth and breadth of his knowledge, the way Starman (David Bowie) keeps popping up, his quirky style, and his portrait like Marcel Marceau's Bip staring through the eye of a whale. As I made my way back in time and around the world with Hoare, Durer, and a cast of dozens, I kept experiencing feelings of deja vu that, when they resolved themselves, often made me reach for a book that I hadn't even thought about for some time.

This happened first with the aforementioned review, before I even opened Hoare's book: Prideaux's synopsis brought to mind Guy Davenport, "poet, novelist, book illustrator, essayist nonpareil, raconteur indefatigable, master of humane inquiry," as The New Criterion described him. The glittery web of connections emanating from whatever subject Hoare describes echoes Davenport's erudite style, and is at times nearly as overwhelming. When done well it can be jaw-dropping, but unfortunately Hoare doesn't consistently do it well, the result sometimes looking more like one of those spider webs woven by a drugged spider.

Reading on, I was reminded of Gay Talese's famous 1966 non-interview, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" -- Albert and the Whale is about Albert and a whale the way Talese's interview with Sinatra proceeds without Sinatra. Durer's (dead) whale washed out to sea before he got to see it, yet Hoare uses it as a pivot point for a 300-page ramble. Durer had an excellent imagination, etching or making woodcuts of creatures he never saw, like walruses and winged angels, yet he worked with scientific rigor, traveling twice from Nuremberg to Italy to study perspective and human proportion. His paintings of feathers, hares, and clumps of turf remain unsurpassed 500 years later.

Indeed, one of the works for which Durer is best known is a portrait of another animal he didn't get to see: an Indian rhinoceros. The story is a bit more dramatic than a washed-away whale, and for a writer other than Hoare probably would have served as the tale on which to base a book. As a matter of fact...

Nature writer David Quammen once penned an essay about this very episode, titled "The Boilerplate Rhino." These days he's on the pandemic beat (which he anticipated in several books), but do check out his nature essays. In The Boilerplate Rhino, Quammen fleshes out Durer's rhinoceros experience a bit more than Hoare does, and adds some science to the art as well.

Think of it -- a time when images of animals like walruses and rhinos barely existed. Like the conquistadors encountering bison in North America just a few years later, people barely even had words to describe them. Animals lived as we dreamed them, until artists portrayed them and technology advanced enough to make the images widespread. Durer, with his crisp and easily-reproduced woodcuts and engravings, was at the avant-garde of that era. He was also, as Hoare and others have described, the first self-portraitist, a generation ahead of Rembrandt, spreading his own image far and wide.

After more on Durer and his works and travels, Hoare leaves Albert behind and takes a long detour. It's a dreamlike game of connect-the-dots with Hoare picking the dots he finds interesting: Melville, Thomas Mann, Goethe, Auden, Marianne Moore, Percy and Mary Shelley, W.G. Sebald. There are others, and Albert sometimes briefly reappears. Eventually Hoare inserts himself, to expound on Conrad Gesner and his bestiary, and to swim with whales.

Then he, or his publisher, throws us for a loop: several pages of color plates are inserted near the end of the book, rather than in the customary middle. The reader figures the text is over, but after the plates comes a chapter called "Beautiful," which is indeed beautiful. Quirky, of course, but still. Hoare finds Durer and somehow ties it all together. He goes swimming again.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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