This week, a lovely and amazing thing happened. Angela Cockayne and Philip Hoare invited me to read Chapter 113 for the Moby-Dick Big Read. I recorded the chapter at home on Thursday evening and it was uploaded this morning, Sunday 6th January 2013. I can’t thank Angela and Philip enough – I am completely delighted to have been a part of the recordings.
The Story This Week
We meet the Pequod’s skilled carpenter (107) and see him talking to Captain Ahab about fashioning him a new leg (108). With great diplomacy, first mate Starbuck persuades Ahab to allow the crew to attend an oil leak on the ship (109). Queequeg catches a fever while working on the damaged barrels and seems close to death, but rallies round just as the carpenter finishes making his coffin (110). Ishmael beholds the Pacific, his favourite sea (111). We meet the Pequod’s blacksmith, an old man with a tragic past (112). Ahab has him forge fresh weapons for pursuit of Moby Dick, and baptises them in blood (113).
Chapter 107: The Carpenter, Read by Lydia Richards. Artist: Cyrus Larcombe-Moore
We meet two tradesmen of the Pequod this week. The first is the carpenter, an efficient and skilled man who has an uncanny sort of ‘stolidity’ about him:
It so shaded off into the surrounding infinite of things, that it seemed one with the general stolidity discernible in the whole visible world; which while pauselessly active in uncounted modes, still eternally holds its peace, and ignores you, though you dig foundations for cathedrals.
The chapter is a remarkable description of the carpenter, and opens with telling comments on Ishmael’s view of humanity: ‘take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates…’.
Chapter 108: Ahab and the Carpenter, Read by R. F. ‘Grif’ Griffith. Artist: Se Thut Quon
This chapter is formatted like a play (as we’ve seen in several earlier Chapters, e.g. 37 to 40) detailing an exchange between Ahab and the carpenter on the deck at night. Interestingly, the men talk about a sensation Ahab experiences of feeling that his missing leg is still there – a phenomenon we now refer to as a phantom limb.
I also enjoyed the way their exchange is peppered with references to bones. This novel seems to me to be full of bones. That’s one of the reasons I picked Sauerer’s Bonesman King work as this week’s favourite image (above). And one of my favourite lines so far is from Chapter 103, where Ishmael tells us that plantation slaves in America saw a whale fossil and ‘took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels.’ I like the neat way that remark ties up Ishmael’s meditation on the whale and the religious imagery of the book.
Chapter 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin, Read by Richard Wood. Artist: Matthew Higgs
Reader Richard Wood (the first I’ve been able to identify this week) is a staff member at Plymouth College of Art and gives a nice reading of this short and fascinating scene where Starbuck, the epitome of diplomacy, manages to convince Ahab to act in the interests of the Pequod and let them attend to the leaking oil barrels aboard. Melville’s sharp eye for psychology is on display here, as he depicts the way in which Starbuck handles the conversation with his deranged superior to get what he needs.
This chapter has a footnote that isn’t in the recording – you can read it here (it’s the part beginning ‘In Sperm-whalemen…’).
Chapter 110: Queequeg in His Coffin, Read by Dugald Ferguson. Artist: Oona Grimes
Any chapter with Queequeg is a humorous chapter, it seems – even when he is near death! Artist Dugald Ferguson reads for us. Queequeg falls ill with a fever while working on the leaking oil casks. Ishmael says a startling thing about contemplating the harpooneer’s face, one of the many fine moments where this novel touches mystery and wonder:
An awe that cannot be named would steal over you as you sat by the side of this waning savage, and saw as strange things in his face, as any beheld who were bystanders when Zoroaster died. For whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books. And the drawing near of Death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell.
But, although he is prepared for death and has had himself lain in a coffin he has requested from the ship’s carpenter, Queequeg recovers rather unexpectedly. He claims that he’d decided not to die after all because he remembered some business he had to conclude on shore. The tone is humorous, but all the while Pip (the young boy made mad by his experience of being abandoned at sea in Chapter 93) has been emitting strange cries, stimulated by seeing the harpooneer in his coffin. And Ishmael remarks that the mysteries of Queequeg’s tattoos will die with him, and ‘be unsolved to the last’.
Chapter 111: The Pacific, Read by Mark Carwardine. Artist: Clifford Ross
This short chapter (read by BBC presenter and zoologist Mark Carwardine) shows Ishmael enjoying a quiet moment of beauty as the Pequod reaches the Pacific, a sea which he describes beautifully and strangely as being made of hidden souls. This quiet moment passes, however, and we hear that Ahab has grown more maniacal as his ship approaches the white whale’s waters.
His firm lips met like the lips of a vice; the Delta of his forehead’s veins swelled like overladen brooks; in his very sleep, his ringing cry ran through the vaulted hull, ‘Stern all! the White Whale spouts thick blood!’
Over at patell.org, Prof. Patell provides interesting information on the islands that Ishmael refers to in this chapter.
Chapter 112: The Blacksmith, Read by Emma Ayres. Artist: Peter Sauerer
Radio presenter Emma Ayres reads this account of the Pequod’s busy blacksmith, Perth. He is an old, saddened man whose life was ruined by alcohol. No family, business or home left, he heeded a calling to go to sea. Ishmael recounts his story almost as a dark fairytale, where alcohol is personified as the ‘Bottle Conjuror’ and his wife’s death described as a moment where she ‘dived down into the long church-yard grass’.
Chapter 113: The Forge, Read by Eva Stalker. Artist: Valerie Favre
This chapter is read by me. My boyfriend helped me figure out how to record it on my laptop (we downloaded Audacity and used a basic headset microphone we had) and a good friend helped me with the Latin pronounciation.
Ahab instructs his blacksmith to forge a harpoon to kill the white whale. It is made of horseshoe steel, twisted together from 12 rods and barbed with razors. When he is satisfied with it, Ahab baptises it in blood from the harpooners. The Latin he howls as he does this means: ‘I baptise you not in the name of the Father, but in the name of the devil!’
The scene closes with Ahab stalking away with his terrifying new weapon. The strange cries of Pip echo across the ship.
On Reading Audio Fiction
I’d long known that reading fiction aloud isn’t easy, but this week, when I had to do it myself for the first time, I got a much better appreciation of just how difficult it is! There’s so much to it.
Since I enjoy listening to audiobooks, I’ll always read any article I come across about the experience of recording them. I loved this Telegraph feature from 2010 on the ‘art of reading aloud’ and enjoyed this LA Times piece on Neville Jason. Jason’s pretty incredible: he has recorded unabridged readings of both Tolstoy and Proust! I’ve listened to his Anna Karenina and it was excellent.
One of the best pieces I’ve read, however, is a 2011 interview on Scottish writer Susie Maguire’s blog with BBC radio producer David Jackson Young. He talks about the skills required and how physical the process is. I think that touches on something about how alive and human it feels to read aloud and to be read to. A short piece in the New York Times last month, urging us to record voices the way we take family photographs, put it this way: ‘Sound is motion, nearly life itself, and compared with the roar of the present, the silence of the past is deafening.’
Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. I’ll post my thoughts on chapters 114 to 120 here on Sunday, 13th January 2013. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC webpage here.