Call me Ishmael. One of the most famous first sentences in English-language literature. And yet, while most people know that Moby Dick is the name of a white whale and that he was pursued by one-legged Captain Ahab, how many have the courage to sit down with all 641 small-font pages and follow the ship Pequod round the globe?
I confess I didn’t. I needed the help of William Hootkins’ incredible audio recording (Naxos, 2005) to get me through it. It’s close to 25 hours long and it feels like I spent two or three months slowly listening to the dense prose, dipping into the Penguin Drop Caps edition when I had to return the audiobook to the library and wait for it to be available again.
I don’t think this book could be published today. We don’t have time for long sentences or exhaustive treatments of a subject. We deal in slogans and sound bytes. Who sits by the fire with family and reads aloud from a book when there are lifetimes of YouTube videos to watch?
So why does Moby Dick endure?
When I was given the “R” title in the Penguin Drop Caps series I really had no idea what to expect. I was delighted by the rich azure cover, the cobalt page edges and the swirly gold cover initial embellished with an Indian motif, but all I knew about Salman Rushdie was based on an ad campaign in the Toronto subway system promoting some new book of his and the news that Muslim clerics had issued a fatwa against him. Because of the subway ads I assumed he was a Canadian writer. And because of the scary-sounding fatwa against his book The Satanic Verses I assumed he was promoting some kind of paganism that was offensive to Muslims.
Wrong and wrong again.
Before Seinfeld, before Murphy’s Law, there was Voltaire’s Candide. In stark contrast to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where “everything is awesome,” to quote The Lego Movie, Candide’s world is a string of executions, STDs, natural disasters, wars, rapes, killings and financial disasters. And this is what his tutor Pangloss calls “the best of all possible worlds.” Everything about this philosophical tale contrasts with Siddhartha, even the colour of the cover whose juicy purple is diametrically opposite Siddhartha’s fluorescent yellow. The Penguin Drop Caps edition has a V on the front cover formed by two bolts of lightning, converging to strike a little yellow man. Yep, that’s Candide, for whom whatever can go wrong does go wrong.
The Penguin Drop Caps edition is a vibrant fluorescent yellow with bright green stain on the edges of the page. The contrast colour on the spine and the initial H is sky blue. I puzzled over the initial for a long time, trying to figure out its connection to the story. Perhaps the blue swirls symbolize the river, a central character. The H is composed of two swirly lines that intertwine in the middle; is this a reference to the notion of oneness? “And all of it together, all voices, all goals, all yearnings, all sufferings, all pleasures, all good and evil—the world was everything together.” (p. 187) I also noticed the font was considerably larger than the other Drop Caps volumes, which meant this would be a shorter read. Good thing.
“To me, O’Hara is the real Fitzgerald.”
—Fran Lebowitz, The Paris Review, 1993
Gloria Wandrous is young, beautiful, liberated and alcoholic. She wakes up the morning after spending the night with wealthy businessman Weston Liggett who has ripped her dress down the centre seam when she plays coy. Having nothing to wear home she wanders through his Upper East Side apartment, eventually finding a mink coat in what she assumes is his wife’s closet. Putting it on over the remains of her dress, she hails a cab and leaves.
The rest of the story is a meander through the speakeasies, restaurants and bedrooms of New York as Liggett tries to recover the coat before his wife notices it's missing. The novel moves seamlessly from past to present, revealing key characters’ stories along the way.
The Penguin Drop Caps edition is turquoise blue. Jessica Hische’s clever cover illustration is a mascara’d eye peering out through the centre of an O as through two curtains which form the vertical lines of an H, with the eye as its horizontal bar. The edges of the pages are stained blue and the contrasting colour on the spine is a deeper blue. The rubbery cover makes it a joy to hold while you read.
The Penguin Drop Caps edition is a vibrant lime green with gray for the contrast colour. The I for Ishiguro is a clear paint pot, half filled with liquid, with a paintbrush floating in it. For the key quote for the back of the book the editor chose “He moved his lantern again, causing one picture to fade into shadow and another to appear,” from the scene of dialogue between Ono, the student, and Mori-san, the master. Mori-san believes that he and his students should only paint what he calls “The Floating World”, the world of the pleasure district, of wine, women and song, the world that comes into being at night and vanishes at sunrise, beautiful and fragile. My guess is this quote was chosen because it comes from the scene where the intriguing phrase “floating world” is at last defined, halfway through the novel. Or perhaps because Masuji Ono’s first “picture” of his achievements (I’m a great artist) fades into shadow and another “picture” (I’m responsible for great wrong) appears.
This is a book about sex before marriage. The Penguin Drop Caps series has chosen Tiina Nunnally’s 1997 translation from the Norwegian, though the original story was written in 1920. I love the rich purple cover, slightly rubbery, with its illustration of a U-shaped wreath of roses on the cover, the darker purple stain on the edges of the pages and the bright Joker-green title on the spine. Tiina Nunnally’s version is masterful; at no point does the word choice or syntax remind you it’s a translation.
Page one, we are introduced to Kristin’s parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, who are landowners in a small agricultural community in 14th century Norway. Their marriage was arranged and their first three children, all sons, have died in infancy. Kristin is the first child to survive, and she is her father’s pride and joy, while her mother stays in the grips of depression that keeps her isolated and distant both from their community and her own daughter.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!