Philip Hoare has written a biography of Noel Coward and the history of a British military hospital, but The Whale is the book he was meant for. Its writing was prompted by the filmmaker John Waters, who worried that his friend was spending more time with whales than humans on his regular visits to Provincetown, MA. “I dream of bodies underwater,” Hoare writes in the prologue. By the end of the book, you believe him.
Hoare writes like Proust or W. G. Sebald, delivering his meditations on history, literature (Moby Dick. What else?), and the current state of the world’s largest animals in the wandering style of some melancholy professor (or maybe just an unemployed one). The book is filled with photographs and old engravings, and travels easily between Europe and America, but the real setting is Hoare’s own head, which turns out to be a strange, lovely, fascinating place. He admits finding whales almost disturbingly sensual. He speculates, with charming irresponsibly, on what Melville’s dreams were like. More than once, he writes, “Ah the world, oh the whale.” This kind of decadence will get you torn to pieces in an MFA seminar (that may be a compliement).
But Hoare has also done a huge amount of research; I grew up with my own childhood whale fixation––plastic models, coffee-table books, lots of Discovery channel viewing––without ever learning, for example, that Sperm Whales can stun or even kill their prey by emitting 200-decibel clicks from their head. But that’s because childish interest and adult obsession are very different things. By the end of the book, as Hoare joins his subjects in the ocean, it’s as though he’s finally acting on the impulse that’s been driving him all along. This kind of over-investment can’t be good for your personal life, but Hoare makes it seem like a necessary precondition for good non-fiction. “While people were shopping, eating, talking, waking, sleeping,” he writes, “I swam with whales.”