What do Tilda Swinton and Simon Cowell have in common? They’re both narrating Moby-Dick for an epic, 135-day read-along.
Magnificent yet daunting, Moby-Dick stands as one of the great classicsof American literature, much admired but – sprawling and intimidating – seldom read. Now an unlikely combination of fans including David Cameron, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry and Simon Callow are set to change that after joining the cast of an ambitious project to record the novel in its entirety.
Dreamed up by author Philip Hoare and artist Angela Cockayne, the readings are being broadcast daily online, accompanied by images inspired by the book from contemporary artists including Anish Kapoorand Antony Gormley. Swinton kicks off the immense undertaking – 135 chapters over 135 days – taking the novel’s iconic opening, “Call me Ishmael”, with Fry to read a homoerotic encounter between Ishmael and the tattooed Queequeg and Callow taking “the sermon”.
Cameron, after much debate, will be reading chapter 30, The Pipe. “The problem for any politician is the coded messages in Moby-Dick,” said Hoare. “It’s an incredibly political book, and there are entire chapters about the whale’s foreskin. The difficulty for No 10 was finding a chapter which was not fraught with messages. I wouldn’t say it’s an anodyne chapter. No chapter is anodyne, every chapter is freighted with meaning. But it’s fairly innocent.”
Herman Melville’s subversive, digressive masterpiece is narrated by the sailor Ishmael, telling of his voyage on the whaling ship the Pequod. The ship’s captain, Ahab, is obsessed with finding the white whale, Moby-Dick, who took his leg, investing him with an “intangible malignity” and pursuing him beyond the bounds of sanity. “Moby-Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” he is told.
Unappreciated in Melville’s lifetime, the novel is now, according to the American academic and author Jay Parini, a book which “permeates a culture, reinforcing and shaping ideas: ambition, for example, and the drive to conquer nature, the imperial drive, the wish to pursue an ideal to the last degree”.
Will Self, fresh from a Booker shortlisting, will be reading “the whiteness of the whale”, an extraordinary passage. “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” Melville writes, the “mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion”. Other readers include Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rick Stein, China Miéville, Blake Morrison, John Waters – who takes on “the cassock”, devoted to the whale’s foreskin – and Sir Christopher Frayling.
“It’s meant to be democratic, it’s open to the public, with readings by schoolchildren and careworkers and fishermen. And then all these celebrities,” said Hoare. “The funny thing is how many people have read it or wanted to read it. Fry has done a consummate reading of a very homoerotic passage, as most of the encounters between Ishmael and Queequeg are. Then David Attenborough on “does the whale’s magnitude diminish? – will he perish?” is incredibly prophetic. It was written 150 years ago imagining a world where whales might be rendered extinct. It’s all about man versus nature, which Melville saw even then. It raises the hairs on the back of your neck.”