Review: “Albert & the Whale” by Philip Hoare

This review first appeared in the issue of “Literary Guide” (Nr 5, July/August/September), released by the National Library of Latvia on October 5, 2022, in Latvian. For the material to be available in English as well, I’m re-posting it on the Sea Library’s website.

I have to admit that for a long time I was afraid to read it. I learned to swim after reading Philip Hoare’s previous book. What would be waiting for me now? I held in my hands the silver hardcover edition of “Albert & the Whale”, which arrived in the mailbox in February 2021. I opened it and ran through the book as impolitely fast as I could to get a sense of the contents but not get carried away. I stopped here and there with soft bones but then hid the book away and closed the doors. I wasn’t ready for a journey as intensive as that. Not yet. A year passed. Before the summer of 2022, the postman brought the paperback edition. The book knocked a second time. I sniffed it like a dog (the author writes, how much easier things would be if we were all dogs, able to sniff each other out) and was ready to dive in.

Albert in the title is Albrecht Dürer, the brilliant German painter and printmaker of the 15th and 16th centuries. The whale is a stranded whale – a huge mysterious creature from the unknown depths of the sea, which Dürer very much wanted to see in 1520, but did not get to. Centuries have passed, and scientists are still searching for a clear answer as to why air-breathing whales sometimes even wash ashore en masse and die of their own weight. Centuries have passed, and Dürer’s works of art still amaze. They flash like comets, long-haired stars, says the author, translating from Greek.

Albrecht Dürer is a pioneer. The first in the history of art to paint mud and grass with the same dedication as altarpieces. The first to reproduce his works much like Andy Warhol ages later. And at the same time – just a person who lies on the ground like a child and looks at how huge the stems would look if we were tiny in size. In his travel diaries, he carefully lists expenses and mentions purchases (socks, etc.) and, typical of modern trends, often and beautifully portrays himself.

Shooting stars in the night sky and eccentric stars of the stage and life are Philip Hoare’s literary field. Both the beautiful and the sea are the capacious secrets that the author tries to solve in several books. Could art save us? He asks in this one.

Albrecht Dürer is not the only soul in the book. Thomas Mann is sunbathing here in the dunes of Nida in Lithuania, David Bowie is immortal, here you will meet the modernist poet Marianne Moore, also Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, there are references to Winfried Georg Sebald, a special writer for the author. The pages are home to lions and sea lions, rhinoceroses, whales, real and fictional animals, and special love letters are dedicated to dogs: those in paintings, photographs, and those in each of our memories. The book is not a biography, nor is it just a history of art, it is like a living and breathing organism with an attentive and wise viewer – the author of the book – somewhere on the edge, not in the center, looking at it all from his window.

Hoare’s books are blubber-like: layers upon layers of thick text. In one of the online sessions for the book, he tells the world from his room in Southampton, England, that writing is like cooking a sauce. You put everything in a pan, then cook slowly on low heat, stir, add, smell, taste, continue boiling and wait until the rest evaporates, and the book is ready. It’s not easy, the author admits, resting his gray chin in his palm on the Zoom screen. But I don’t believe it. Not that this inquisitive boy – that is exactly the author’s voice in the text – has a gray beard, not that the text was difficult to write. This is a magician’s mastery – it reads as easily as if you were reading a diary, page by page filled by a passionate soul, traveling through time and space with a pen in his hand. Or in the mouth. At the end of the book, the author meets his old teacher on the street. I remember you well, she says, your mouth was always black from sucking the ink in your pen.

I already know how to swim. But now I’m flooded with the desire to look at works of art as closely as possible, to live in them for a moment, and take a walk on the other side of the canvas. To see art through today’s eyes. Through my eyes. Philip Hoare, the clever rebel, issues such a ticket. You’ll find it slipped in between the pages.

Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale, 4th Estate, 2021


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