by Rebecca M. Alvin
Reading a book written by Philip Hoare is a unique experience. The British-born nonfiction writer who is a part-time Provincetown resident most years (when there isn’t a pandemic preventing him) has a way of selecting a topic—such as whales or the sea—and organizing his books’ structures not as chronological tales, not as subtopics building on the central subject matter, but as a many-tentacled mythological creature, with tangents stemming out from the main body, the stated topic, that we follow out and then back inward. In the process, we sometimes stray quite far from the core issue, even losing focus for a bit. But when we retrace our steps, it’s clear why we had to do so to understand something more than what we could in a traditional structure.
In his latest book Albert and the Whale, Hoare takes us on his journey toward a deeper knowledge of the great artist Albrecht Dürer by studying how he depicted nature, non-human animals in particular. But Hoare accomplishes this feat not by focusing entirely on Dürer himself (although there are some fascinating historical insights about him) but also on others who came after him and were in some way moved or influenced by him, like Thomas Mann and Marianne Moore, or like Hoare himself. And so the book not only details Dürer’s life, referencing his own writings and other reference materials, it also describes how just as Dürer drew and made woodcuts of animals he’d never actually seen in real life, like the whale of its title, relying only upon the reports of others, other artists (especially writers such as Hoare) connect with Dürer hundreds of years after his death, through his artworks. Albert and the Whale is about art itself.
But aside from Hoare’s intriguing stylistic and structural approach, he is also capable of communicating his deep connection to Dürer in the same way he lovingly wrote about the ocean in The Sea Inside and about whales in Leviathan (both topics that resurface again in all of his books, including this one). For example, in one passage, where he visits a man who has what is supposedly a lock of Dürer’s hair, Hoare describes the anxiety and awe he felt touching it in terms that give one chills: “I’m holding Dürer. He’s as heavy as a tooth or a tusk. He doesn’t feel safe in my bent hands. He ought to be in a baroque chapel, in a monstrance, not this academic basement. Martin and I talk about what it means. Neither of us is sure. Because I don’t speak his first language, and he only fitfully speaks mine, and because there’s this powerful thing between us, our words are more precise… Dürer was raised on relics. Now he is one. His hair growing on after he’s gone, a floppy lock fallen from the barber’s chair. A token for a lost loved one. Locked up, like the princess in her crystal coffin, waiting to regenerate. We could make a new Dürer from his genes.”
One can truly lose oneself in Hoare’s writing. Confusing sometimes? Yes. Meandering even? Yes, I think so. But so is getting lost in the woods or losing track of time or losing yourself in someone else’s embrace.
Albert and the Whale (2021, Pegasus Books) by Philip Hoare is available wherever books are sold. Please support your local bookstore.