Cover Image: Albert & the Whale

Albert & the Whale

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Member Reviews

'Albert and the Whale' is an intriguing work of creative non-fiction which combines art history, natural history, physiology and literary criticism with memoir. Philip Hoare's starting point is Albrecht Dürer and his fascination with whales but we move from this to a wider examination of Dürer's work and those he influenced, however obliquely, including Herman Melville, Thomas Mann, Marianne Moore, Erwin Panofsky and W.G. Sebald. 

Hoare moves seamlessly between topics - at times the connections aren't immediately clear and take a while to establish themselves, which lends the book an appropriate sense of fluidity but can make it quite a disorienting read, as can his habit of slipping unannounced into quotations from different sources without speech punctuation.  Hoare illustrates his book with a wide range of pictures and photographs, some embedded within the text and others included as colour plates: in the online edition I was reading it was quite difficult to match the latter up to their positions in the text, but maybe this is clearer in the printed version. (I certainly think this would be a much better book to own in hard copy than on Kindle because of the sheer beauty of the artwork.)   

Overall, this is a beautifully written book with many fascinating insights and connections, particularly for a reader who already has a fairly broad knowledge of art and literature and is prepared to put the work in.  Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me an ARC to review.
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Hoare does not make it easy for his readers. Right from the start, he serves a volley of chaotic scenes featuring monkeys, museums, ports, war statistics, art critics, obscure fantasy authors and general musings. Finally, on page 13, the first mention of Albrecht Dürer, a snippet from his life in 1519. Dürer’s patron had died, he needed to get out of plague-ridden Nuremberg and travelled to Rotterdam, where the successor of his patron was to be crowned.
We learn that Dürer was an avid collector of curio which he bartered for his works. He becomes fascinated with whales - whalebones were then incorporated into buildings as “lucky charms”.
Hoare conjures up a myriad of people back and forth in time, Albertus Magnus, Byron, Freud, Aristotle, Herman Melville, Frankenstein, Pope Pius, Newton, Luther, Turner, Lord Chatham, Warhol, Nietzsche, Leonardo, Ruskin...
The sparse comments on Dürers actual work are odd, like the one about Dürer’s woodcut of a rhino:”His rhino is interplanetary, pitted with lunar craters; erupting with coral reefs; jewel-laden as any tortoise, carved as any Venetian grotto chair.”
All in all, an unreadable, feverish jumble of trivia, an explosion in a Wikipedia factory. Three stars just because I love Dürer’s work, otherwise disappointing.
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Albert and The Whale is Philip Hoare’s personal, meditative and meandering journey in search of Albrecht Dürer and his art. It is a wonderful read that takes in history, the natural world, literature and poetry, accompanied by beautifully reproduced art. I wanted to read it ahead of the upcoming National Gallery exhibition Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Man and am now counting days until it opens.

Back when I was growing up, my grandmother had a set of tiny books about the Old Masters that I often looked at and of course, Dürer was the artist I was most intrigued by because of the Christ-like Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight. Who was this beautiful, enigmatic creature? It is easy to see why people have admired him to the point of obsession over centuries. 

In his search of Dürer, Hoare looks at Thomas Mann, Sebald, Marianne Moore, Melville and Moby Dick, David Bowie and many others, building sometimes surprising, often delightful connections across borders and centuries. His starting point is a journey Dürer made while in today’s Netherlands to see a beached whale, disappeared by the time Dürer arrived. While he never got to sketch the whale, he did leave fabulous drawings of the natural world. This fascination with the natural world is shared by the author who laments its destruction through colonialism, wars and human greed. 

I simply loved this book, it’s one of the best I’ve read all year and, having read an advance copy on my phone, will be buying the hardback. My thanks to Fourth Estate, William Collins and Netgalley for the opportunity to read it.
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It's not an easy read but I was fascinating by what I read and learn a lot about Durer but also other cultural aspects.
It's well researched, well written and highly interesting.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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It’s very difficult to describe this book as it’s such a wide-ranging and discursive work, a blend of art history, memoir, literature, poetry, psychogeography, the natural world – and even surgery. At the heart of it is the author’s love for and admiration of Durer, many of whose works are featured in the book – but it’s so much more than that. Impossible to classify. It’s such an imaginative and original piece of writing, and although it assumes a certain amount of cultural knowledge on the part of the reader, as no concessions are made, it’s nevertheless a compelling ride as we accompany the author on his journey while he immerses himself in Durer’s art. Perhaps occasionally he gets a bit carried away, and there are indeed a few passages that are overwritten, but overall I really enjoyed the book and found it a compelling and entertaining read.
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This book starts with a middle-aged Durer in , who's lost a patron, and wants to make works of art glorious enough to attract others. It takes in the times-increasing international trade, the confusion of people in contact with new worlds, to explore, enslave, colonise. It's also about Durer's relationship with nature, and his magnificent artworks of animals, and the level of details captured even in a rendering of blades of grass. With Durer's art as a foundation, the writer spins us out in a swirling narrative that takes in everything that Durer's had an effect on (with a focus on elements that interest Hoare, of course!). So you get examinations of Durer and whales, depression, the appropriation of art and perversion of its meaning ( Durer was a huge favourite of Hitler and upheld as a symbol of the Aryan race, though we have nothing to suggest Durer ever believed anything of the sort). Hoare quotes Panofsky on Durer-an art critic who was a refugee in Princeton, at the same time as Einstein and Thomas Mann. THIs connection to Thomas Mann gives us one of my favorite sections of the book-an analysis of Thomas Mann's life, family and his works, and most importantly , their fierce (and brave) denunciations of Nazism. Thomas Mann and his family's lives read like lessons on resistance, and the importance of using your power to give a voice to those who don't have one. He also takes in the work of WG Sebald, the structure of the book seems quite inspired by Sebald's Rings of Saturn. Except, instead of a walking tour of a part of England, Hoare does a a round-the-world tour in search of Durer's works, and along the way, gives us a meticulously researched work on what it means to be a human and our place in the natural world. This is a beautiful, compelling, rewarding read, enriched with some absolutely delightful photographs-super-fun ones of the author playing around with skulls and bones, and absolutely gorgeous reproductions of Durer's art.  I wasn't particularly interested in Durer when I picked up the book, I started it because I find Hoare's writing interesting, I finished it telling my husband that I was firmly convinced Durer is the greatest Renaissance artist. You finish the book wanting to flip back to the first page to begin reading it again.
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Any book that manages to pull together a narrative that connects Durer, Thomas Mann, Moby Dick and David Bowie was always going to be a winner for me! The adjective 'Sebaldian' is becoming a bit of a cliché to describe this kind of postmodern, peripatetic text but it also gives a strong sense of what to expect from this. 

Hoare ambles on his journey taking delight in unexpected detours but also making long stays in places to explore with some depth. There can occasionally be a tendency to over-write for effect rather than sense: 'they were trying to destroy the sea', for example, in relation to the Nazi bombing of Southampton sounds portentous but a second's thought reveals the absurdity behind the pretty words - the target was the important trans-Atlantic port, of course, not the sea which was a medium of German warfare. But this is me being picky...

The substance of the book is on making imaginative and sometimes unexpected connections, and in that sense this is a bit like having a conversation with your most erudite group of friends. If you love Sebald but also Roberto Calasso (though the prose here is far more lucid and accessible), and even 'non-fictional fiction' such as 'When We Cease to Understand the World', this may be a good choice. 

And it's worth saying that I especially appreciated the abundance of visual material: photos, engravings all of which represent well in the Kindle edition.
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Albert and the Whale is not a book to categorise. Indeed its ostensibly unstructured narrative both resists such categorisation and conceals some careful planning. At least Hoare's fourth book at whales and the sea, it's also about so much more: art, writing and the act of creativity and takes in Dürer, Thomas Mann, Sebald, Bowie and others.  If you enjoy Sebald or Iain Sinclair, you'll enjoy this but be prepared to take the scenic route. Recommended.
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Ostensibly this book is a biography/character study of Dürer, initially sparked through his trip to the Netherlands (1521), where he wanted to see beached whales, but arrived just too late. Starting from this episode we move around aspects of Durer’s work, his etchings, his self-portraits, his craftsmanship, and his engagement with animals. Its like Durer was residing in an Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock era - past and future had collapsed in confusing ways and only a genius like Durer could point the way out.

Don’t read this if you’re the kind of person who likes factual information delivered straight and who wants the information to talk for itself. Durer left us more words, images  than most Renaissance folk, but we can’t just lay these fragments together and expect a ‘life’ to emerge. Besides, the author is trying to do something different. He has gone to Durer because of the imaginative connection he feels, tracing shared obsessions and reflecting on shared bodily features (retracted fingers). He channels Durer and those who have also been drawn into this dark orbit.

Obviously, this is a bit of a modernist act, not genuine communing, but also not nothing, either. There is quite about about how art emerges in this this will-to-connect; this compulsion to travel, to read, to find out, to dive into unknown depths. He is drawn to Durer.There is a strong theme of ambiguity, transitional phases, and performing, even impersonation (channeling). Art is specifically identified as such a zone of ambiguity, in which artists can find their past and future influences.

The book is a cabinet of curiosities - a space in which secret, subterranean, correspondences link Dürer, the ‘savage messiah’ (p.113), with Ruskin (in his later period), Erwin Panofsky (the biographer of Durer), and Panofsky’s nuclear physicist son). There are sustained studies of Marianne Moore and Thomas Mann, both of who felt the pull of Durerworld TM. There is recurring reference to Bowie (always referred to as ‘the staman’ - several people and places are evoked with such indirect discretion). This is used to reflect themes of celebrity (‘the star’, particularly the ‘darkstar’), technology, as well as reflections on the nature of images, curiosity, truthfulness.

Of course, the art history is good - he engages at a sophisticated level with Wolf, Panofsky and a number of experts of portraiture, etching technique, and so on. He personally inspects the art, and there are plenty of illustrations. He pilgrimages to the key sites, and even to the work of shared admirers, like Conrad Gesner’s study of animals - he also stole from Durer, following a shared obsession with new forms and experiences.

His writing is very clear when it needs to be, but often a kind of prose poem (like Pater he is ‘a diver in the depths’). His prose is sinuous and now he has dispensed with the impediments of footnotes, quotation marks. In this his main influence seems to be W.G. Sebald, but I think there is a lot of Sacheverell Sitwell in there too.
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