Sunday, April 17, 2011

Wulf vs The Sea-Wolf

Wulf by Hamish Clayton
The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

The Sea-wolf (Oxford World's Classics)Wulf
I read/listened to these two books over the same period and it is entirely arbitrary of me to compare and contrast them. The wolfiness of their titles was just a coincidence (no actual wolves were harmed during the making of these books). The reason I read each book were: I'll be appearing with Clayton in a session on debut authors at the Auckland Writers Fest next month and besides this found the reviews of his novel intriguing; I really wanted to read Call of the Wild, but London's The Sea-Wolf was the only audiobook available to download/borrow from the Wellington City Library's online service.

Wulf's title refers both to the Old English poem, 'Wulf' or 'Wulf and Eadwacer' and the Maori chief/historical cipher Te Rauparaha who is referred to in lupine terms throughout the novel.

The wolf in The Sea-Wolf is Wolf Larsen, the captain of the seal-hunting schooner, The Ghost.

Aside from the wolves, both novels take place mostly on board a ship. Wulf came out in 2011 but is set in 1830. The Sea-Wolf was published in 1906 and the action is contemporary.  I felt more familiar with the layout of the ship and the elements of 'ship business' in London's book, but Clayton's manages to touch on the experience of being a sailor far from home and experiencing a new land in a way that is hard to shake.

Clayton's novel is told in highly poetic, dreamy, fragmented prose. It is at the level of language, of individual words and clauses, that the novel excels. London's novel is more focussed on ideas and the traditional, linear A happens, B happens, C happens plot.  Most of Wulf's A-B-C (the British merchant ship arrives in Kapiti and ends up ferrying Te Rauparaha and his warriors to the Banks Peninsula to chiefnap an enemy) is submerged, quite deliberately, in the act of storytelling. 

They are both good books, but entirely different. To illustrate this point: The Sea-Wolf has been made into a film thirteen times. I can't imagine what a film version of Wulf would look like and would call anyone who attempted to adapt it to the screen bonkers.  A book that cannot be translated into something else is often a glorious thing. Equally, there has to be something elementally right in a novel if it continues to be adapted and updated.

Moby-DickIt is hard to take comparison between the two books any further.  Instead, the comparison that screamed out to me while reading The Sea-Wolf was Moby Dick.  I have professed my love of Melville's masterpiece here before, and it is no surprise London's book comes up short. It is as if London has combined the discursive, quirky Ishmael with the mad, driven Ahab in the character of Wolf Larsen. Larsen is both an autodidact who quotes philosophers and poets and a sociopath who revels in the death of numerous members of his crew and kidnaps multiple characters forcing them to work on The Ghost.

While this is an interesting idea and the character of Wolf Larsen is certainly the most memorable part of the novel, The Sea-Wolf falls short of Moby Dick by giving us too much of a good thing.  We are in Wolf Larsen's company often so that we may hear his jaundiced survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog view of the world, whereas Ahab is withheld from the reader both by Ishmael’s lack of access to the captain and his own keenness to fill the silence with talk about whales and democracy.

It seems to me that Clayton has produced the more Melvillian book by withholding his Ahab -- the revenge-driven, blood-thirsty and flesh-hungry Te Rauparaha -- and producing a shadow play of myth and rumour upon the surface. Before things start to sound too hyperbolic, neither of the British mouth-pieces for the novel, the unnamed narrator and the storytelling sailor Cowell, are as good company as Ishmael, and I felt the plot aspects may have been submerged slightly too far beneath the dreamy language… Let's be clear: it is a difficult read and will not appeal to everyone, though for the right reader, it is a rewarding experience.

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