The first thing we see in this book is the face of a monkey. Or the eyes, to be precise, dominating an oddly cropped snap of the top half of the creature’s head, seeming to stare at the reader. Philip Hoare is visiting a friend who trains primates. This capuchin, named Felix, disconcerts Hoare, who feels an uncanny sense of identification: ‘he was like me, but entirely different.’ After two pages, the encounter and Felix’s appearance in the book are over.
It is a strange way to begin a book ostensibly about whales and Albrecht Dürer. But it signals several things about Albert and the Whale. First, as in Hoare’s previous books about the sea, Leviathan or, The Whale and RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, that the mute strangeness of the encounter with animals, loaded with incomprehension and identification, wonder and guilt, will be at the heart of it. Second, that it is aligned with the writings of W G Sebald, whose last major work, Austerlitz, also starts with pictures of animal eyes. Third, that it will be oblique. Felix, Hoare tells us, ‘disrupted everything because I couldn’t predict how he would move or what he thought’. The changes of tack and obscure intensities in this marvellous, unaccountable book show that Hoare has learned not just from Sebald but also from the monkey.
The title names a whale that Dürer neither saw nor drew. Hoare begins by following Dürer on his tour of Europe in 1520, a wander year in search of patrons, subjects and a whale. In Antwerp and Brussels, Dürer misinterpreted relics of the almost-mythic mammal: ‘the bones of the giant’,