Anyone familiar with his sea trilogy, starting with the prize-winning Leviathan in 2008, will know the liquid beauty of Hoare’s prose and his apparently limitless gift for witness and insight. He is as powerfully struck by the wonders of this world as Dürer. Each chapter, no matter how wide its flow, is anchored in a particular image by Dürer – the hare, the patient greyhound, the astounding self-portraits – and it is extraordinary to see them anew through Hoare’s eyes.
Hoare abandons familiar conventions of non-fiction for a carnival of polymathic cross-reference, fantasy and structure by association. Then, regularly and carefully, the whirl stills and we stand in communion with the artist. Of the Christ-like self-portrait of 1500, painted at the age of 28, Hoare writes: “He is where the modern world begins. That stare, that self, that star. This is where and what I am, he says: at the easel, in the mirror, on the canvas. From now on he will never not be famous.
WG Sebald, whose books tangle fiction, remembrance and history, once likened his approach to that of a dog in a field, which “following the advice of his nose . . . traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner”. Philip Hoare, best known for Leviathan, his discursive and personal book about whales, has written a very Sebaldian new book. In it, he traverses his own patch and sniffs out an assortment of seemingly unrelated themes — Albrecht Dürer, cetaceans, Thomas Mann and David Bowie, a deformation of the hand, the death of his mother — and proceeds to reveal the single degree of separation between them.
Hoare is intoxicated by Dürer’s version of the natural world, which threatens to be more vivid, more essential than the real thing. According to Erasmus, he could “depict that which cannot be depicted”. For Hoare, “what Dürer drew was more rhinoceros than the rhinoceros”. In Albert and the Whale there is the sense he’s seeing how allusive he can make his subjects’ lives — how much he can heighten them by bringing them into contact with each other and with Dürer. This harmonious and enviably conceived book manages it with full marks.
This is a book to immerse you. Like the sea in which its author swims daily, it braces and embraces. It beckons us ever on. Dürer never quite saw the dead whale. It pervaded his imagination all the more powerfully for that. I am not sure that we ever quite meet Dürer in this book. But we sense him all around us. We are swilled about in his world.