Moby Dick in Hollywood—Orson Welles by Pierre Senges

BOMB 142 Winter 2018
142 Cover Web

Why haven’t there been any sequels to Moby-Dick? It’s a question that Paul Metcalf, the great documentary poet and great-grandson of Herman Melville, asked in an essay near the end of his life some twenty years ago. Well, it took a Frenchman to write it, but at long last, the world has that sequel, Achab (séquelles) by Pierre Senges. Almost 600 pages in length, thus rivaling its predecessor in heft, the work is being translated by myself and slowly making its way into English. A master of comic phrasing, Senges has made a reputation as one of his country’s most learned and inventive writers of fiction. His books, though, tend not to be fictions in the sense that term often connotes: rather than inventing characters, they tend to be essayistic and allusive, drawing upon characters from myth and classical literature, such as Don Quixote, Macbeth, Pope Joan, or Baron Munchausen. Often, his projects depart from an eminent precursor text, whether Kafka’s fragments, the Persian Letters of Montesquieu, or Moby-Dick. Published in 2015, Achab (séquelles) tells of how, after the wreck of the Pequod, Captain Ahab found his way to Manhattan and turned his back on the high seas for good. In early twentieth-century New York, he learns to embrace his newfound anonymity by taking whatever job he can get: taxi driver, elevator attendant, sous-chef, delivery boy, cobbler, lens grinder—all while adjusting to the difficulties of life in the teeming metropolis, no small task for a man forty years at sea. In the meantime, the white whale trawls through the depths, abandoned by his nemesis, grief-stricken and disconsolate.

Yet the famous duo of man and whale would not be brought to its conclusion so abruptly: Ahab eventually manages to find his way to Broadway and the world of its producers. There—and still later in Hollywood—he tries to sell his epic story to the highest bidder. This development brings the White Whale to theaters and to cinemas, ushering in an eclectic cast of characters that includes Cole Porter, Billy Wilder, Josef von Sternberg, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, as we see in the following excerpt, Orson Welles.

— Jacob Siefring

Finally back in the fold of Hollywood—one imagines him advancing mistrustfully, mistrustfully looking up at the high and useless palm trees (an immoderation which serves no purpose: the palm trees “planted on both sides of the expressway in order to purge an already pure sky”). He makes his way just as mistrustfully to go and see the men of the major studios; he would like to recite Melville in the men’s faces (they would learn it well), Melville in the guise of sea spray, in order to throw a wrench in their fine days. In his suitcases, not so bulging, but almost, a piece of Macbeth, a piece of Othello, a piece of Conrad, a piece of Cervantes, a piece of Faust, a piece of Munchhausen, a piece of Gulliver, The Comedy of Errors, views of Venice, stills of himself in the process of wrapping himself in a foulard with a free hand, and self-portraits as the devil, as a drunk, as a king, as a traveling salesman, as a magician, as Tiberius, as a lion tamer putting his lions in pawn at a pawnbroker’s, as a Borgia, as a sermonizer, as a prophet, as a fugitive, as Barabbas, as Pickwick, as Rembrandt himself disguised as a knight—and in a notebook, twenty-seven sketches of wooden legs.

He prepares himself to step into the skin of Captain Ahab; he pictures him in his mind by imitating him: from one end of the hotel room to the other, he takes the hundred steps, which are never exactly one hundred in one direction nor in the opposite, one hundred passionate, irate, seething, melancholic, monomaniacal, exhausted, overwhelmed, and alternately morbid steps, then after these, joyous, hysterical, fulminating, mystical steps, followed by clownish ones, he imagines for instance Captain Ahab offering himself up as a spectacle to his sailors to make them laugh, which is not too far from reality. In solitude he hams it up (hamming it up without an audience is a kind of perfection in the art of acting): he doesn’t try to reconstitute the exact limp of a sailor on a whale boat, but he reinvents it to suit the needs of the theater, or better, to let the sailor study him instead. (After having conscientiously staggered in the manner of a bear in a cage, then in the style of Tamburlaine (he even tries for Charlie Chaplin), he takes out from under his bed a briefcase and removes from it a dozen little tender pink plastic things, with gracious interiors, soft as cartilage must be: fake noses of different kinds, each more or less subversive, because you’ve got to have a vindictive nose if you want to be Ahab.

He is conscientious: even if he curses the studio system to Hell, he agrees to do advertisements in exchange for port wine, he gives it ten percent of his grace and his talent which, no question, is worth a thousand times the talent of the others. Commissions, imbeciles, increasingly minor roles, the bear dancing on television, and the caricature of himself, he will get there, he’s already on his way: he does it all begrudgingly, he withdraws, he takes umbrage, gets a lump in his throat,Holds in his tears, and if he doesn’t hold them in, claims they are quoted from Milton. sacrifices part of his soul (he’ll always have some to spare), he comes face to face with himself in a mirror, damns half the human race, claims Shakespeare as his witness, but ends up going ahead anyway—and by going ahead, he imitates the vainglory of the geniuses of the Cinquecento when they went off to wax the arm rests of a prince.

Orson Welles’s agent offers him a role as Captain Ahab in order to amuse the general audience of Warner Brothers? Alright, so be it, he’ll do Ahab, it will put food on the table and be prestigious too: he’ll do Ahab as a bear, as a sailor in an operetta, as a lover of Circe, as a neoplatonist; he will reread his Moby-Dick in order to impregnate himself with it as they all claim to do, and to prohibit others from talking about it as knowledgably as himself—he’ll reread “The Scrivener” too, hoping to find something in it to nourish his captain with. He’s already growing his beard out, which just goes to show to what extent he’s premeditating his role; he picked out from among his false noses the one with the most suitable form, he found the profoundness of his limping (a long syllable following by a short one, like a trochee inspired by the hendecasyllabics of Catullus, or a short syllable followed by a long one, like the iamb of Shakespeare); he struck the right tone, he knew how to burnish the tanned leather of adventures, a little foundation, a little natural usury; he wavered between losing weight and fattening up, he became ample in order to incarnate Ahab in the shape of a porpoise, he thinned out again in order to suggest the asceticism of men mad and alone, who venerate an untraceable God and forget to feed themselves; he struck the right tone again, more hoarse; he tried out postures, he looked for examples of costumes in books; he boasts (but we ought not to believe him) of having gone into an antique shop to talk to the owner about wooden legs all night long, at dawn and in the morning too, whilst going from wine to aged rum; he made sketches on loose pages alongside a project for Crime and Punishment; he searched on his immense big boy’s body for a space to tattoo an image of an anchor and a whale, or something simultaneously satanic and biblical (he didn’t have time to fill up on works of cetology, but he was practically there, he wasn’t too far off). 

Orson Welles presents himself at the door of the big studio as the vanquisher of Hollywood and of Agincourt, he returns to this setting he has always dreaded, the mix of copper and prewar wood, the long tables where bankers talk of capes and swords; he greets the boss and his representatives in order, he recognizes the director off in a corner, the executive producer, the lawyers, the secretary; he drops a word from Hawthorne, no one understands at first and the laughter sounds like certain easy chairs when they are sat upon. It is his turn to sit down now, he has become almost confident, he breathes in the open sea air thinking there she blows, there she blows, then, without batting an eye, he hears the name of the actor to whom the big studio has just awarded the role of Captain Ahab: the lucky guy.

Immediately, he foresees his return to Europe: the airplanes too small for him, Paris and then Spain, making the rounds among fake princesses, reels of film bought here and there, his pride at the back of a burrow, the company of a New York intellectual come to pay him a visit and confirm him in his genius, as if he needed that. He thinks also of his bank account, and when he wonders what role they are thinking of giving him instead of the role of Captain, the three bankers, two accountants, the owner, the lawyers, and the secretary reply in unison: the white whale.

The character of Moby Dick: an embarassing honor (the elephant Harun al-Rashid offered to Charlemagne, who hadn’t the slightest idea where to put it), but the role of an entire existence, the occasion for Welles to exercise his great mannerist art on an outsize stage—in that one must see the harmony between actor and character: Moby Dick seeking Orson Welles for decades to find him at last in Hollywood, where everyone is gathered together in the final act. The white whale, when you think about it, is a role truly unlike any other (that’s what the bankers are saying, along with his agent, and the director): the equivalent of Jesus or Nero, or God the Father, God plain and simple, or even Buddha played by Charlton Heston, with that musculature he’s famous for. The arguments are several, Welles takes umbrage, he scowls, which resembles the withdrawal of Jehovah at the instant of Creation in order to cede a little place to the Universe, or rather a Grand Cosmic Sulk. His mistrust is itself just as monumental, nourished by recent failures, high and low treasons, and by the constant study of men; his mistrust is born from the addition of humankind to the producing kind, and it blooms in the unmissable sun of Hollywood, where everything is shiny, among so many artists desirous of swimming pools. Across from him, three executive producers, smiling, solar, a script on the table, happy to have hooked the beast, made him come back from Europe, and very sincerely proud to offer to an actor on the decline, in the guise of magnificent alms, an unsurpassable role: the Leviathan, the Leviathan, you do realize. Welles, one imagines, bites his cheek, he looks at the three producers, he must recognize in them Magi, he sees three sole filets laid out upon a heap of ice, mottled pink and white—for him, the sperm whale is a humiliation on top of humiliations, a plot to make him disappear more radically still, he being so precocious, the laughing stock of the western world. They talk to him of loftiness, nobility, someone intones the word infinite (or eternity), they present Welles with story-boards; a little later, in an aside, between just four eyes, the director talks about the whale as a great sensitive soul: a reservoir of deep thoughts—tormented, visionary, melancholic, precious. Orson Welles and the director alone in a room by themselves (how did they get there?) give themselves airs of breaking with the rules of Hollywood, artist’s word now: instead of talking contracts, they caress Moby Dick, they take a tour of him without murdering him, talk about him as others have spoken of Lady Macbeth, her pointy nails, her weaknesses, as still others have spoken of Queen Christina. Let Orson Welles be reassured: Moby Dick won’t just be a gigantic costume you strap on, with a hole to stick your head through, it will be a matter of skill, of psychology, he’ll have to incarnate him with gravity, make him dance as on a tightrope, imagine ancestors for him, and a childhood too (as if the Method of the Actors Studio might one day come to grips with the whale).

For the rest of the day, Orson Welles hesitates, he consults engravings (of the whale in profile), he strokes his chin, wonders if he ought to fatten up or start losing weight, wonders likewise if he will know how to draw on his repertoire for some roles close to the whale, wonders if there’s some sperm whale in him; he envisages huge sets, the false sea, stage managers, the costume of Moby Dick like an immense, stiff wedding dress, with palm trees, the hours spent on makeup, grueling rehearsals, the suspicion of the press, the rumors, chimerical portraits, half Orson Welles, half Moby Dick, innuendos, his head wedged tight in a carcass, and not a single line of dialogue. 

How did Orson Welles refuse the role of Moby Dick? We don’t actually know: he was either resounding or resolutely quiet (once again, an empty hotel room, a terrific contract in the waste basket, the salary underlined once, and the name of Moby Dick too); he took a plane back to Europe, he found the place where Don Quixote once passed by, he found his notebooks full of notes, he returned as he would to his foyer to the continent where he has gotten into the habit of failing spectacularly, where defeat can become a literary genre, where fallen genius can find a few examples of glorious retreats in old Lives of Saints penned with twigs: the hermitage and the work in progress, ever in progress.

Translated by Jacob Siefring.

Pierre Senges is the author of fifteen books and over sixty plays for radio. His books include Veuves au maquillage, Ruines-de-Rome, Etudes de silhouettes, and Achab (séquelles), for which he was awarded the Prix Wepler in 2015. His works in English translation include The Major Refutation (Contra Mundum Press, 2016) and Fragments of Lichtenberg (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017).

Jacob Siefring is a translator and critic living in Ottawa, Ontario. His translations of Pierre Senges’s work have appeared in Gorse Journal, Music and Literature, Vestiges, The White Review, and elsewhere.

© Editions Gallimard, Paris, September 2015

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