Great books make genres jump. It happened with W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which looked like a travelogue, claimed to be a novel and felt like neither. Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare, which recalls and converses with Sebald, is such a work. An antic and original creation, it is not exactly a biography of the revolutionary Renaissance printmaker, painter and theorist of geometry and perspective. For the fuller story of Albrecht Dürer, turn to Erwin Panofsky’s mighty monograph, as Hoare does frequently.
Instead, Hoare has made a book as much for Dürer as it is about him. Dürer’s life and art are thrillingly encountered. But imagine writing a letter to a brilliant friend containing a portrait of them, filling the gaps between you with imaginative companionship: ‘The grasses are flowering and the day is windless, but the bent stems retain the memory of a breeze. Dürer marches out in his boots, spade over his shoulder, to select his specimen.’ Hoare’s reading of the ‘Great Piece of Turf’ watercolour draws on Turner’s description of wind, ‘the wavy air’; compares notes with Erasmus (‘He even depicts that which cannot be depicted,’ says the philosopher); pictures the painter — ‘The artist shrugs. I just did it’ — and comes to its own conclusion: ‘Dürer looks so we can see.’
No reader will forget studying the ‘Apocalypse’, ‘Melancolia,’ the ‘Angel’, the rhino or the self-portraits in Hoare’s company. Following him between them is deliberately dizzying. Sometimes you know where you are, eating at a café table in Zeeland, for example, on a shadow pilgrimage to the one Dürer made in 1520, when he hoped and failed to see a washed-up whale. Occasionally you are in the Louvre, in Hoare’s home in Southampton or Dürer’s in Nuremberg; but mostly there are no steadying bannisters of time or containing walls of space at all.