Friday, November 24, 2017

Herman Melville, The Piazza Tales (1856)

My feeling is that when it comes to Melville, most people start and stop with Moby-Dick, and given what a visionary writer he is, that is NOT ENOUGH. So I read this, which contains his best-known short works. And also some not. Anyway, I think it was a good choice.

We begin with "The Piazza," which Melville wrote specifically for this book. Like an exclusive song on a best-of album, except not even slightly like that. It's about a guy with a piazza with a view of a mountain where he sees what seems to be a really beautiful house. He idealizes the hell out of it, but when he goes there, he finds there's a girl living there who idealizes HIS house. IRONY! I guess we shouldn't idealize things, or something. Actually, even though it's pretty slight, there IS some beautiful writing here.

Next is "Bartleby, the Scrivener," or just "Bartleby" as its referred to in this book, or at least the Project Gutenberg version. I think this is the only writing of Melville's other than Moby-Dick that most people could name, and even give the premise of: Bartleby, hired by the lawyer narrator as a scribe, briefly works feverishly before starting to declare that he would prefer not to do this or that or anything. And to address an obvious point, no, I probably shouldn't throw around "most people" so freely. Obviously, "most people" know nothing whatsoever about Melville. But YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN DAMMIT. The story is...really pretty much exactly what you'd likely expect based on that premise, but it's also pretty great, I think. Obviously, there are any number of meanings we could ascribe to the title character's stated preferences, and I don't suppose there's much I can or should add. This is one of those things, I think, where the indeterminacy is part of the point and the appeal. I just wish that scant handful of Republicans had preferred not to vote last year. Then we wouldn't be in this clusterfuck.

WELL ANYWAY. Then we get another somewhat famous story, "Benito Cereno," which is actually more of a novella. The narrator is a ship's captain, Delano, who comes upon a grounded ship and goes over to offer help. It turns out to be a slave ship, but there seems to have been a storm-related problem: most of the white sailors are dead, and the slaves are just kind of milling around. The title character is the captain of this grounded ship, only Delano finds the situation very weird, as indeed it is: Cereno behaves in a weirdly passive, indifferent way for reasons that our viewpoint character can't figure out. It's weird and intriguing. Should I spoil what happens? You pretty much have to if you want to say anything substantial about it. So it turns out that the whole thing's a fa├žade; the slaves are in charge, acting servile so they can take over Delano's ship and ultimately return to Senegal.

Now, this whole thing is capital-p Problematic for sure. You can say "much as Moby-Dick isn't about whales per se as we think of them, this isn't about slavery as we think of it." But that's a bit of a harder sell, for obvious reasons, especially in this day and age. Delano thinks a whole bunch of racist stuff about the blacks on the ship; of course, later it is revealed that he had totally misperceived the situation, so phooey to him. THEN AGAIN, the slaves are nonetheless depicted with a level of savagery that seems excessive, even for their goal. And while I think all of us (except Jeff Sesssions) would agree that a revolt on a slave ship is more than morally justified, the question is: did Melville think this? That seems like the crux of the biscuit. It's a compelling story, but, again: Problematic.

Not problematic at all is "The Lightning-Rod Man," an unexpectedly goofy story; whimsical, strange, and altogether delightful. A guy is in his house enjoying the storm outside when a lightning-rod salesman who takes storms as opportunities for sales pitches knocks on his door, and his pro-storm stance and the salesman's hysterical terror conflict in highly amusing ways. I don't know if there's much more to say about it, but I was extremely edified.

Then, another somewhat well-known story, "The Encantadas." This does not really seem to count as fiction; it's a series of sketches about the Gallapagos, some of them more story-ish than others. This was apparently popular back in the day because it harkened back to Melville's earlier, more "normal" sea stories, but for that reason, it's probably not as interesting to us. His weird judgments of the local fauna are amusing, however. On tortoises:

...apart from their strictly physical features, there is something strangely self-condemned in the appearance of these creatures. Lasting sorrow and penal hopelessness are in no animal form so suppliantly expressed as in theirs; while the thought of their wonderful longetivity does not fail to enhance the impression.

He also refers to penguins as "without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man," which seems a bit gratuitous. Finally, let me note that he characterizes spiders as "reptiles," much as Proust did with leeches that one time. Is the concept really that difficult for your major novelist? Hmm.

Oh, okay, and last but least, there's "The Bell-Tower," an odd gothic thing about an architect in some ancient past who is building the tower in question and suffers an ironic fate. It put me in mind of--of all things--the short story that concludes Youval Shimoni's somewhat interminable A Room. Was that influenced by this? Maybe. Hard to say. I left my copy of that novel in Jakarta. And je ne regrette rien! Anyway, "The Bell-Tower" doesn't seem too well-known nowadays, but it's atmospheric, and not at all what I would've expected from Melville. Seems like he's just full of surprises. I have to find time to read more of his novels in the near future.


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