Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville

Whoo boy! I don’t know what I expected from this, but it wasn’t what I got (except on a prose level). Last year, on my eighth readthrough of Moby Dick, I realized that it had become my favorite novel and that it was weird that I hadn’t read anything else by Melville with the exception of a short story back in undergrad. So I read a collection that had Billy Budd and all save one of the Piazza stories and loved it. This was the next step, and maybe I expected something like the proto-version of Rififi, Le Cercle Rouge, Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, etc. but in Melville’s dense allusive prose. I was wrong.

There is a con man, constantly changing clothes, and only described by the clothes he was wearing, running a series of short cons on the passengers on a Mississippi steam boat on April Fools Day. It was published on April Fools Day1857, and it seems to be a joke played on the idea that we as humans can have confidence in anything. There’s no plot. It’s a series of short cons and philosophical ruminations on the nature of certainty and trust. I want to be careful not to read too much of modern day thought into the book, but if I read it correctly it blasts slavery, the idea of calling a woman crazy when she doesn’t act just the way she’s supposed to, the bible, capitalism, and just about every thing else. There’s a particularly savage passage in which he uses Paul’s bit about a righteous man vs a good man and how someone might actually die for the latter to remove all confidence in a slaver. But it does that for every person met in the book.

I read some Camus recently, and I can see why he considered Melville one of the great writers, and why he called him one of the few writers who could write the absurd. This is a masterful philosophical novel. One thing I was prepared for was Melville’s prose. All that time put in with Moby Dick paid off here. The language is similarly dense, if not balanced out by an adventure story framework. There’s a grandeur to the language that I really appreciate. This is reputed to be Melville’s most difficult novel, and between the two I’ve read that’s true. That said, it is a wonder. It’s not as good as Moby Dick, but what book is? Here, even more than in Moby Dick, he presages the modern novel and existentialist philosophy. It’s funny and profound. I will be returning to it many times, I’m sure.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 44/75

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