Friday, December 6, 2019

Billy Budd and Other Stories by Herman Melville

After I finished this year’s reread of Moby Dick, I thought it was weird that I had read it eight times and had not read anything else by him.* I’m pretty sure I was assigned Bartleby the Scrivener either in High School or College because I remember having a cheap edition of it. But if I actually read it, I had completely forgotten it. As I read (and really loved) that story in this collection, I had no memory of it at all. I am pleased, and not at all surprised to report that, based on this sample (with the possible exception of Benito Cereno, which I’m still mulling over), Melville’s other work holds up well. It includes five of the six stories collected in the Piazza Tales and replaces the other with the posthumously published title story. Like Moby Dick, I suspect I’ll need multiple rereads to get these, but in most cases I won’t mind that at all.

It took a few pages to get into Billy Budd, Sailor. Melville is not a direct writer, and here takes quite a while setting the scene and the characters in place. This is true of Moby Dick as well, of course, but my familiarity with that book offsets any (or at least most) of my frustration with the discursive path Melville takes to get to his point. In Billy Budd, that point is an ethical question about the law and intention. Budd is falsely accused and then in frustration strikes and kills his accuser. He did not intend to, and the accuser was very much in the wrong. Yet Budd had to hang for the killing. Apparently this is often posed as a legal puzzle in some law schools. It makes sense. There’s a broader application to contemporary discourse as well, I think; to what degree does intention matter? Budd didn’t mean to kill Claggart, but Claggart is dead. How much do the circumstances extenuate. It’s hard to say. Melville doesn’t make it clear either. He means for the reader to have to think about it. I liked this, but on first reading it was one of the weaker stories in the book.

In The Piazza, the narrator builds a piazza onto his house in the remote hills. The surroundings put him in a fairy tale mood and he imagines another house in a distant spot in the wilderness. Living there is a woman thinking the same of his house. It’s written in ornate language that attempts, mostly successfully, to cast a spell on the reader. It’s ambiguous whether something actually supernatural is happening, and the implication is that the rest of the Piazza Tales were spun from that same porch. It also has somewhat of a moral warning that lands somewhere between cautionary tale about living in a fantasy world and not falling prey to assuming someone else has it better. I thought it better than the title story, but it is still a little lighter than most of the book.

Bartleby the Scrivener, though, really deserves its place as a standard text. It had a surprisingly eerie tone for a story about resisting office life. The theme of resistance to the death in life that happens in bureaucratic jobs has long appealed to me, and the end to which it is put here reminded me a lot of The Moviegoer. Binx Bollings statement that “everydayness is the enemy” wouldn’t have been out of place here. The criticism of the pursuit of wealth and being tied too much to the job is expressed with the atmosphere of a horror story. Like Moby Dick, it seems to be a precursor to the existentialists of the next century. I am certain I didn’t fully grasp this story on this read through, but I do look forward to revisiting it often.

Benito Cereno was the story I wrestled with the most. One of the many things I like about Moby Dick is the diversity of the cast of characters. Every character, regardless of race, is given agency. Which is why I was taken aback when this story, written several years after Moby Dick, seems very much in line with the more racist views of the time, at least on the surface. The story deals with a whaling ship that comes across a slave ship in which the slaves are eventually revealed to have taken over and the titular captain has to pretend that all is normal for the point of view character, the captain of the whaling ship. That captain’s judgement is called into question early on. “Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano's surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.” I was surprised when an English Professor friend said that he and his wife, also an English Professor, thought this was Melville’s best work. They see it as highly critical of slavery, and the narrator as unreliable. I’m not used to third person narrators being deliberately unreliable, so I didn’t initially read it that way. In that reading it indicts the reader’s perception of the leader of the slave revolt. He should be the hero of the story, but is portrayed as evil, and like Humbert Humbert, the narration is showing readers something about themselves. I fear this is reading a contemporary viewpoint back onto the text, but I’m almost willing to give Melville the benefit of the doubt based on Moby Dick. I’ll have to reread it before I make too strong a call on it.

The Encantadas were probably the best part of the book for me. The title is another name for the Galapagos islands and take the form of a series of sketches of the place. Rereading Annie Dillard recently well prepared me for these. They really ride the line between fiction and creative nonfiction essays. They are beautiful evocations of nature and the desolation of the place. These are just beautiful, and along with Bartleby, are the most essential pieces in the book.

The final story, The Bell Tower, is a proto-science fiction/feat of engineering/horror story. It’s the most straightforward storytelling I’ve yet seen from Melville, and it is very effective.

Melville’s writing in this collection demonstrates that Moby Dick was no fluke. He’s genuinely great. His style is more discursive than most contemporary writers, but the work it takes to get into his mindset is well worth it. He’s prescient in the way he approaches existential questions. His obsession with death is on display, as is his wit. I will certainly be returning to many, if not all, of these.

The stories range from recommended to canon-worthy.

*When I said that to a friend, he said, “Yeah that’s the weird part of that sentence.”

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