A piebald parliament (From Melville’s The Confidence-Man)

As among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, or those oriental ones crossing the Red Sea towards Mecca in the festival month, there was no lack of variety. Natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters. Fine ladies in slippers, and moccasined squaws; Northern speculators and Eastern philosophers; English, Irish, German, Scotch, Danes; Santa Fé traders in striped blankets, and Broadway bucks in cravats of cloth of gold; fine-looking Kentucky boatmen, and Japanese-looking Mississippi cotton-planters; Quakers in full drab, and United States soldiers in full regimentals; slaves, black, mulatto, quadroon; modish young Spanish Creoles, and old-fashioned French Jews; Mormons and Papists Dives and Lazarus; jesters and mourners, teetotalers and convivialists, deacons and blacklegs; hard-shell Baptists and clay-eaters; grinning negroes, and Sioux chiefs solemn as high-priests. In short, a piebald parliament, an Anacharsis Cloots congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man.

As pine, beech, birch, ash, hackmatack, hemlock, spruce, bass-wood, maple, interweave their foliage in the natural wood, so these mortals blended their varieties of visage and garb. A Tartar-like picturesqueness; a sort of pagan abandonment and assurance. Here reigned the dashing and all-fusing spirit of the West, whose type is the Mississippi itself, which, uniting the streams of the most distant and opposite zones, pours them along, helter-skelter, in one cosmopolitan and confident tide.

From Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.

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Captain Ahab — Rockwell Kent

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Captain Ahab, 1930 by Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)

What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.

From Chapter 132 of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno

Near the middle of Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, our erstwhile protagonist Captain Amasa Delano encounters an old sailor tying a strange knot:

For intricacy, such a knot he had never seen in an American ship, nor indeed any other. The old man looked like an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon. The knot seemed a combination of double-bowline-knot, treble-crown-knot, back-handed-well-knot, knot-in-and-out-knot, and jamming-knot.

At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—

“What are you knotting there, my man?”

“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.

“So it seems; but what is it for?”

“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man…

This knot serves as a metaphor for the text of Benito Cereno itself. We readers (along with our hapless surrogate Captain Delano) are the ones tasked with unknotting the text’s central mystery.

Part of the great pleasure of reading Benito Cereno for the first time rests in Melville’s slow-burning buildup to the eventual unknotting. I was fortunate enough to have been ignorant of the plot (and eventual revelation) of Benito Cereno when I first read it over a dozen or so years ago (although even then I cottoned on to what was really happening earlier than Captain Delano did). I read the novella again last week and marveled at Melville’s narrative control, enjoying it anew by seeing it anew.

Benito Cereno is a sharply-drawn tale about the limits of the limits of first-person consciousness and the cultural blinders we wear that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The book subtly critiques the notion of a naturally-ordered morality in which every person has a right and fitting place, whether that be a place of power or a place of servitude. Melville shows the peril and folly of intrinsically believing in the absolute rightness of such a system. There is comfort in belief, but unquestioning belief makes us radically susceptible to being wrong. When we most believe ourselves right is often when we are the most blinded to the reality around us. We cannot see that we cannot see. And Benito Cereno is about how we see—about how we know what we know. Melville’s novella is also about how seeing entails not seeing, and, further, not seeing what we are not seeing—all that we do not know that we do not know. Melville makes his readers eventually see these unknown unknowns, and, remarkably, shows us that they were right before our eyes the entire time.

Forgive me—much of the previous paragraph is far too general. I want you to read Benito Cereno but I don’t want to spoil the plot. Let’s attempt summation without revelation: The novella is set in 1799 off the coast of Chile. Amasa Delano, captain of the American sealing vessel the Bachelor’s Delight, spies a ship floating adrift aimlessly, apparently in distress. Captain Delano boards one of his whale boats and heads to the San Dominick, a Spanish slaving ship, and quickly sees that the enslaved Africans on board dramatically outnumber the Spanish sailors. Delano offers aid to the San Dominick’s captain, Benito Cereno, who tells Delano that most of the Spanish crew perished in a fever (along with the “owner” of the slaves, Alexandro Aranda). Benito Cereno himself seems terribly ill and not entirely fit to command, so Delano waits aboard the San Dominick while his men fetch food and water from the Bachelor’s Delight. In the meantime, he tours the ship and talks with Benito Cereno and Cereno’s enslaved valet Babo.

Delano is frequently troubled by what he sees on the ship, but his good nature always affords him a natural and acceptable answer that assuages the sinister tension tingling in the background. Even though he’s troubled by the “half-lunatic Don Benito,” Delano’s “good-natured” sense of moral authority can explain away what he sees with his own eyes:

At last he began to laugh at his former forebodings; and laugh at the strange ship for, in its aspect, someway siding with them, as it were; and laugh, too, at the odd-looking blacks, particularly those old scissors-grinders, the Ashantees; and those bed-ridden old knitting women, the oakum-pickers; and almost at the dark Spaniard himself, the central hobgoblin of all.

For the rest, whatever in a serious way seemed enigmatical, was now good-naturedly explained away by the thought that, for the most part, the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about…

These paragraphs not only summarize some of the images that give Delano pause, they also show Melville’s remarkable prose style, which follow’s Delano’s psychological state: laughing dismissal returns back to anxious image; anxious image gives way again to relieved certitude. All that is “enigmatical” in life can be “good-naturedly explained away.” And yet as the narrative progresses, good-natured explanations will fail to answer to visceral reality. Melville’s slow burn catches fire, burning away the veils of pretense.

The rest of this post (after the image) contains significant spoilers. I highly recommend Benito Cereno, which is reprinted in any number of Melville collections (I read it again in Rinehart’s Selected Tales and Poems), including The Piazza Tales (which you can download for free at Project Gutenberg). While I think that Benito Cereno has gained more recognition in recent years, it remains under-read compared to Melville’s more famous novellas Bartleby and Billy Budd. Those are great books too, but I’d argue that Benito Cereno, with its critique of white supremacy, is more timely than ever. Check it out. (Again, spoilers ahead).

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Continue reading “On Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno”

Seven (Long) Books I’ll Read Again

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Life is too short not to reread. Chosen somewhat randomly but also sincerely, seven books I’d love to read again sometime soon:

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

I read Mason & Dixon a few years back and then started to immediately reread it before getting sidetracked with something else. Unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, I think that M&D coheres on a first read, but it’s so rich and full and crammed with life that it deserves another go through. In my completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Pynchon’s novels, I wrote,

Pynchon’s zany/sinister tonal axis, comic bravado, and genre-shifting modes rarely result in what folks narrowly think of as literary realism. His characters can be elastic, cartoonish even—allegorical sometimes (and even grotesque). Mason & Dixon takes two historically real (and historically famous) characters as its subject, and, in a wonderfully hyperbolic 18th-century style, takes the duo on a fantastic journey to measure the world. How does one measure the world though? Pynchon takes on seemingly every subject under the sun in Mason & Dixon, and the novel is very much about the problems and limitations of measuring (and describing, and knowing) itself. But what comes through most strongly in all of Pynchon’s fantasia is the weight of Mason and Dixon’s friendship. It’s the most real thing in a wonderfully unreal novel.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

A bit of a cheat maybe to put short stories on this list, but I’d love to set aside time to go through all of them at once.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I finished Middlemarch last month. Eliot’s novel captures consciousness in action in a remarkably deft, often ironic, but also very sweet way—particularly the consciousness of her hero Dorothea Brooke, who is one of my favorite characters in literature. I wrote about Dorothea in a post earlier this year:

So far, my favorite character in Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke. In part my allegiance to her is simply a matter of the fact that she initially appears to be the novel’s central character—until Eliot swerves into new narratives near the end of Book I (Book I of VIII, by the way). But beyond traditional formal sympathies, it’s the way that Eliot harnesses Dorothea’s consciousness that I find so appealing. Eliot gives us in Dorothea an incredibly intelligent yet palpably naive young woman who feels the world around her a smidge too intensely. Dorothea is brilliant but a bit blind, and so far Middlemarch most interests me in the way that Eliot evokes this heroine’s life as a series of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic revelations. We see Dorothea seeing—and then, most remarkably, we see Dorothea seeing what she could not previously see.

The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara

I read Dara’s cult debut in a dizzy rush about five years ago, and have meant to reread it again since then. Like Middlemarch, Dara’s novel is very much about consciousness and how consciousness operates. From a blog post a few years back:

I am really loving this book so far, this novel that moves through consciousnesses in a (yes, I’ll use that cliché that book reviewers so often grab for) dazzling performance, shifting through minds, monologues, dialogues, always a few steps (or more) ahead of its reader, beckoning though, inviting, calling its reader to participate in discussions (or performances) of art, science, politics, psychology, education, loneliness, ecology, family, fireflies, radio plays, alienation, voting trends, Chomskyian linguistics, Eisensteinian montage, theft, Walkman Personal Stereos, semiotics, one-man shows, drum sets, being ventriloquized—a novel that takes ventriloquism as not just a theme (as we can see in the citation above) but also as a rhetorical device, a novel that ventriloquizes its reader, throws its reader into a metaphorical deep end and then dramatically shifts the currents as soon as the reader has learned to swim, a novel of othernesses, a novel that offers content through conduits, patterns that coalesce through waves, a novel composed in transfer points, each transfer point announcing the limitations of first-person perspective, the perspective that the reader is logically and spiritually and psychologically beholden to—and then, perhaps, transcending (or at least producing the affective illusion of transcendence of) first-person perspective, and this (illusion of) transcendence, oh my, what a gift, what a gift . . .

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

I had a false start with The Recognitions maybe 10 years ago, and then made it through a few years after that. I’ve since read Gaddis’s novel J R twice, and I think it’s the superior novel—but I’d like to revisit The Recognitions to see how accurate that assessment is. In my review I wrote:

The Recognitions is the work of a young man (“I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything,” Gaddis says in his Paris Review interview), and often the novel reveals a cockiness, a self-assurance that tips over into didactic essaying or a sharpness toward its subjects that neglects to account for any kind of humanity behind what Gaddis attacks. The Recognitions likes to remind you that its erudition is likely beyond yours, that it’s smarter than you, even as it scathingly satirizes this position.

I think that JR, a more mature work, does a finer job in its critique of contemporary America, or at least in its characterization of contemporary Americans (I find more spirit or authentic humanity in Bast and Gibbs and JR than in Otto or Wyatt or Stanley). This is not meant to be a knock on The Recognitions; I just found JR more balanced and less showy; it seems to me to be the work of an author at the height of his powers, if you’ll forgive the cliché.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s opus is the kind of literary masterpiece that survives they hype that surrounds it. I’ve read it straight through three times and will read it through three more given the chance. I’ve written at least seven “reviews” of 2666 on this site, but this one on the novel’s intertextual structure is probably my best effort.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick forever!

“Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth (Thomas Pynchon)

By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.

From Thomas Pynchon’s 1993 essay “Sloth; Nearer, My Couch, to Thee.”

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Melville’s Moby-Dick

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. To be very clear, I think Moby-Dick is fantasticbut I also enjoy seeing what people compelled to write negative reviews of the book on Amazon had to say. What follows are selections of one-star Amazon reviews; I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling].


Yechh.

It made for a smashing movie.

If you want to read lots of meaningless whale trivia read the book.

Boy gets whale. Boy loses whale. Boy gets whale. Spawns yawns

I think if you made it into a short comic strip, you would have liked it.

I bought this book for a friend in jail. Alas, he was unable to read it because the font was too small.

Ray Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay for this novel, (a la Gregory Peck) couldn’t even finish the damn thing!

If you like a story with nonessential information and an author that is entirely to verbose, then this book is for you.

I am quite the fan of stories which involve man eating sea creatures, such as Jaws. Moby Dick is nothing compared to such classics, I fear.

Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.

Moby Dick, was a horrible waiste of time. Along with its wordy paragraphs, it also talked about uninteresting issues. It is also to long, and you don’t hear of them encountering the whale until the end of the book.

The only people who like this book are english teachers who derive a feeling of moral superiority from forcing others to read this incredibly bad novel.

First of all, classiflying it as fiction is a mistake. Probably a good 60% of the book is non-fiction – chapter after chapter dedicated to every imaginable detail of the biology of the whale and every imaginable nuance of whaling.

I love literatur just as much as the next guy but we must face it 100 years or so ago American literature was reall weak and lagging from the rest of the world, perhaps now they’re starting to catch up with writers like Ann Rice and them.

I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!

Those chapters about Ishmael sleeping with whatever his name was and Ishamel had such a good time with the other guy’s arm over him and leg over him that he didn’t know if he was straight or gay any more.

i personally didn’t enjoy the philosophical or deep side of the book, i have read much much better books in that regard.

There is no suspense, and I find the idea of people hunting whales offensive. Offensive with a capital O.

Honestly, Over 400 pages devoted to killing a whale because it ate your hand? Come on.

It is hard to read. like work. Doubt he could get published today.

What is the whales motivation? You dont know.

It is 540somepages of boring whaling details.

No wonder Melville flopped as a writter.

OMG, this is tedious and torture to read.

I HATE this book. Why? It’s BORING!

Moby Ick’s more like it.

(Another) Moby-Dick (Book acquired, 26 March 2018)

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While I wasn’t thrilled to return to work after a pleasant Spring Break, I was very happy to find a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in the campus mail today. A Norton book rep visited our campus before the break and asked what my favorite book was. It was kind of her to send me their new critical edition.

I wrote a post almost five years ago about the various versions of Moby-Dick that I’ve accumulated (including a Norton Critical Edition). Since that post, I’ve picked up two more illustrated children’s versions, another comic book version, as well as an edition illustrated by Barry Moser. I will almost certainly reread the book this year.

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

In Chapter LXIV of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Stubb, second mate of the Pequod, demands whale steaks for dinner. He’s not happy with how the cook has prepared the steaks though, complaining they are too tender and overdone — his taste is closer to the sharks who are making a racket outside the ship–

“Cook,” said Stubb, rapidly lifting a rather reddish morsel to his mouth, ” don’t you think this steak is rather overdone? You’ve been beating this steak too much, cook; it’s too tender. Don’t I always say that to be good, a whalesteak must be tough? There are those sharks now over the side, don’t you see they prefer it tough and rare? What a shindy they are kicking up! Cook, go and talk to ’em; tell ’em they are welcome to help themselves civilly, and in moderation, but they must keep quiet. Blast me, if I can hear my own voice. Away, cook, and deliver my message. Here, take this lantern,” snatching one from his sideboard; ” now, then, go and preach to ’em! “

Stubb then instructs the cook on the best way to prepare whale steaks, a process involving a hot live coal. Oh, and he likes his fins pickled and his flukes soused–

“Well then, cook, you see this whale-steak of yours was so very bad, that I have put it out of sight as soon as possible; you see that, don’t you? Well, for the future, when you cook another whale-steak for my private table here, the capstan, I’ll tell you what to do so as not to spoil it by overdoing. Hold the steak in one hand, and show a live coal to it with the other; that done, dish it; d’ye hear? And now to-morrow, cook, when we are cutting in the fish, be sure you stand by to get the tips of his fins; have them put in pickle. As for the ends of the flukes, have them soused, cook. There, now ye may go.”

Perseus, whaleman (Melville/Sienkiewicz)

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From Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Classics Illustrated edition (February 1990) is one of my favorite Moby-Dicks.

Sunday Comics

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A page (and some details) from Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Classics Illustrated edition (February 1990) is one of my favorite Moby-Dicks.

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Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a bunch of literary recipes and a painting

Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1688
Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1688

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Roberto Bolaño’s Brussels Sprouts with Lemon

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

“Herman Melville” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Herman Melville”

by

Jorge Luis Borges


 

He was always surrounded by the sea of his elders,

The Saxons, who named the ocean

The Whale-Road, thereby uniting

The two immense things, the whale

And the seas it endlessly ploughs.

The sea was always his. By the time his eyes

First took in the great waters of the high seas

He had already longed for and possessed it

On that other ocean, which is Writing,

And in the outline of the archetypes.

A man, he gave himself to the earth’s oceans

And to the exhausting days at sea

And he came to know the harpoon reddened

By Leviathan and he rippled sand

And the smells of nights and mornings

And chance on the horizon waiting in ambush

And the happiness of being brave

And the pleasure, at last, of spying Ithaca.

The ocean’s conqueror, he strode the solid

Earth out of which mountains grow

And on which he charts an imprecise course

As with a sleeping compass, motionless in time.

In the inherited shadows of the gardens

Melville moves through New England evenings,

But the sea possesses him. It is the shame

Of the Pequod’s mutilated captain,

The unreadable ocean with its furious squalls

And the abomination of the whiteness.

It is the great book. It is blue Proteus.

(English translation by Stephen Kessler)

“Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth (Thomas Pynchon)

By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.

From Thomas Pynchon’s 1993 essay “Sloth; Nearer, My Couch, to Thee.”

What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

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What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

I asked this question on Twitter a few days ago (and then asked it a few more times, probably annoying some of the nice people who follow me), and I’ll write a bit about some of the responses later this week. I’m hoping too that some of this blog’s readers will share the novel (or novels) they’ve opened the most times without actually ever finishing.

I got to dwelling on the question a bit after talking with two friends, separately, over the past few weeks, both of whom were having a tough time with Gravity’s Rainbow. Up until last year, Gravity’s Rainbow would easily have been my first answer to this question. How many times did I try to read it between 1997 and 2015? Probably like, what, once a year? At least? And while I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is the best starting place for Pynchon, the book is endlessly rewarding, and fits nicely into a little mental shelf comprised of books I made plenty of false starts on before finally finishing (Moby-DickUlyssesInfinite Jest…titles that cropped up on Twitter in answer to my silly question).

Gravity’s Rainbow impacted me so much that I immediately reread it. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t read more Pynchon first—and honestly, if I didn’t trust certain critics, if I didn’t trust the book’s reputation. But what about all the books I keep cracking open but can’t quite crack into? Am I missing something? I’m probably missing something.

I rounded up most of the novels I could think of that I’ve tried to read at least four times (conspicuously absent is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I’ve tried to read, hell, what four times? Five including an audiobook?)—I’ll riff a little on them. (As an aside: There are certain books I’ll probably never “finish,” that I have no aim of finishing, which I’m not riffing on here—I’ll write about them separately. The include Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon Quixote, and Finnegans Wake).

 Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, yet I can’t get past Ch. 6 of The Marble Faun. His pal Melville’s Moby-Dick is easily one of my favorite books, one that I return to again and again, and yet I can’t seem to get through Pierre without skimming. I “read” the book in grad school, but I didn’t really read it. I’m fairly determined to read both of these, if only to ameliorate my shame as a would-be completist.

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is another book I’m determined to finish (at some point, not now! Not today!—is there another translation besides the Moncrieff?!). If the bookmark in the edition above is true, I made it to page 43 on my last attempt (stopping in the middle of a chapter—never a good sign).

By my wholly unscientific calculations, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the book I’ve started and quit the most times. It’s not even a novel. It’s barely a novella. I should be able to finish it. Maybe it’s a stamina issue. Maybe if I could just sit and read it in one go…

I’ll never finish Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but I tried to finish it repeatedly because I, uh, took it from a bookstore without, uh, purchasing it first—the only time I ever did such a thing. When I was a kid. A stupid kid. I confessed (on this blog, years ago—not to the store. The store is gone).

I think I might have read too much Thomas Bernhard too fast, because I keep stalling out on The Lime Works. To be fair, it’s almost impossible for me to read Bernhard in hot or warm weather, and I live in Florida, so the Thomas-Bernhard-reading-weather window is slim. Next winter.

Watching Tarr’s film adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was difficult enough. (No, I did not do it one sitting). I tried. I tried. I doubt I’ll ever try again.

My Struggle, Book 1. Again, I tried, I tried. Several times. I can’t get down with Knausgaard.

I’ve tried to read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual every summer for a few years now, and I’m not really sure why I can’t get past Part I (about 75 pages or so in). Every time I start into Life, I feel as if I’m missing something, as if some of its humor or complexity is lost on me. Maybe I need something like A User’s Manual for Life A User’s Manual.

I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of titles (I’m really great at not finishing novels)—but these are the ones that stand out in recent years.

By way of closing: I’m almost finished with Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser, which would’ve been on this list just a few months ago.

And again, I’d love to hear what novel (or novels) you’ve started the most times without finishing (yet!).

 

Jonah — Albert Pinkham Ryder

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And here is “The Sermon,” Ch. IX of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby-Dick, in which Father Mapple gives us the tale of Jonah—


Father Mapple rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. “Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard—larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!”

There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on the preacher.

He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.

This ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog—in such tones he commenced reading the following hymn; but changing his manner towards the concluding stanzas, burst forth with a pealing exultation and joy—

     "The ribs and terrors in the whale,
     Arched over me a dismal gloom,
     While all God's sun-lit waves rolled by,
     And lift me deepening down to doom.

     "I saw the opening maw of hell,
     With endless pains and sorrows there;
     Which none but they that feel can tell—
     Oh, I was plunging to despair.

     "In black distress, I called my God,
     When I could scarce believe him mine,
     He bowed his ear to my complaints—
     No more the whale did me confine.

     "With speed he flew to my relief,
     As on a radiant dolphin borne;
     Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone
     The face of my Deliverer God.

     "My song for ever shall record
     That terrible, that joyful hour;
     I give the glory to my God,
     His all the mercy and the power."

Nearly all joined in singing this hymn, which swelled high above the howling of the storm. A brief pause ensued; the preacher slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: “Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—’And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.'”

“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. Continue reading “Jonah — Albert Pinkham Ryder”

“First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville” | On Audiobooks of “Difficult” Novels

Moby-Dick, Rockwell Kent
I am a huge fan of audiobooks. I’ve pretty much always got one going—for commutes, jogs, workaday chores, etc. The usual. I love to listen to audiobooks of books I’ve already read, in particular, but I of course listen to new stuff too, or stuff that’s new to me, anyway. There just isn’t time to get to all the reading and rereading I want to do otherwise.

Beyond the fact that audiobooks allow me to experience more books than I would be able to otherwise, I like the medium itself: I like a reader reading me a story. Like a lot of people, some of my earliest, best memories are of someone reading to me. (The narrative in my family was always that my mother fell asleep while reading me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and that I picked it up and finished it on my own and that’s how I “learned” to read—I’m not really sure of this tale’s veracity, which makes it a good story, of course). So I’ve never fully understood folks who sniff their noses at audiobooks as less than real reading. 

Indeed, the best literature is best read aloud. It is for the ear, as William H. Gass puts it in his marvelous essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.

Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Melville—a difficult foursome, no? I would argue that the finest audiobooks—those with the most perceptive performers (often guided by a great director and/or producer) can guide an auditor’s ear from sound to sense to spirit. A great audiobook can channel the pneuma of a complex and so-called difficult novel by animating it, channeling its life force. The very best audiobooks can teach their auditors how to read the novels—how to hear and feel their spirit.

I shall follow (with one slight deviation, substituting one William for another) Gass’s foursome by way of example. Joyce initiates his list, so:

I had read Joyce’s Ulysses twice before I first experience RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, full cast recording of the novel (download it via that link). I wrote about the Irish broadcast company’s production at length when I first heard it, but briefly: This is a full cast of voices bringing the bustle and energy (and torpor and solemnity and ecstasy and etc.) of Bloomsday to vivid vivacious vivifying life. It’s not just that RTÉ’s cast captures the tone of Ulysses—all its brains and hearts, its howls and its harrumphs—it’s also that this production masterfully expresses the pace and the rhythm of Ulysses. Readers (unnecessarily) daunted by Ulysses’s reputation should consider reading the book in tandem with RTÉ’s production.

Woolf is next on Gass’s list. Orlando is my favorite book of hers, although I have been told by scholars and others that it is not as serious or important as To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway. It is probably not as “difficult” either; nevertheless, put it on the list! Clare Higgins’s reading of Orlando remains one of my favorite audiobooks of all times: arch without being glib, Higgins animates the novel with a picaresque force that subtly highlights the novel’s wonderful absurdities.

Faulkner…well, did you recall that I admitted I would not keep complete faith to Gass’s short list? Certainly Faulkner’s long twisted sentences evoke their own mossy music, but alas, I’ve yet to find an audiobook with a reader whose take on Faulkner I could tolerate. I tried Grover Gardner’s take on Absalom, Absalom! but alas!—our reader often took pains to untangle what was properly tangled. I don’t know. I was similarly disappointed in an audiobook of The Sound and the Fury (I don’t recall the reader). And yet I’m sure Faulkner could be translated into a marvelous audiobook (Apprise me, apprise me!).

Let me substitute another difficult William: Gaddis. I don’t know if I could’ve cracked J R if I hadn’t first read it in tandem with Nick Sullivan’s audiobook. J R is a tragicomic opera of voices—unattributed voices!—and it would be easy to quickly lose heart without signposts to guide you. Sullivan’s reading is frankly amazing, a baroque, wild, hilarious, and ultimately quite moving performance of what may be the most important American novel of the late twentieth century. A recent reread of J R was almost breezy; Sullivan had taught me how to read it.

Mighty Melville caps Gass’s list. I had read Moby-Dick a number of times, studying it under at least two excellent teachers, before I first heard William Hootkins read it. (Hootkins, a character actor, is probably most well-known as the X-wing pilot Porkins in A New Hope). As a younger reader, I struggled with Moby-Dick, even as it intrigued me. I did not, however, understand just how funny it was, and even though I intuited its humor later in life, I didn’t fully experience it until Hootkins’ reading. Hootkins inhabits Ishmael with a dynamic, goodwilled aplomb, but where his reading really excels is in handling the novel’s narrative macroscopic shifts, as Ishmael’s ego seems to fold into the crew/chorus, and dark Ahab takes over at times. But not just Ahab—Hootkins embodies Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb with humor and pathos. Hootkins breaths spirit into Melville’s music. I cannot overstate how much I recommend Hootkins audiobook, particularly for readers new to Moby-Dick. And readers old to Moby-Dick too.

“What can we do to find out how writing is written? Why, we listen to writers who have written well,” advises (or scolds, if you like) William Gass. The best audiobook performances of difficult books don’t merely provide shortcuts to understanding those books—rather, they teach auditors how to hear them, how to feel them, how to read them.

Kill them in their flush of bloom

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From On the Slain Collegians: Selections from the poems of Herman Melville. Edited, and with woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi. Noonday Press, 1971.