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review 2017-10-07 18:29
Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville
Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Edition) - Peter M. Coviello,Herman Melville

Well that took me long enough! I've been desperate to read some horror, but these Melville stories have been hit and miss, his prose sometimes impenetrable. This is my second encounter with Melville (I read Moby Dick some years ago), and it's been a while. I was prompted to pick up this collection of his shorter works by recent references to both "Bartleby" and Billy Budd.

 

I began with "Bartleby, the Scrivener," which turned out to be my favorite. Melville is an excellent comic writer, and this portrait of a law office made me laugh out loud. Yet it's also incredibly poignant. The narrator is a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a scrivener (a copier); Bartleby joins three other employees, hilariously nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby goes about his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to read aloud his copy to proofread, he simply says he "prefers not to." From this point he "prefers" not to do all sorts of things, including leave when his boss attempts to fire him. The lawyer is non-confrontational and fancies himself a good man to the point where he actually changes the location of his office to avoid dealing with Bartleby (who is also found to be living there) further. Yet the problem of Bartleby persists.

 

Why does Bartleby "prefer not" to comply with requests made of him? Melville does not offer a black-and-white answer. The introduction likens Bartleby to a Wall Street occupier, someone who occupies spaces of capitalism without using them for that end, but the quote I found most insightful describes Bartleby as a man of preferences rather than assumptions. How much does our daily behavior and actions depend upon assumptions? As with other Melville works, a queer reading of the text is also possible: the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby involves exchanges and behavior not dissimilar to those made in romantic partnerships.

 

The stories I liked next best were "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids." The former is a series of sketches by a sailor who has been to the Galapagos Islands; some sketches are more engaging than others. The language in the first few is lovely as Melville describes the hostile, lonely island landscape. The latter is a pair of tales told by the same American narrator, first in London then New England--a lawyer's club and paper mill, respectively. These are apparently based on Melville's own travels. I preferred the second piece, which I read as feminist and potentially Marxist. There's some fantastic prose detailing the paper machine, the women, and their work. 

 

There are five other stories, but the last I'll mention is the novella, Billy Budd, which Melville was working on at the time of his death. It's become key evidence for those who feel Melville may have been bisexual or simply held progressive views on gender and sexuality. Billy Budd is a "Handsome Sailor" who is conscripted to serve on a British naval ship. Everyone likes him, as he's pretty and good-natured. But one (also good looking) sailor envies his beauty and goodness, and it leads to tragedy. The most interesting thing about this tale for me was the fact that this is a story often told about women, to illustrate their vanity, jealousies, and pettiness or cattiness. In this context, in a time after two serious mutinies and during hostilities between Britain and France, such personal jealousy results in catastrophe.

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review 2017-07-13 10:14
This made me love Melville even more
The letters of Herman Melville - Herman Melville,Merrell R. Davis,William H. Gilman

For some reason Herman Melville intrigues me and I cannot seem to part with him. I was fascinated by the story of Moby-Dick since I was a kid, when I would look at the illustrations in my older brothers edition and I was thrilled when I saw the movie adaption in 1998. But ever since early this year, when I wrote a paper on the comparison of different translations of Moby-Dick and therefore was really diving into Melvilles writing, I cannot let go of him.

I wanted to know how Melville lived through the process of writing this incredibly leviathan of a book – and what better way to find out, than to read his correspondence. But I got way more out of his letters than that.

 

This was a journey through Melvilles life, beginning with the earliest (surviving) letter to his Grandmother at the age of 9 and ending with the last (again, surviving) letter in the year before he died. And in between those two you get to follow him through his whole life – you experience the beginning of his career, when he writes like a humble young man who is very happy, that his work gets published at all, then you reach a somewhat mean and cocky phase in his life, when he believed himself to be a world class author until you get to a point when he is settling down and becomes a content family man who likes good company and never refuses a drink or two. That nice, happy fellow is the Herman Melville we know and love today.

 

My personal favourites were his letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne – what a dream-team! Melville expresses such a deep understanding of Hawthorne and their friendship, I cannot explain it any differently than they being soul-mates. Those letters are much more intimate and tender than any of the letters I found, which he wrote to the members his family.

 

A few words to the „genre“ of letters. In general, I always feel a bit weird when I read someone else’s letters or diaries, because this is an extremely personal form of writing. Basically, these letters were never intended for anyone else to read than the addressee. There is a sort of intimacy in a letter, which I think we have lost completely in our writings nowadays.

But, me feeling weird about it aside, it was fantastic to experience a time, when there was no haste in communication. Melville knew, that it would take a letter to his publisher in London approximately one month to get there and because the same goes for the answer, you could probably expect an answer after two to three months.

 

By the way, this is a very nice edition, you immediately see, that the scholars put a lot of effort in it. And now, ending with Melvilles own words:

 

Much more might be said, but enough.

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text 2017-07-01 16:01
Dreamteam Melville + Hawthorne
The letters of Herman Melville - Herman Melville,Merrell R. Davis,William H. Gilman

I don’t think  I have ever read anything more beautiful and touching than Melvilles letter to Nathaniel Hawthorn in June 1851:

 

"If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won’t believe in a Temperance Heaven), and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert, – then, O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us, – when all the earth shall be but a reminiscence, yea, its final dissolution an antiquity."

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review 2017-05-07 00:00
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale - Herman Melville,Andrew Delbanco,Tom Quirk Interesting read, but not my favorite story. Terribly long.
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review 2017-04-30 18:24
Run! It's too late after you embark
Moby-Dick - Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk,Herman Melville

It's not often lately that I find a read that threatens to leave me clueless as to what I'm reading. I'm not talking content here (I'll get to that later), but sheer language. Between the heavy intertextuallity, the word usage and sentences structure, I found myself having no idea what the last paragraph or three meant, and have to backtrack, more than I liked. I though I was over that shit. Conceit corrected.

 

Next, the characters feel like ghosts. Even the narrator sometimes loses substance, becoming something airlike and almost omniscient. They are Ahab's crew. If you want to get all metaphysical, traits of humanity that are driven by one over-consuming. It goes just as well as you could expect.


Last, the story. The thing itself could be spun in a third of the length without loosing anything from the plot. But, and here is where the ambitious bastard trips you, most of the meaning, theme and depth is stored in the fat. All those hazed-eyes inducing chapters? They actually have a point. Damned all those lit analysis classes, much of an overarching understanding of the novel hinges on the Jonah's sermon and the whiteness chapters.

So, is it worth it? Hell if I know. I powered through the thing, even liked it to some extent, and I'm still unconvinced. There is a certain brilliance in what it attempts. To me, the whole idea (and what it feels like to read it) can be encompassed in one passage in ch16: Ishmael goes to Peleg to ask to go whaling for a "desire to see the world" and Peleg tells him to look across the bow of the docked ship. There is nothing but water, says Ishamel, and Peleg answers that's the world he'll see a whaling. You can read a summary of the book as you can see the sea from the shore.The wisdom of going whaling is seriously challenged after all.

 

But it's not the same.

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