Sunday, August 19, 2012
Let's Read Pierre: Books I & II
Let's talk about Pierre!
My fear is that y'all are already turned off after Books I and II. They are very sappy and very wordy. Nobody's gonna say they aren't.
First, on the sappiness: Mr. Vuela posits that Melville was parodying the grandiloquence and melodrama of popular fiction of the day, which doesn't sound unreasonable in the least. (Confession: I know very little about American dime novels from the 1850s. Most of them ain't being printed no more because, from what I can gather, they were crap. Some things never change.) However, a lot of it is surely just Melville being Melville -- although it's certainly not the word I would have used, a British acquaintance who read Moby Dick for the first time a few years ago (and loved it) gushed about how "fruity" Melville is. I'm not gonna disclaim this. But we should also remember that Melville has a very wicked and very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and his last novel was which was about Lucifer incarnate -- Captain Ahab, the most terrifying bad-ass in the American canon -- commanding a demonic ship to hunt a seamonster god-beast, so we're not exactly dealing with some chick-lit author here.
Melville probably knew damn well how saccharine these first couple of chapters come across. But no author would spill so much ink painting such an ur-Rockwellian portrait of his hero's perfect happy little home and his happy perfect little life unless he was fixing to throw the fucker under a steamroller. (I speak from experience!)
But even if it's sappy, you can't say Melville is being flippant. The scenario is romantic to the point of absurdity, but Melville is nevertheless earnest in his depiction of this impossibly idyllic life with impossibly beautiful people whose love for one another is so impossibly intense and pure. You can't say there aren't several genuinely beautiful moments and fun passages embedded in all the syrup.
Melville's voluminousness is the other thing I should like to bring up, especially for anyone for who hasn't read any of his stuff before. You've noticed that the guy just goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on. This is actually what makes him so much fun to read.
Maybe it began during the first half of the 20th century, when celebrity writers like Hemingway insisted that the best and only way to write was with a parsimonious minimalism. It certainly becomes more pronounced during the latter half of the century as the sound bite and jingle came to dominate discourse and the public's attention span contracted. But now there's this idea that books should just stay on topic and take the reader from plot point A to plot point Z as quickly as possible.
I can see how this makes sense in the other media of today. A serialized comic only has twenty-two or so pages these days; it needs to get to the point and command the reader's interest as soon as possible. A film gets three hours, at the most, to get its point across. It can meander, but it must remember that it's asking its viewers to soak it all up in a single setting. A TV show gets half an hour to an hour to make its point, and the producer of an HBO or AMC saga must bear in mind that every minute of every episode is another books of checks written to all the actors, cameramen, lighting guys, caterers, etc. Audiovisual media need to get to the point and stay on track.
But why should this apply to the novel? I like these 19th century books because they're willing and often eager to take the reader along the scenic route. And when the novel is written by someone like Melville -- someone for whom composing prose poetry is apparently effortless -- I'm glad for all the detours through the rolling vistas of his thoughts. As far as the story of Pierre and Lucy's courtship is concerned, the whole spiel about love in 2.4 (for instance) is basically an extraneous ornament. But I think what we've read so far would be a lot poorer without passages like:
Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth, the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof! The first worlds made were winter worlds; the second made, were vernal worlds; the third, and last, and perfectest, was this summer world of ours. In the cold and nether spheres, preachers preach of earth, as we of Paradise above. Oh, there, my friends, they say, they have a season, in their language known as summer. Then their fields spin themselves green carpets; snow and ice are not in all the land; then a million strange, bright, fragrant things powder that sward with perfumes; and high, majestic beings, dumb and grand, stand up with outstretched arms, and hold their green canopies over merry angels -- men and women -- who love and wed, and sleep and dream, beneath the approving glances of their visible god and goddess, glad-hearted sun, and pensive moon!
(It's not so much that Melville's language is especially lyrical -- but it expresses such beautiful ideas. [Pound calls this logopoeia.])
If a medium like the novel gives the author unlimited space and time to establish context, I say he should go ahead and take advantage of it.
Melville read a lot of Shakespeare while preparing to write Moby Dick, and you can see Billy's lingering influence in how everyone speaks in Pierre. (Basic Shakespearean monologue: "Something is happening; I notice this about it; it reminds me of that; and here is the overarching theme it represents...") Of course nobody talks like this -- even in the 1850s it would have sounded pretty outlandish. That's rather the point, though -- the same for Shakespeare's nobles as for the members of Melville's American aristocracy.
A few other little bullet points:
• Yeah, Pierre addressing his mother as "Sister Mary" is pretty fucking creepy. (And a sign of things to come, I understand.)
• To be fair: we can't actually be certain that Melville is actually going off on irrelevant tangents. He might very well be laying the groundwork for something ahead. Billy Budd dedicates several chapters to talking about the particulars of the British navy in the 1790s, and it might seem as though Melville is just being a blabbermouth -- until the plot kicks into high gear and you realize how crucial the context is to the conflict.
• Pierre's introduction isn't the first time Melville gushes about Mount Greylock. He spent several years living and writing in a farmhouse with the mountain in view. (Moby Dick was written during this period.)
• "But this whole world is a preposterous one, with many preposterous people in it." I want this embroidered and hung on my wall.
So yeah -- what do you y'all think so far? Are we enjoying ourselves? Are we just waiting for Melville to wipe the smile off Pierre's face? Favorite moments? How many long words and obscure references did we have to look up? (I had to look up few of the historical figures on Wikipedia.)
Let me know what you're thinking!