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!


  1. Agreed that the writing is, thus far, very flowery, though as time went on I got the distinct feeling that Melville was screwing with us. Everything feels idyllic to the point of sarcasm, and it was that thought that helped me get through the first 50 pages in a reasonable amount of time. The best I can describe it so far is like a morass, a swamp of sweet, innocent goodness that didn't really feel like it was going anywhere, but you're right about Melville pulling this type of stuff before...even Moby-Dick went off the beaten path for pages and pages about whaling, and in Dick's case it served to make that novel the multifaceted genius it is. I'm still wondering where Melville is going with Pierre and his happy, ideal life, but this is the man who wrote the most perfect novel in the language, so there's no question that I trust his good judgement.

  2. Hopefully it isn't a satirical piece ONLY. I caught on fairly quick to the humor hovering above the text, so that I could at least laugh at lines that crossed the threshold: flowery dialogue, how the characters sort of parody themselves to the point that even serious anxieties and consolations sound not only absurdly petty, sensitive, meek, but downright jovial (listen seriously to all of Lucy's exasperated and hyperbolic concerns, which amount mainly to concerns of divulgence between lovers.) How Melville takes paragraphs to describe fairly trite and simple concepts such as the 'majesty of certain seasons' or 'that love is for the young' when a sentence might suffice. Taking one's time is justifiable, I think, when certain criteria are met. But I think minimalism is not so much a defacto standard but a rule of thumb, because it eases the trite nature of a text, used effectively it puts the mind to work at pleasing itself. Melville seems even to sometimes narrate as though an old television program might, or a nature documentary, or Milo and Otis, a narrator aware of the crowd, a jester or bard bridging the gaps in scenes on the stage. But I wonder if my criticisms are illegitimate because I have been exposed to these concepts before, the various descriptions of youth and love that are easiest swallowed with a heavy dose of angst and irony in the modern era? And so would be repelled by them even in succinct form? In Shakespeare, if my memory isn't gone, these trite themes were prominent and I assume (?) should have been injected into the literary zeitgeist already, maybe not. So I wonder then if Melville is mocking even in the muses, highlighting the cliche. Or if my postmodern mind is blind to enjoyment now? To me the muses add nothing new, and so one must ask if they deserve existence? Are these musings anything but a waste of time for all but those who are not exposed to the concepts already? Is this an intentional exhibition of how absurd the fashionable romances of the culture were? Is this simply following the trends of the time, lulling, for the inevitable tragedy? For destroying the idyllic? Making some statement that way about the insular nature of pop-culture and the fickleness and foolishness of it and of how these systems can be turned on their head and seen for what they are (How recent a phenomenon is contrarianism? Does it play as much a role as it does post-abolishment of the religious agency of law?)? What I am concerned about, right now, is if Pierre is just an historic marker, a relic which gives us an indication of a cultural shift. I'm looking for a lot more than satire or parody, because the agenda that might have is long since accomplished and the shock value of such a thing is lost on us in our modernity. I'm going to stick this out of course. But I'll have to keep adjusting my textual approach so that this pressure I'm sometimes feeling at his wandering muses doesn't elevate quite as high.

  3. Your post definitely puts things into perspective for me. After trudging though page after page, wondering what the point was and if it was going anywhere, it was reassuring to read your explanation. Living in an era where information is shoved in your face, I worried that if I didn't grasp every detail in every sentence, I was missing something crucial to the story. I found comforting to realize that even if I didn't quite understand a passage, it didn't matter, because the last page and a half were just about the beauty of seasons or some other tangent.

    On the plus side, it is beautifully written, almost poetic and created by someone with a mastery of the language. I would imagine this would be nice to hear read aloud. All in all, I'm sticking with this, but I'm feeling almost guilty about how badly I want Pierre's life to be crushed by Melville. As soon as possible.

  4. I'm kind of terrible with the ornamental and didn't catch that I was being screwed with, so the first two books were a god-damned nightmare for me. Hearing the context for all the florid prose helps, but this is still going to be a slog. At least I picked up that Melville is planning to really throw Pierre under the bus later on.

  5. What I like the most about Melville's writing is how he takes advantage of the "unlimited" aspect of the literary medium by shoving in his random poetic thoughts on whatever's happening in the story. I get the feeling that the poetic divergences are there not only to support the story and themes he's building, but because he's got poetic thoughts to express, and this is a place where he can do it. Sometimes when you're reading a book there are passages that feel as if the author, rather than the narrator, is speaking, and whatever is being said feels out of place and incongruous with the rest of the text. Melville's poetic divergences feel to me as if he's speaking (rather than the narrator), but for whatever reason they don't feel out of place. I felt that way when I read Moby-Dick, too. It must just be because these kinds of things fit well with his general writing style.

  6. It reminded me of the begining of Candide quite a bit, only much longer and drawn out, which I guess is the complete opposite of how Candide was, but whatever.

  7. Also, I was rereading some of book I, and noticed at the begining of 1.4 Melville says this, referencing the previous chapter on genealogies:

    "In general terms we have been thus decided in asserting the great genealogical and real-estate dignity of some families in America, because in so doing we poetically establish the richly aristocratic condition of Master Pierre Glendinning, for whom we have before claimed some special family distinction. And to the observant reader the sequel will not fail to show, how important is this circumstance, considered with reference to the singularly developed character and most singular life-career of our hero. Nor will any man dream that the last chapter was merely intended for a foolish bravado, and not with a solid purpose in view. "

    I just thought that was kind of funny as I hadn't noticed it before and it goes right in line with what Pat was saying.

  8. After moving ahead to the next couple chapters, I'm already seeing a contrast. Melville is almost definitely screwing with us in these first two chapters. He still writes like Herman Melville, but now the plot definitely starts moving and the prose doesn't smell as powerfully of chemical roses and potpourri.

    I wonder if people are finding this a difficult read?

    Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of my favorite writers today. But the very first time I read "Self-Reliance," I kept zoning out. A whole lot of it didn't sink in. I was only really able to read and appreciate Emerson stuff after forcing myself keep reading and getting accustomed to the style and how to process it. (I'll still return to Emerson, notice for the first time a passage I glossed over during earlier reads, and feel a slight thrill.)

    Given how today's writing is generally so sparse and so straightforward (and how modern discourse is increasingly conveyed by sounds and images and less by text), I wouldn't be surprised if writers like Emerson and Melville (and Shakespeare, and Milton, etc.) are more challenging to a modern reading audience than to people reading them a century ago.

    I don't mean to offend anyone who might be having a difficult time absorbing Melville's prose. Think of it like jogging or playing Street Fighter -- the longer and more often you do it, the easier it gets. Anyway -- as you can tell, I'm just fascinated by how our modern media consumption habits affect the way we relate to the media of the past.

    (Incidental observation: old folks tend not to be so good with computers, but they write awfully nice letters.)

    Dustin: I wonder what you mean by "trite?" Every subject on the planet is trite. Everything's already been written about. What's that old cliche about there being nothing new under the Simpsons did it...?

    There is only so wide a range of basic themes within the human experience, but no two writers will address them precisely the same. When an idea is examined from a different angle, it expands.

    Give Mr. Melville some time. He's definitely got something cooking.

    Seifker: Yeah! Melville's a writer you read because nobody else on the planet writes or thinks like him, and he can't help being himself. Of course, you can say that about ANY great writer. A novelist has to be an auteur.

    Anything else?

    Stay frosty, Pierre peeps.

  9. I intend to give him some time, sure.

    My beef wasn't with a shattered expectation of finding something new but the large number of words spent in revelry and exploration for pretty basic subjects, and very, very common themes, and in the way these themes were weaved in. I'm well aware of the hypothetical impossibility of originality. Presentation is absolutely everything, subtlety of approach is important, etc. I've discussed it a lot already before and am still struggling with it now when approaching a project or something (and I'm pretty sure postmodernism has damaged my productivity and brain). But while these themes are so enduring it's not very interesting when we are nudged with them as though we should identify immediately, as though hearing sweeping anecdotes about hypothetically romantic things were enough to coax feelings of nostalgia from us or a pinning for love; I suppose I like these things, but with human drama presenting them through action. But instead his muses are right there before us, nearly severed from the text, as though Melville were writing relevant but self contained ponderances over the nature of romance. I used the word trite as emphasis on the combination of both his chosen subject and the manner in which it was presented, and then using it for Shakespeare I just carried the emphasis over. As an author he isn't always hiding himself in the narration.

    Haha, now that I think of it, could some of these sections possibly be the "padding" he added on the request of his publisher?

    But the remarks were pretty much regarding this section only. It seems now that Melville was partially playing coy with us for forty pages, save a few sections, like the bit about the lachrymose pine tree which I really enjoyed but forgot to mention, as it stuck out as sort of brooding and dark. I am warming up to the novel more now.

    My writing voice is usually a lot more wordy and self concious (mostly redundant language like "I guess" and stuff). I'm trying something more, I don't know, point list, kind of, or frenetic, half of it's self directed frustration, half of it's tying to break out of social insecurities, even though clearly I'm still thinking about them. But reading over my last post again it might sound a bit too aggressive. If anybody finds this witting style kind of barbarous or whatever just let me know, I think I can be flexible.

  10. Late to the party here.

    As I read Books 1 and 2 I said to myself this has to be a joke of some kind. But at the same time I wasn't entirely sure. The saccharine vibe, the overboard descriptions of how wonderful Pierre is and his genealogy and how wonderful love is and all that - I could see someone actually writing something so overwrought and finding an audience for it.

    I'll have to use a movie reference, because film is my forte more than literature: it's like The Descendants, the George Clooney movie from last year. It takes place in Hawaii, Clooney has a charmed, rich existence, and even though the plot involves him learning his wife was having an affair and now she's in a coma and about to die, the entire film has this 'safe' vibe to it. There's not a moment of raw, visceral emotion in the entire film. Clooney's wife is comatose for the entire film, so he can't confront her, and when he finds out who the other man is and goes to meet him the guy immediately begs forgiveness and Clooney gives it.

    It's frustrating to sit through the movie waiting for Clooney to explode and tear into someone, and it never happens. But I can see some people liking that sort of thing, the intimation of conflict and dark feelings in a sea of comfort, luxury, and beautiful people. I think that's why there's so many books (at least, it seems like there's a lot of them) involving wealthy people living in Nantucket or the Northeast dealing with affairs or crumbling marriages. It gives the hint of sorrow, but you never feel like things are going to go off the rails.

    So getting back to Pierre, I could see someone writing a book that starts off with a couple chapters of "Our hero is a strapping, rich young man hopelessly in love with a beautiful vision of female loveliness and his life is oh so grand," and to mean it sincerely, as opposed to the parodying Melville is apparently doing here.

    But even while recognizing that this was probably tongue-in-cheek, my unfamiliarity with whatever movement Melville was poking fun at made it a bit of a slog to get through. Hopefully Melville will drop this act now that he's had his fun and as the story takes off the prose will be less affected (even if still poetic).