Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

Review:

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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Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman

Review:

The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: “Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?” By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents’; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the “discreet hero” label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it’s very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they’re not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist’s teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art’s role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

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The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

Review:

The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest opens with elderly Ruth fearing she can hear and smell a tiger in her house–in Australia. One of the great pleasures of this book is its unreliable narrator, unreliable not because she’s deceptive but because her mind isn’t what it used to be and may be getting worse. Yet the phantom of the tiger presages what may be a real danger: the arrival of a woman named Frida who claims to be a government carer. Is she, or is she fleecing Ruth?

Ruth’s narration leaves just enough room for the reader to come to their own conclusions about her and Frida. Some things are left diaphanous, but not so hazy as to cause confusion. On top of that, the prose is terrific: distinctive but not overbearingly poetic. McFarlane capture fine states of feeling or consciousness with her language and imagery. I really delighted in reading it.

Not so delightful is the nature of what’s going on, or even the suspicion of it. My grandmother, who died a few years ago, suffered from dementia. She had an excellent aide, but my parents eventually had to put her in a nursing home close to where they live. Even the best of those places upset me, and it was hard for me to see my grandmother–the smartest person in my family–lose herself. This recent experience made it difficult to continue at times.

I also found myself thinking about Frida’s race and physicality–she’s a brown-skinned and heavyset woman. Ruth is tiny and was fair-haired. What’s being said about Frida and race? I searched reviews and finally found one that addresses the issue by referencing the author’s own explanation (in the Sydney Review of Books, here). This explanation satisfied me, though I’m still wondering about Frida’s size.

Finally, it was lovely to see a bit of romance between Ruth and her almost-love from the past, who’s even older than she is. A delicately handled rarity in literary fiction.

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The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

The Accusation, Bandi

Review:

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith, Bandi

As tensions rise with North Korea, my sympathies remain with its citizens, those who truly suffer under the regime and the sanctions placed upon their country as a result of their leaders’ actions. This collection of short stories–written by a North Korean, as far as can be verified–puts a face to the individual lives living there, like a present day dystopia. Each story reveals characters disillusioned or betrayed by a system that punishes even those who believe in it and live according to its rules. The stories are often heartbreaking, yet they didn’t beat me into submission with desolation. Somehow the fact that these characters come to recognize their situation lends them dignity, though that’s not to say suffering is noble. People suffer around the world, but the mystery under which North Koreans live seems to compound the appearance of that suffering when we get glimpses of it.

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The Accusation, Bandi

A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf

Review:

A Writer's Diary - Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf

For lovers of Virginia Woolf, but also those interested in writing itself, as well as history (Woolf details the approach and beginning of World War II, including the bombing of her home in London). This “writer’s diary,” edited by husband and first reader, Leonard Woolf, comprises those entries where Woolf discusses her writing and reading as well as encounters with literary acquaintances.

There is a pattern to her writing process whereby she’s excited about a new idea (which sometimes comes while she’s working on another project) and rides a sort of high until she completes it. This is followed by depression and ambivalent feelings about reviews. Some books come easier than others, but the overall pattern remains the same. Every one feels like it might be a failure or badly reviewed, and she attempts to convince herself she doesn’t care. The ups and downs in her mood suggest bipolar disorder, which contemporary psychologists believe afflicted her. Knowing her fate (she drowned herself not long after the last entry of this diary) made reading portions very sad.

On the other hand, Woolf felt she had just begun to know her own mind in her 40s, which gives me hope! Elements of her process and the way one negative review overrode all the positive responses created a sense of affinity for me as a writer. Woolf changed literature, and I’m glad she kept such a diary.

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A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

Review:

Reservation Blues - Sherman Alexie

This is my first Alexie and not my last. I’m struggling with what to say about it and how because somehow this not-huge novel feels like it’s packed in everything about Indian (as they refer to themselves) culture with its focus on a particular reservation and a rock band’s steep rise and fall. It does so with deadpan humor and a mix of the fantastic and real that calls to mind magical realism but is distinctive. It’s necessarily sad yet not depressing–there’s the humor, and there’s wonder and hope. There’s not an insignificant or uncharismatic character in the book. I feel like I’ve taken a long, strange trip with them and wish them well.

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Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie