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 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

American Housewife, by Helen Ellis

Review:

American Housewife: Stories - Helen Ellis

My first thoroughly enjoyable read of the year. Despite never having been a housewife (or wife, period) myself, I felt like this short story collection’s ideal audience. There are plenty of films and books that cover similar ground–the details, drudgery, absurdity, and even darkness of being a housewife–but Ellis manages to make the content fresh through voice and form.

All the stories made me laugh out loud or grin sardonically, from the first, brief portrait of a modern housewife, to the email exchange between two passive aggressive–and then just aggressive–ladies occupying the same building (my favorite), to the Dumpster Diving with the Stars reality show. Some stories, like the first, are flash fiction and read like prose poems to me. Others are fuller, like the ending story about contemporary novel writing in the age of sponsorship and social media. In that story and others, the horror of aspects of our culture becomes real.

Satisfying and sharp-tongued (without looking down on its characters), this collection completely won me over from the start.

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American Housewife, by Helen Ellis

My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

Review:

My Man Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

When I was a freshman in college, a professor assigned Right Ho, Jeeves as our last book of the semester for a class on 20th Century Fiction. I’d never heard of the series, though clearly it’s had a big influence on depictions of butlers/valets and hapless masters (among other things) in popular culture. Reading the novel, I quickly understood why my prof had assigned it when he had; it was an easy, impossibly fun and funny book, a relief at the stressful end of the semester. My friend and roommate shot me a lot of looks as I chuckled or cracked up while reading it on my loft bed.

 

I’d always figured I’d read more Jeeves someday, and a free kindle book of My Man Jeeves proved a perfect opportunity. However, I didn’t realize at first that it’s a collection of short stories rather than a novel, and not all the stories feature Jeeves and his “master,” Bertie Wooster. All the stories are set in America, or begin there, since Bertie is spending time abroad.

 

The Jeeves stories are, as usual, full of Bertie–or, I should say, Bertie’s friends–getting into fixes that Jeeves inevitably gets him out of. Bertie is completely conscious of the fact that Jeeves is The Man at these things, though Bertie himself is a good chap who wants to help his friends. Bertie’s voice, the language generally, is at least half the pleasure. As an example, here are a few ways he describes Jeeves’s physicality:

 

Jeeves trickled in with the tray, like some silent stream meandering over its mossy bed

 

He moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly fish.

 

Encountering these characters again, I was reminded of Sebastian from the manga and anime, Black Butler/Kuroshitsuji, clearly Jeeves’s descendant in terms of skill and smoothness, if not devilry (though Ciel is more Sebastian’s equal than Bertie is Jeeves’s; one would never describe Ciel as “hapless.”).

 

If one wanted, the Jeeves stories can be read as a portrait and satire of upperclass, male, British layabouts and their silly pursuits and problems, often involving allowances being cut off by stiff, older relations. It’s a pleasant, pre-WWII world, and though the young men getting into scrapes are the butt of jokes, you still like everyone rather than sneer at them.

 

I do find that reading story after story rather than one bigger narrative made the stories feel same-y, and after the first non-Jeeves story, I skipped the others. But reading the book was still a damn fun time.

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My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse