Melville in the Margins

December 2, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Redburn, by Herman Melville.

Reading next: Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens.

If you’re a fan of Melville but didn’t know what to read besides Moby-Dick, or if you’ve been intimidated or put off by that book, do yourself a favor and give Redburn a try.  It’s short(er), it’s a good story, and it’s got some terrific, Dickensian sections on New York and Liverpool in the early-to-mid-19th century.  Melville’s voice is there, and he digresses a lot, but in interesting ways, and not so much as in his masterpiece.

Okay, PSA over.  Let’s talk about the Melville I love: Melville the trickster, the pre-postmodern, writing his books in the margins of other books while affecting a scorn for book-learnin’.  This book taking place mostly among the very poor and at sea doesn’t stop books and other printed matter from showing up everywhere, in interesting ways: what’s most interesting in Redburn is the variety of uses to which books are put, and the variety of meanings they hold for their owners:

-The book as moral guide, obviously: The ship’s black cook, Mr. Thompson, is rather more learned and curious than most of the white sailors.  In Redburn’s description from Chapter 17:

All that Sunday morning, he sat over his boiling pots, reading out of a book which was very much soiled and covered with grease spots: for he kept it stuck into a little leather strap, nailed to the keg where he kept the fat skimmed off the water in which the salt beef was cooked.  I could hardly believe my eyes when I found this book was the Bible.

Thompson uses this book not only for his own devotions, but to attempt to edify the steward, a “dandy mulatto” named Lavender.

-The book as object — pillow, specifically: There’s a terrific section in Ch. 18 (which is all about books) in which Redburn, having already read two books (a compilation of shipwrecks and a tract on the DT’s) loaned to him by a fellow sailor, pulls out Smith’s Wealth of Nations, loaned by a New York acquaintance.  I love this sentence for its apparent insight into a youth’s decision-making process in reading matter: “I glanced at the title page… I caught sight of “Aberdeen,” where the book was printed; and thinking that any thing from Scotland, a foreign country, must prove some way or other pleasing to me, I thanked Mr. Jones very kindly…”  There’s some humor about the book being unreadable, and Redburn says that “the best reading was on the fly-leaves,” where an inscription from 1798 is found; Redburn, like any good sub-sub-librarian in a special collections library, is most interested in provenance, the history of the book.  Finally, Redburn wraps his jacket around it, and uses it as a pillow in his tiny sleeping berth.

-The self-help book: A sailor named Jack Blunt has “an extraordinary looking pamphlet, with a red cover, marked all over with astrological signs and ciphers,” called the “Napoleon Dream Book.”  This provides Blunt a method of divining the meaning of his dreams, and is supposed to be the same system of dream-interpretation that Napoleon used to guide his rise to power.  Blunt faithfully follows this system every morning, making cabalistic marks on his chest to discover the meaning of his dreams.  (n.b.: there was, apparently, a popular song called “The Dream of Napoleon,” but I’ve found no extant divination guide with the title Melville provides.)

-The book as lost paradise: Most touchingly, chapters 30 and 31 deal with Redburn’s guidebook to Liverpool, entitled The Picture of Liverpool.  This is a real book, published in many editions.  Redburn’s is an almost religiously adored copy, used as it was by his father.  Things are quite autobiographical here: much as Melville’s father was once prosperous but slid into debt, so Redburn’s father dies penniless, and the Liverpool guidebook is a token of his glory days, crossing the Atlantic on mercantile business.  Redburn tries to follow his father’s route using the map his father marked up, and visit the sites his father saw, and take the roads he took; but he finds the city has grown, and changed, and the hotel where his father stayed was torn down, and many of the other sites pictured in the book’s plates are now gone, or radically transformed.

Throughout the book — as throughout much of Melville — there’s a tension between the knowledge gained from books and the knowledge gained in lived experience.  Ishmael famously said that a whaling ship was his Harvard and Yale, and this is commonly taken to stand for Melville’s belief; but then, Melville’s Harvard and Yale were also books by Charles Henry Dana and Milton and Shakespeare and Hawthorne and encyclopedists and anonymous balladeers and Moses and the Apostles.  He used them and learned (or stole) as much from them as from his years at sea.  Experience changes, memory fades; print remains.

Melville is fascinated by the palimpsest, the written-over text, the vainglory of print.  In Liverpool he remarks on the advertising broadsides, the quack-medicine handbills, and the song sheets hastily printed for the balladeers who sing of murders committed only yesterday.  Two quotes from this section are marvelous guideposts to Melville’s thoughts on literature, and on life:

Guide-books, Wellingborough, are the least reliable books in all literature; and nearly all literature, in one sense, is made up of guide-books….  Every age makes its own guide-books, and the old ones are used for waste-paper.

…I never could look at Death without a shudder.

The Sportscaster in American Literature

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

I’m reading this book in a weird little mass-market paperback edition published by Pocket Books in, apparently, 1973.  (The book was published in 1972.)  I picked it up for 50 cents at the Newberry Library Book Fair a couple of years ago, just because it was so damn weird.  Like an artifact from some parallel universe where Don DeLillo books are the kinds of books sold in supermarkets and newspaper kiosks. Judging by the list of Pocket Books’ other publications at the end of the text here, there’s a name for this parallel universe: the 1970s.  They also published Donald Barthelme and Bernard Malamud, $1.95-$2.25 each.  For such a supposedly philistine decade, they were sure doing a helluva lot better than us at making literature available to people.  My copy bears the stamp of a place called “Paperback Exchange” in Reno, Nevada — “We Sell — We Trade.”

Anyway, here’s a shot of the cover (from LibraryThing):

Since this post is basically one big digression, let me also say that the dust jacket of the first edition is one of my all-time favorites; it’s just absolutely gorgeous and simple (also from LibraryThing):

Anyway. I can’t resist sharing the copy on the back cover on the Pocket paperback.  Books’ promotional copy fascinates me — in terms of who writes it and how it gets written, and in its status as a kind of “paratext” — and this is a great example of fairly mysterious, utterly cryptic, and wildly, misleadingly incorrect copy, although not in the way you might expect:

IS GOD A FOOTBALL FAN?

There is a small college somewhere in America where such questions have answers.  There young men gather to study the secrets of the universe; to refine their sexual techniques; to meditate on human folly — and to play hard, belting football.  And there, they learn that God himself is waiting for the outcome of the season.

So, I’m only about halfway through this short book, but I feel safe in saying that, hilarious as this is, it’s not a faithful description of what is actually going on in this book.  The illustration is actually much better for that, tying in as it does the themes of nuclear war, big Texas sky, and, well, football.  (It also makes Myna Corbett thin and pretty where she’s described as kind of fat and ugly; but at least the dress is the right color.)

Also can’t resist quoting this blurb from Nelson Algren, of all people: “If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”  Uh, sure, whatever you say, Nelson.  You’re a hip, hip, hip dude.

All of which is a long way around to saying that I still love the specificity and tactility of holding and using a specific copy of a printing of an edition of a book.  It’s somehow thrilling that this book, thin spine broken, hinges wobbly, made its way to a used bookstore in Reno, was dumped at a book sale in Chicago, and now finds itself in North Carolina, useful all around the country across a span of 35 years.

Anyway, a couple of notes before I dive into the actual text in my next post.  Turns out this book was surely some kind of influence on DFW.  I need to reserve judgment on the deeper levels of influence for now, but there are some easy referents and allusions that DFW includes in Infinite Jest.  Beyond the whole nuclear-war-and-sport connection, there’s a player named Onan and a coach named Hauptfuhrer (I maddeningly can’t find it now, although I’m certain there are a few references to a person named Hauptfuhrer in IJ, too.  Or perhaps someone just calls Schtitt hauptfuhrer?)  And then there’s the sportscaster-in-training.  Jim Troeltsch, meet your spiritual father, Raymond Toon: “…Raymond practiced his sportscasting in the room all weekend.  When he wasn’t studying theories of economic valuation, he was camped in front of his portable TV set.  He’d switch it on, turn the sound down to nothing, and describe the action.”

This is the third book this year that’s included this subplot.  There was Ché, in Vineland, admiring Brent Musberger and always framing and commenting upon her life; there was Troeltsch; and now there’s Toon, who narrates a football game he’s ostensibly involved in, as a reserve, from the sidelines, “talking into his fist.”  Troeltsch is a culmination of sorts here, in that we get a sense of the verisimilitude of his practice-sportscasting and thereby a sense of how deeply imbedded and influential event-narrators like TV sportscasters are to us, the Viewing Public.

Like a lot of kids, I suspect, I used to act out sporting events by myself and would call the play-by-play in a kind of half-whisper, half-shout, so I could be heard over the deafening crowd in my head.  (For me, it was mostly basketball and football.)  In high school, I was the P.A. announcer for the football games during my senior year.  I loved this job.  Sportscasters used to be completely ignored, the white noise of TV, but now everything gets talked about and it’s common to have favorites and nemeses, those in whom you perceive a bias and those you think are simply incompetent, etc.  It’s also common to decry the utter banality and pointlessness and clichè-ridden-drivelness of sportscasting.  And I don’t think that’s wrong, most of the time.  But I do think it’s wrong to imagine that the banality and clichèd, regurgitated phrases serve no purpose and are unintentional.  They’re a comfort.  It was comforting, shooting hoops in my driveway and counting down the seconds, or up in the crow’s nest with a view of the football field, calling out “flag on the play” and “Brauer rumbles for seven yards.”  Of course, it’s only comforting if you don’t think about it too much.  If I stop and think about how I’d soaked up so much televised sports by the time I was seven or eight that it was probably the single most familiar and approachable narrative structure in my life — that I could do an utterly convincing job of narrating my imagined sporting events, just as Troeltsch can with real events in his teens — if I think about it, it’s kind of terrifying.  But we’ll get into that in my next post.

The Thoughts of Others

March 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

On the train to the Marabar Caves, an expedition lead by Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore (in “purdah,” or seclusion of women from public sight, with Adela Questing) reflects on the impending marriage of her son Ronny and Adela (who reconciled immediately after Adela had decided not to marry Ronny).

She felt increasingly (vision or nightmare?) that, though people are important, the relations between them are not, and that in particular too much fuss has been made over marriage; centuries of carnal embracement, yet man is no nearer to understanding man. And to-day she felt this with such force that it seemed itself a relationship, itself a person who was trying to take hold of her hand.

I must pause, here, to make two separate digressions.

Digression A: Besides its importance in the novel, this statement reflects in interesting ways on the Bloomsbury Group, the circle of friends including the Woolfs, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and others, with whom Forster was friendly (although his actual inclusion in the group is a subject of heated debate among those who care about such things). In the light of what (little) I know about Forster’s biography and about the relations among the Bloomsberries, I suspect that by the unimportance of relationships Forster means their codification, the societal verification of the relationship between two people in marriage, and the necessity of maintaining such a relationship for life. This thought of Mrs. Moore’s could almost be a manifesto of interpersonal relations among the Bloomsberries, who were busily trying to dismantle Victorian proprieties, welcoming sexual experimentation, and having sex with each other and with those outside the group.

Digression B: My copy of A Passage to India (Harcourt, Brace Modern Classics, apparently a 1956 printing) was a $1 purchase at the most excellent Newberry Library Book Fair. It is fairly heavily marked up, especially in the first 150 pages, using red pencil and blue and black pens for underlining and occasional annotation. I would think this indicated two or three different annotators, but the markings and subject matter of interest seems fairly consistent. I suspect all of the markings belong to the Cornell U. student who identifies herself on the front endpapers. (Tina Van Lent, I have your book.) I’m guessing by the fading of the ink and the quality of the penmanship that these are circa late 1950s/early 1960s notes. (Just a guess.)

I mention all of this now, partly just because marginalia interests me, but also because the annotator underlines the passage quoted above heavily, excitedly, and asterisks in the margin by “yet man is no nearer to understanding man” with the note: “point of book.” The annotations of others in second-hand books can often be distracting or annoying, especially those of students who underline everything discussed in class, or everything identifying a new character, or who make really dumb notes in the margins. But they can also be illuminating, interesting, even important. (I recently purchased a copy of a book from the library of the novelist John Fowles — it has his bookplate, which is quite nice — and also includes some marginalia, possibly his, possibly that of the Oxford professor who’d owned it previously.)

Anyway, I don’t know that I would have identified this passage as the “point of book,” but it interests me that a former owner did. This is the kind of thing hard to replicate in e-books, this experience of communion with a former reader through a copy both of you owned. It is one of the things we’d lose if we lost the physical book. The freedom of transmission and marking of a copy of a book would be severely restricted by e-books; to the delight of publishers, I’m sure, who could restrict e-books to use only through passwords or licenses and thereby sell more copies to more users, and do away with “second-hand” copies altogether.

To segue back to the topic at hand. The communion between different minds, and the ways our thoughts circle around ideas and topics in divergent ways, is one of the truly masterful techniques Forster controls in this book. His perspective flits from mind to mind, smoothly moving from one to another, so we hardly notice that we are now thinking like Fielding, now Moore, now Questing, now Aziz. Third-person omniscient, here, but in a way very different from Joyce, whose Ulysses was published a couple of years before this. Unlike that encyclopedic vision, Forster willfully selects the thoughts of his characters, summarizing past thinking and choosing the most important thoughts to show how the views of one character communicate with those of another in ironic, sympathetic, or unexpected ways.

So Mrs. Moore is thinking these rather radical thoughts for an older Englishwoman, and when they reach the caves, and Aziz is trying his best to make them interesting, diverting, the sort of scenery he thinks adventurous Englishwomen would want (not realizing they’ve come only out of politeness, having been told they’d been disappointed he hadn’t arranged the trip yet, and so arranging it out of a feverish desire to keep what he sees as important friendships with Mrs. Moore and Fielding) — as all this is happening, Adela Questing is thinking about her marriage, making her plans, and suddenly coming to the realization that she does not love Ronny, does not believe he loves her, and wondering why it has not even occurred to her to ask until now, when she’s already engaged. She would obviously profit from an honest talk with Mrs. Moore, it would seem: but, Forster seems to ask, how would such a talk occur, in the stultified air of propriety and etiquette the English live in? Even among two fairly independent-minded women?

So Adela climbs among the caves and rocks with Aziz and a guide (Fielding having missed the train, and Mrs. Moore having been appalled by the caves, and deciding not to continue after the first, but instead rest). And deciding she needs to talk about marriage with someone, she asks about Aziz’s marriage. Aziz, weirdly feeling it more “artistic,” says he is married, even though his wife is dead. And then Adela makes a monstrous faux-pas: she asks if Aziz has more than one wife. Deeply offended, he says he only has one, then takes refuge alone in a cave to avoid further embarrassment. Completely oblivious, Adela also goes into a cave, thinking about marriage and how she hates sight-seeing. The chapter ends. And in the space between chapters, the book changes drastically.

We follow Aziz’s perspective into the next chapter, and learn that he pauses in his cave, smokes a cigarette, then comes out to find Adela gone. He curses at his guide for letting her out of his sight, hits the man and causes him to flee. He then sees Adela talking to a Miss Derek, who has just arrived with Fielding in her car. He assumes everything is well, but decides to cover up the fact that Adela had been alone for a while when he talks to Fielding.

When they arrive back at Chandrapore, Aziz is arrested. Adela appears to have accused Aziz of attempting to rape her in the caves.

The interesting thing here is how Forster makes this into a mystery for us, at least in the short term. We have gotten to know and like Aziz, and we’re in his head, seemingly, when the event supposedly takes place. It seems a horrible injustice that is being done to Aziz, especially when the English get all xenophobic and emotional about the state of Adela, who is apparently sick in one of those ambiguous ways Englishwomen were thought to be ill after some excitement or affront. (Seriously, what is the deal here? Does she have a fever? The vapors? Is it all psychosomatic? If so, why do so many women in novels die after falling ill after some horrible incident? They say she’s “in danger,” but I have no idea what that might be. Is this a euphemism — are they checking for sexual contact? Do they just assume she might be ill? She ends up being fine, of course.)

So we are on Aziz’s side, and Forster is careful not to give us any of Adela’s thoughts or perspective for a good 50 pages after the incident. This is important, since we’ve also learned a lot about Adela, and are wondering how these charges, which we feel cannot possibly be true, came to be. Is it part of some wild plot on her part to get out of her marriage?  We cannot imagine either Aziz (and, by extension, Forster) lying to us about what he did up in the caves (we are given explanations for why he fibs to Fielding about the chain of events, and about how he comes across her field glasses outside a cave); neither can we imagine Adela making up such a story out of whole cloth.

The only explanation at this point seems to be that Adela was attacked by the guide, or that there was someone — who knows who? — already in the cave, disturbed by the intruder.  The guide, of course, has fled.  Forster, who has been so careful to show us many minds, many ways of being, suddenly keeps us in the minds of those who were not involved: Fielding, who defends Aziz, and the overreacting Englishmen. It’s excruciating, this interim, as we fear for Aziz and for Fielding and for Adela, not knowing what happened, or how the caves, the dark, mysterious, primordial caves, figure into it.

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