Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Reading Melville Aloud

Every evening for about a half hour starting a dozen years ago, more or less, Peggy and I started reading aloud. We’re still at it consuming an A-list of classics from Proust, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sterne and Camus to Faulkner, Cheever, Nabokov, McEwan and Banville. I’m impressed with myself having been functionally non-literary for most of my life. I have somehow evolved from a smattering of ignorance to a shell of erudition.

One never knows when one will find oneself as a contestant on Jeopardy or in the company of true scholars. Now I can fake a conversation at a cocktail party providing the other people have long forgotten what they read in their university days. As a graduate of a four-year pharmacy college, which I regard as a trade school, I can safely say I was never formally educated.

We are currently swimming our way through Moby-Dick. It is our second attempt. Five years ago we ran aground during his tedious, encyclopedic exposition on sperm whales. Last night we skipped a chapter on how to decapitate a captured whale but we have vowed to stay the course. In those days whale blubber was a prized source of wax for oil lamps as well as soap and even margarine. I still have trouble reconciling the Save the Whale Movement with the way Melville describes his prey as a demonic creature with a diabolical intention out to do us all in. Of course I know it is to be read as an allegory of one man’s obsession but I wish he had chosen a different object of contempt.

Yet his language is so rich with the brine and froth of the sea and so biblical and vigorous in his exhortations one cannot help but be caught. His ariose sentences and the cadence of his vocabulary begs to be read aloud. You’d be cheating yourself otherwise. And it is great fun to hear your voice rise with the rollicking of the Pequod as if you’ve contacted your ocean within.

Then there is Bartleby the Scrivener. At first I asked myself, how was it possible for the same author to have written both classics. And yet…. Melville wrote this short story just two years after his monumental work. Moby-Dick had failed to win an audience unlike his previous novels, Typee and Omoo. He was distressed and broke. His two brothers had law offices on Wall St. and Bartleby may well be his answer to that walled life as Elizabeth Hardwicke suggests in her essay, Bartleby in Manhattan. He preferred not… repeatedly and with insistence.

Could it be that Bartleby was Ahab, inside-out? Not the loud, ferocious one-limbed vengeful hunter of the sea but the equally singular, taciturn renegade of industrial age dehumanized man. The one expansive and larger than life, the other minimalist and cadaverous but no less subversive. Just as Ahab becomes subsumed in his obsession so too does Bartleby become an apparition created, in a sense, by the conscience of the lawyer. Bartleby is a 20th century figure haunting the 19th century as if Kafka had a hand in his creation.

It wasn’t until 1920 when Melville received deserved acclaim. He saw deep and far. It took seventy years for society to honor how well he had harpooned his subject.

I’m not sure all great authors are enhanced by an oral reading but Melville certainly is. He is perhaps our version of the bard, singing even beyond Whitman's barbaric yawp. In these times of flat writing we seem afraid of rhetorical flourishes with the full orchestra of the language resounding. Melville is a reminder of an intrepid, authentic American voice. He prefers not to be reined in.