Thursday, 19 May 2016

Melville vs James, or Writers and taste buds

Over the past few days, besides "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo", "The Lightning-Rod Man" and "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles", I also read but didn't write about "The Fiddler", "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids", and a few hours ago, finished reading "I and My Chimney".
My collection is from Oxford World's Classics. 
Look at these lines about "I and My Chimney" from Robert Milder's introduction: 
"The remarkable thing about 'I and My Chimney', at any rate, is how wonderfully comic it is, how little it is given to bitterness, self-pity or despair. 1 of the last of Melville's tales, it is also 1 of the most genial, the work of a man who has come to take a virtuoso's pleasure in his craft and thereby, without ever solving the problems that troubled him, slowly to find his way back to the living." 
I like that. So now I decide to let go, enjoying "I and My Chimney" for what it is and what it does and what it's like without worrying much about what it means and what it represents. As with Kafka. And Gogol. 
Anyway, I've been thinking about Melville and Henry James, idly wondering if I'd have enjoyed The Portrait of a Lady if I'd read it a short time after Moby Dick. Probably not. I remember seeing a few years ago someone comparing Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte using the analogy of taste, likening the former to sushi and the latter to barbecue, which means that both are good, but if you eat sushi right after something as strong and rich as barbecue, you can't taste anything at all, it's just raw fish, and as a result, you'll find it bad. I don't know if it's true- haven't tried. Perhaps not, as I like Jane Austen terribly much, with all of her humour, irony and sarcasm, and her stabs at people, whereas Charlotte Bronte I have some reservations against. Perhaps it would work if you replaced Charlotte with Emily, my favourite of the Brontes. In any case, it's a useful, or at least an interesting, concept. The refined, controlled, subtle James would be sushi, and Melville, with his exuberance and intensity, would be barbecue. In James, at least in The Portrait of a Lady and the short works I've read, much is hidden or left out, much is just hinted or suggested, and his greatness is in noticing and capturing the subtleties that easily escape people. I imagine that after reading Melville and enjoying his intensity, his striking images and complex layers of symbols and metaphors, his larger-than-life characters, his rhythmic style mixed with dramatic, hyperbolic or mock-heroic language, one would find James rather dull, as though the strong flavour of Melville kills some of one's taste buds. One would find James limiting, and limited, in his obsession with a perfect form, with harmony and completeness, when Melville tests the possibilities of literature and tries to expand the form of the novel, to make it encompass a lot more, do a lot more. 
Luckily, I read The Portrait of a Lady 1st. 


  1. interesting food comparisons; i've been bemused by my own reactions to books: some i like better than others even though i know the writing is worse. this isn't logical and i feel a bit embarrassed about it. H. Rider Haggard is not a highly regarded author, but his style is much better than H James, at least in my opinion; but i think it has to do with age, also. i know some authors i admired in my youth seem now to be unreadable. so i guess it just all depends on a number of factors; hard to see how anyone could be absolute over that type of value judgment.

    1. No comment, I'm not familiar with H. Rider Haggard. There's a difference between "better" and "more enjoyable" though.
      I've been thinking about why my posts about Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady, which gave me quite a hard time and some struggle, are a lot better than my posts about novels I see as favourites.

    2. possibly there's something to the claim that having to work at something means you get more out of it. i'm reluctant to admit that, though, as it makes me feel guilty about not being more ambitious. at my age, my inclination is to just read the things i like, as i'm not going to be here long enough for it to make any difference anyway... rationalization, thy name is mudpuddle...

    3. Oh right. That kinda makes sense.
      How old are you though, if you don't mind me asking?

    4. Ah.
      (Many people I talk to in the blog world are a lot older than me. Haha).

    5. Do you mean it's your birthday today? If so, happy birthday.

    6. actually it was the 23rd, but where i am is a day ahead of where you are & many tx for the good wishes and the very interesting thoughts re Mr. Melville

    7. Oh it was already the 24th here when you wrote that :D
      You're in the US, right?
      Thanks for the support. I've been thinking what's the point of keeping this blog...

    8. yes, on the west coast... the relatively short period i've been commenting on these blogs has been enough to inform me that there are many more readers than commenters. i don't know what percentage of the readers actually comment, but i really believe most of them don't. so, with your informed and admirable presentations, you are undoubtedly touching a large number of persons. but that doesn't mean that you should continue if it is not fun for you. this sort of thing can get to be tedious, i surmise; and the tedium would eventually show up in the posts. so, what you feel is best for you is what you should do...

    9. Di,

      Way back when, I had a stats program that actually worked and it was obvious that I had far more visitors than commenters. Commenters actually make up a very small percentage of the total visitors.

    10. Thanks for both of your comments. I think I more or less know how many readers I have, though.
      Follow my blog and read my post shortly after it comes out:
      - You, Fred
      - You, Mudpuddle
      - Tom
      - Probably Nicrap
      Visit my blog now and then:
      - Himadri
      - Caroline
      - Anne
      - Hải Lý
      - Capens
      - Miguel
      - Somebody in Russia
      That's all, I think. Very few.

    11. Di,

      Do you have a stats program that tells you who your visitors are, even if they don't comment?

    12. Uhmm... no :D I only get the stats from blogspot and feedjit, and feedjit isn't complete, but I don't think I have that many readers anyway. Most of the time it's just the people who google something (like Audrey Hepburn or nude Lolita) and come across my blog.

  2. I remember seeing a few years ago someone comparing Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte using the analogy of taste, likening the former to sushi and the latter to barbecue, which means that both are good, but if you eat sushi right after something as strong and rich as barbecue, you can't taste anything at all, it's just raw fish, and as a result, you'll find it bad.

    Oh, this happens a lot to me after I read Nabokov, Saramago, or Gass; it becomes difficult to get out from under their aura of aesthetic bliss and judge the others on their own terms; for a few weeks afterwards I read mumbling in disgust, "Why can't this be as good as Blindness or Lolita?"

    1. That would be different, I think. What you're talking about I often experience after reading Tolstoy, and I'm sure that I will get that after finishing this Melville book.
      The point I was trying to make was only about reading a controlled, subtle, cool, detached author after reading someone with an exuberant, rich style and intense voice.

  3. my last five books, then to now: Jeremiah Healy: Blunt Darts; Tim Heald: A Classic English Crime(short stories); Fergus Hume: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab; W.P. James: The Lure of the Map; Leslie Stephen: The Playground of Europe. i get all over the place and occasionally i get kind of a spacey feeling, of not being really there... or here....

    1. I haven't read any of them. Seems random. Are they good?
      I'm still reading Melville.
      Speaking of which, Rohan Maitzen at Open Letters Monthly has been reading Moby Dick, and this is her 1st post about it:

    2. the last three were good, the first two,not so much. since reading your posts i've started collecting melville, although i haven't started any of them yet. there was a big library sale a couple of weeks ago and i took advantage...

    3. Ahhh. Nice.
      Melville's wonderful, ain't he?