Revisiting: Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

Benito Cereno, one of Melville’s Piazza Tales, is among my favorite of his work and probably my favorite novella-length item from him. My first post on it, from way back during my maritime lit project days, is still one of my favorites, and I still look forward to reading the real-life journals of Amasa Delano, the captain on whom the story is based.

Rereading the novella this week, I was struck by Melville’s language once again, and especially a few of his metaphors. The period of the Piazza Tales seems to be an interesting one for this: Melville has already soared to his peak of lyricism in Moby-Dick and here, on a smaller scale and with smaller-scale metaphysical concerns, he can be more controlled. But still himself. A bit strange, and therefore interesting. Here are two of the metaphors I liked best this time around.

Right at the beginning, the narrator describes the sea:

The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mold. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms.

Sadly, I have never really written about “The Piazza,” but one of my favorite things about it is the way Melville uses sea metaphors to describe almost everything on the land. Here, we have the opposite. The smelter’s mold, the gray surtout, and certainly the swallows over meadows are all shore ideas. And they’re all very specific, which makes the line fresh and gives it so much more interest than to say something like, “the sea was

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The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

In most stories, duels happen outside the law, or perhaps at its margins. People will look the other way if you leave town. You just have to make sure not to attract too much attention. Often sanctioned by the local code of honor, duels are not typically sanctioned by the legal regime in the 19th century or later.

And then you have late Tsarist Russia, where Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel is set. Here, if your honor as an officer is stained, you can actually be sentenced by a court martial to fight a duel to resolve the situation. Let me give you a moment to think about how crazy that is.

Kuprin’s novel—not novella—follows the largely idle life of Yuri Alexeyich Romashov, a sub-lieutenant recently out of cadet school and now stationed at a small town in the far west of the Russian empire. The life of the regiment is circumscribed by regulation as well as necessities financial and geographic. The officers are uniformly brutal and often malicious. The soldiers are an invisible gray mass lacking any definition, suitable only for beating and shouting at. Romashov struggles to understand this world around him, where everyone seems to act from motivations that make no sense, predicated as they are on the absurdities of war and the further absurdities of a standing army.

It’s the only life Romashov has ever thought of, though, having worked since a child to become an officer—not out of any special desire, but because of his family’s poverty and the lack of other options. As the young man’s sense of individuality blossoms, and his artistic and philosophical sides gain hold in his mind, he begins to realize he does not belong here. But Romashov can’t imagine a civilian life. “‘Why would anyone get involved with such

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The Devil by Leo Tolstoy

Both of the Tolstoy titles included in the Art of the Novella series are later works. The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, 11 years after Anna Karenina and 17 years after War and Peace. And while The Devil wasn’t published until the twentieth century, it was apparently written around 1888, the same time Tolstoy was working on The Kreutzer Sonata. I don’t know exactly where I would put a “break” in Tolstoy’s work, where I would say it comes under new management, to paraphrase a comment by Amateur Reader, but the two novellas, like The Kreutzer Sonata, have the polemicist out in full force, doing his best to drown the novelist.

Here, with The Devil, my impatience with this late Tolstoy feels unfair. The story is one near to the author’s heart: a young landowner, recently inheriting an estate, goes to live on it and, unused to being away from the sexual services readily available in the city, arranges to have meetings with a peasant woman whose husband is away in town. Stepanida is described as a “peasant” in this Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, and it’s not immediately clear from the novella (at least to me) when it’s set, and therefore whether she is simply a peasant or really a serf.* When Tolstoy himself had such relations and similarly impregnated a country woman who wasn’t his wife, she was a serf—that is to say, all but his chattel slave.

Yevgeny, our young landowner, feels very badly about what he’s done. He’s addicted to sex, addicted to Stepanida, and even his truly angelic wife can’t keep his mind set firmly on hearth and home. There’s nothing for it, he must forcibly separate himself and Stepanida so they can never again see each other—sex

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My Life by Anton Chekhov

My Life was published in 1896, five years after The Duel, but it seems in some perhaps superficial ways to have the qualities of an earlier work. The first-person narrator is a young man, and a very idealistic one, who has found himself idle in his posts as a clerk and has given up employment respectable for his class in favor of manual labor.

Misail has very important ideas about all this.

[W]hat is wanted is that the strong should not enslave the weak, that the minority should not be a parasite on the majority, nor a vampire for ever sucking its vital sap; that is, all, without exception, strong and weak, rich and poor, should take part equally in the struggle for existence, each one on his own account, and…there [is] no better means for equalizing things in that way than manual labor, in the form of universal service, compulsory for all.

In The Duel, too, Chekhov explored some of the modern ideas of philosophy and political economy that were swirling around Russia and the rest of the world around this time. Misail really does give up a life of relative ease, albeit under a tyrannical parent, to do manual labor—painting, roofing, other odd jobs. Most of the small town shuns him for acting so inappropriately to his station, especially “those who had only lately been humble people themselves, and had earned their bread by hard manual labour.”

In the streets full of shops I was once passing an ironmonger’s when water was thrown over me as though by accident, and on one occasion someone darted out with a stick at me, while a fishmonger, a grey-headed old man, barred my way and said, looking at me angrily:

“I am not sorry for you, you fool! It’s your father

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The Duel by Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov’s rather long novella, The Duel, originally published in 1891, is the book that has so far most surpassed my expectations of it. My expectations were not low; I haven’t read all that much Chekhov, but what I have I thought was wonderful. Still, that doesn’t mean a novella—so many of which are minor works and a bit randomly preserved, or so it seems—by him is going to be amazing. The Duel is a good little piece of work.

The story is set on the banks of the Black Sea, not in Sevastopol, but in an unimportant, boring town that remains unnamed. At eight o’clock in the morning you can typically find the upper class males—mostly bureaucrats and military men, naturally—swimming in the sea, then relaxing in a pavilion for a coffee and perhaps an early tipple. Then they go to work if they feel like, or just stay home and nap. They have dinner, then nap again—it’s awfully hot and stuffy in the Caucasus. Then the have supper, play cards, and enjoy a severely curtailed social life in this small community.

Wasting away in such idleness is Ivan Andreich Laevsky, a self-described “superfluous man” who shirks his civic duties and lives with the wife of another man, with whom he made off from St. Petersburg two years ago. Once sharing dreams of living calmly and off the land, the couple are now in dire straits. Laevsky has just found out Nadezhda Fyodorovna’s husband has died, freeing her, but he’s fallen out of love and desperate to run away.

Laevsky has both a friend, willing to help him do as he pleases even if it ultimately does no good, and an enemy, set on destroying him because he’s a depraved menace to society. The attempts of

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The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, has some scenes that are first-rate: well-constructed and affecting. Anthony points to the Kafkaesque qualities of scenes like the one at the sick bed before the family goes to the opera; this is certainly one of them. Ivan Ilych is consumed by his illness and full of hate for all the well people around him, and they are full of discomfort at having to deal with illness like his. It’s enough to make you ill watching it all.

The beginning of the novella, where a few of Ivan Ilych’s colleagues attend his funeral, is also very good. Pyotr Ivanovich, all the while reminding himself that though such a painful death “could happen to me at any moment,” for now at least, it’s happened to Ivan Ilych and it’s best not to have such important thoughts, speaks with the widow Praskovya Fedorovna. But what she says isn’t what she means, and what he says isn’t what he means, and Tolstoy lays out the exchanges between the two in terms of what each understands, what each is after, and how they go about it.

Her questions cenetered on how she might refer to the death of her husband in requesting a grant from the government. She couched her questions in terms of seeking his advice regarding her pension, but it was immediately apparent that she knew everything there was to know on the subject—certainly far more than he did—and what she actually wanted was to find a way of getting more money. Pyotr Ivanovich tried to think something up but couldn’t, and after—as a courtesy—condemning the stinginess of the government, he concluded that getting more was impossible. She sighed loudly and began obviously working to get rid of him. He understood,

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Revisiting, Art of the Novella edition: Pushkin and Gogol

While I’ve been reading the Russian-authored titles from the Art of the Novella series in chronological order, I haven’t been posting on them that way. The two earliest, Alexander Pushkin’s The Tales of Belkin and Nikolai Gogol’s How the Two Ivans Quarrelled were re-reads for me, so I saved them for Friday and gave you an early taste of Turgenev and Dostoevsky this week. Now, backwards a bit.

The Tales of Belkin, published in 1831, were Pushkin’s first prose work, and consist of five stories allegedly written by Ivan Petrovich Belkin, a recently deceased landowner who dabbled in writing. They are supposed to have been told to him, in turn, each by a different acquaintance. The first of these, “The Shot,” could have made Melville House’s subset of “The Duel” novellas into a sextet if only it had been otherwise named, and it ended up pairing very well with my recent read of Joseph Conrad’s novella of that name.

The narrator—not Belkin, but lieutenant-colonel I.L.P., according to the “letter from the publisher” opening the collection, is stationed in a very small town where the soldiers have almost no one else for company. The only one in their circle who isn’t currently in the army is retired from it, and lives in a “shack” whose walls are riddled with bullets. He has a very expensive set of pistols and is a dead shot. But when, during a game of cards, a new arrival throws a brass candlestick at him, Silvio inexplicably refuses to challenge him to a duel. Where in Conrad’s tale we are mostly focused on the less romantic duellist, D’Hubert, who will accept the social dictates that require him to behave honorably and duel, here Pushkin/Belkin/I.L.P. gives a window onto the more romantic notions of

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The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Eternal Husband is one of the volumes in the Art of the Novella series that really pushes the bounds of the word “novella.” At over 200 pages, albeit small ones, it seems a short novel to me, and a bit of a strange one.

What can that mean? All Dostoevsky is strange to me, in the sense of “of external origin, kind, or character,” though I am, at this point, somewhat accustomed to that strangeness. But here I found a new kind of Dostoevskyan strangeness, something a little bit lighter and less bleak. Don’t let yourself assume from that, however, that The Eternal Husband doesn’t involve death and damnation just as his other, major works do. Maybe it really was the fuchsia cover, or maybe the simple fact that the protagonist, Velchaninov, overcame all his problem with nerve-induced illness without having to send himself to Siberia, but I felt almost free and easy reading this.

One thing that was familiar, and who knows, might make all Dostoevsky’s work appear somewhat strange, was the pacing. I should say lack of pacing. For 50 or so pages, we appear to have a certain kind of story, about a man who might not be all that much unlike Raskolnikov, only a little less nasty and violent and a bit older. But then, suddenly, a major new element is introduced that seems to bring us into a whole different kind of story altogether—for the next 65 or so pages at least. And later, Velchaninov and his friend spend 25 pages (remember, that’s more than a tenth of the novel) on a single visit to a single home, which might appear to be building to something, and does, but also doesn’t. I suppose it’s a bit nonsensical without specifics, but I can’t be

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First Love by Ivan Turgenev

Anthony said his reading of Ivan Turgenev’s First Love may have tipped his preference between Dostoevsky and Turgenev a bit toward the former. While I have not yet had the pleasure of all Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (I fully intend to), I can see that this is weaker than what I have read. Still, it runs much more to my taste than my old friend Fyodor’s work.

The story, quite simply, of a man’s first love is prefaced by a brief frame: after supper, sitting around the table, some men go around and ask each other to tell the stories of their first loves. One man agrees but says he must write it down and send it to them later; he cannot tell it well ex tempore. The rest of the novella is his manuscript.

Thus the story of an extremely sensitive and romantic young boy falling in love with Zinaïda, a somewhat older, certainly worldier girl, is told at a distance of years, with the benefit of knowledge but also of continued sensitivity and fondness. The narrator isn’t ashamed to tell of his own childish silliness. He doesn’t try to hide or pass judgment on it, but presents the facts as they were and clearly accepts that these fanciful ideas are just part and parcel of a first love—which is what everyone wanted to hear about anyway.

Then I sang “Not the white snows,” and passed from that to a song well known at that period: “I await thee, when the wanton zephyr,” then I began reading aloud Yermak’s address to the stars from Homyakov’s tragedy. I made an attempt to compose something myself in a sentimental vein, and invented the line which was to conclude each verse: “O Zinaïda, Zinaïda!” but could get no

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The Duel by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s novella The Duel represents a certain class of work that “I know when I see it,” but have a hard time describing very well. Let’s call it, as they say, “the work of a master at the height of his powers.” But a caveat is necessary—it’s not a masterpiece, or a master work, or anything that suggests being the most important thing a writer wrote, or the greatest thing. There are a few much more magnificent books vying for that title among Conrad’s oevre, and The Duel is simply not long or substantial enough to rise to such a level. But that too is an important characteristic of the class of books I’m trying to describe: they should be small and fine and, probably, finer than they could be if they were bigger. These are the Bartlebys, not the Moby-Dicks. I could call these things, after Bolaño, “the perfect exercises of the great masters.” Some might find that “exercises” deprecating—Bolaño himself may have meant it that way—but I don’t consider it so, and it seems apt.

Of course, for all the world I wouldn’t give up those “great, imperfect, torrential works,” but an afternoon spent in rapt appreciation of these cleaner, more wrought things can feel like a gift. The masters are greatest when they give us both.

Part of the problem with such works, though, is that even now I’ve tried to narrow down what I mean by this category, I can’t imagine rightfully explaining why The Duel belongs in it. If you’ve read Conrad, and you read this, you’ll know. I’ll give you instead the almost priceless second paragraph. The first describes how Napoleon doesn’t approve of duels between his army officers, even though his “career had the quality of a duel against the

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