Wednesday, August 28, 2013

a certain hardness and bakedness, a style of beauty rather peculiar and cactus-like - Melville's prose

What I was wondering, when I asked if there is anything in The Confidence-Man except argument, is how to treat a novel like this as a work of art.  Maybe I should not.  But now I will just look at some prose.

The sky slides into blue, the bluffs into bloom; the rapid Mississippi expands; runs sparkling and gurgling, all over in eddies; one magnified wake of a seventy-four.  The sun comes out, a golden hussar, from his tent, flashing his helm on the world.  All things, warmed in the landscape, leap.  Speeds the dædal boat as a dream.  (Ch. 16)

Hershel Parker’s footnote to this passage is hilarious:  “Despite the drinking already described, this is still the morning of the first of April.”  Pre-dawn boozing on a river boat is simply realism.

This is one of the few passages that makes a pretence that the novel has a non-abstract setting.  I have climbed one of those bluffs myself.  Even today’s tamed Mississippi expands and gurgles and so on.  But the epic simile applied to the sun moves us into another kind of literature, perhaps by the strange last line, one that could be applied to several Melville fictions.

Let me try another.  This is just a description of a character, an old miser,

whose flesh seemed salted cod-fish, dry as combustibles; head, like one whittled by an idiot out of a knot; flat, bony mouth, nipped between buzzard nose and chin; expression, flitting between hunks and imbecile--now one, now the other--he made no response.  His eyes were closed, his cheek lay upon an old white moleskin coat, rolled under his head like a wizened apple upon a grimy snow-bank.  (Ch. 16)

I always perked up when a new character entered, since something like this would likely follow.  This, to the reader with any patience for it, is good good stuff.  The miser is fish, wood, bird (a bit earlier his hand is described as a “penguin-flipper”), apple.  Not human.

Bibliographing nicole picked put a good one when she wrote about the novel.  This time the art is in the rhetoric, even though it is also part of a description of a barber’s sign.

An inscription which, though in a sense not less intrusive than the contrasted ones of the stranger, did not, as it seemed, provoke any corresponding derision or surprise, much less indignation; and still less, to all appearances, did it gain for the inscriber the repute of being a simpleton. Ch. 1)

Nicole points out how the equivocations in the sentence (“seemed,” “to all appearances”) come close to destroying its sense.  They certainly make it hard to read.

A last one, that Parker singles out in an essay, which combines the vague rhetoric of the last example with the vivid description of the miser:

Goneril was young, in person lithe and straight, too straight, indeed, for a woman, a complexion naturally rosy, and which would have been charmingly so, but for a certain hardness and bakedness, like that of the glazed colors on stone-ware.   (Ch. 12)

Then on like this, with every positive quality undermined, until she is finally summarized as beautiful, “though of a style of beauty rather peculiar and cactus-like,”  also an apt self-description of Melville’s prose.


  1. I don't know, I find all the examples you quote to be hilarious. In any case, Confidence man seems to me to be an ur-Lolita, written a century ahead of its time. Like that other confidence man, Quilty, Melville's adopts many personae to fool his victims. Another similarity is the ambiguous moral atmosphere of both novels and the highly ironic framing. But all of this is already common knowledge, no need to go into too much detail, except to point out how much better Melville's version is than Nabokov's.

  2. Don't know what? I must have gotten something wrong with my tone. These are goodies. The description of the miser and poor Goneril, those are a scream.

    I disagree so strongly with your last point that I am left disarmed.

  3. Great prose by Melville, as I expected. That was what saved my reading experience of Moby Dick from being a complete failure.

  4. Yes, but less than in Moby-Dick. Some of the conversatin' is made of more ordinary stuff. I guess not that ordinary, but less weird and original than 90% of MD.