Thursday, December 19, 2002

Finished Pierre, and all I can say is, My God, what a book. It's a perfectly overwhelming narrative. It is Melville's most "land-locked" novel, according to people who know about these things, and yet the ocean is all I could thing about; the prose rolls, rises, cascades. It overwhelms you and suddenly plunges you into its depths. As is true with its predecessor, Moby-Dick, you really sense here a writer swinging for the bleachers, pushing himself -- daring himself to see how far he'll go. In fact, it's a book about that very kind of writer, a would-be writer, actually, who struggles with going too far and writes a book his publisher rejects. Pierre, the most scorned of all Melville's works in his lifetime, predicts its own reception. This is not hard to fathom, for reasons I've already mentioned upthread; beyond that, the writing is, at times, almost daringly bad; there are times it gets repetitious, as if Melville is trying to establish some kind of odd poetic rhythm by repeating phrases.

I think Pierre is about writing and art, about a would-be writer whose art is his life; who attempts in art and in life to draw into himself the dueling sides of human life and nature and exert mastery over both; there's something Faustian about it all. It's a messy book and it has a hasty ending that undercuts a bit of its power, but the power is enormous.

The book is startling from the beginning, maybe more so than any 19th Century American novel you are likely to read. It's written in what I can only describe as a rather personal third-personal style, a style in which one becomes growingly aware of the narrator, who late in the book even begins to adopt the personal "I." The characters speak like 17th-Century squires, all thees and thys, and their affections more than match their affectations. The protagonist, Pierre Glendinning, and his mother, Mary, have a way-too-close relationship; they call each other brother and sister. Theirs isn't a physical relationship, but there is the tinge of incest to it, as there is between virtually all the characters in the book. Pierre, for example, is set to marry his cousin, Lucy Tartan, who in many ways simply seems his mother's stand-in.

As the subtitle suggests, Pierre and his creator are most attracted to opposites and parallels: good and evil, light and dark, angels and devils. The polar opposites, Blake's fearful symmetry if you will, are represented by two seperate paintings of his late father, who (like Melville's own father) went insane and died when the boy was twelve. The standard family portrait, the one preferred by his mother, shows a staunch father figure. Another, hidden portrait, discovered by Pierre, shows Mr. Glendinning when he is a young man, with an "ambiguous" smile -- a Giaconda smile, you might say, which is suggestive of a dark past. This portrait proves disastrously prophetic; Pierre learns that his father had a premarital affair which may have resulted in a daughter. It will come as no surprise to the reader that when Pierre meets a stunning beauty, Isabel, who seems to him a mirror-image of himself, she will prove to be that very daughter (or, anyway, so it seems.) The two meet, and Pierre not only falls in love with her but becomes obsessed; to love her is to explore some heretofore shadowy realm of himself. He ditches Lucy, and sets up what passes for married life with Isabel. An anguished Lucy prepares to marry Pierre's evil cousin Glen, but this doesn't take. She's really in love with Pierre and goes to live with him and Isabel.

So here we have Pierre, who has had some minor success as a poet, living with two women, a cousin and a sister -- theoretically a sister, anyway, as there are doubts about her parentage. In his mind, she is his sister, anyway. Pierre makes plans to forge his great poetic triumph amidst the turmoil of this menage a trois -- to go as far as Dante if not farther into the dark recesses of his soul. (Actually, there's also another woman, the unfortunate Delly, but lets not make this any more complicated than we must.) Unfortunately, both Glen and Lucy's brother, Fred, want to save Lucy from her sinful life, and when they come to town hell really breaks loose.

I'll stop here as far as the plot details go; truth is, to give away the whole plot doesn't do that much of a disservice. What pulls you through this book is the maelstrom-like pull of a writer whose unique wit and extraordinary gift of language are perfectly married to his easy grasp of complex ideas, and his abiding interest in the shadows of human personality. Surely that sounds as if I'm grasping for something to say to explain myself and I am; you leave this book knowing that there's a lot in it to be reinvestigated, that there's a lot to it that you didn't get, just as you feel reading a staggeringly great poem for the first time, something that pulls you back, that makes you want to look harder. I don't have time -- or the immediate inclination; I'd like for it to settle first -- to read the book again right away, but I look forward to the first opportunity.

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