Saul Bellow Week, Day 2 – Zetland: By a Character Witness

For Day 2 of Saul Bellow Week, I read his short story “Zetland: By a Character Witness”.  This one came in at only about 30 pages – a little shorter than “Him With the Foot in His Mouth”.

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Very short on plot, the story sets out the childhood and early married life of Elias Zetland, an intellectual Jewish boy growing up in Chicago (I’m seeing a pattern, here).  The narrator is unnamed and only gives a slight clue as to his relationship with Zetland (or Zet as he calls him).  He seems to be a boyhood/adolescent friend who knows much about Zet’s life.

The usual early adulthood changes make up the plot.  Zet marries Lottie – a marriage neither family likes.  They move from Chicago to New York and Zet changes his mind about majoring in philosophy when he reads Moby-Dick.  Melville and Moby-Dick have been popping up in a lot of the stories I’ve been reading lately.

There is a light-hearted depth to “Zetland” that I’m finding is characteristic to the Saul Bellow stories I’ve read so far.  The depth comes from an obviously intelligent writer creating intelligent characters.  The light-heartedness keeps both Bellow and his characters from taking themselves too seriously.

As a native of Chicago, Bellow writes a little tongue-in-cheek as Zet and Lottie move to New York:

Zet and Lottie swam into New York City from the skies… They were in the East, where everything was better, where objects were different.  Here there was deeper meaning in the air.

I would (so far) consider Woody from “A Silver Dish” as the best example of Bellow’s characters – smart, but not wanting to follow the path set out for them by family or society. Perhaps Zet might come in second.

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In the Heart of the Sea

…as the survivors of the Essex came to know, once the end has been reached and all hope, passion, and force of will have been expended, the bones may be all that are left.

It’s taken me at least as long to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea as it took the crew of the whaleship Essex to survive being shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean – which is approximately three months – and not everyone survived which is one of the more gruesome aspects of the book.

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Philbrick writes a very readable non-fiction story and gives fascinating background into the whaling industry and the island of Nantucket that sparked the industry boom during the early years of the United States.  His details regarding the influence of the Quakers in this area shed more light on those “Quakers with a vengence” that owned the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  This connection to Melville’s novel prompted me to read Philbrick’s account along with the trailer to the upcoming film based on the book.

Based on published accounts by the surviving members of Essex along with letters and other documentation, Philbrick narrates the whaleship’s destruction by a sperm whale that to all involved appeared to aggressively attack the ship – something shocking to the crew members and other whalers of the time.  The struggle to survive pushed all of the crew’s morals and ideals to the limit and in some cases passed the limit.

According to Philbrick, this incident inspired Herman Melville, who spent time employed by whaleships, himself, to write Moby-Dick, his Great American Novel.  In the Heart of the Sea contains fewer details about Melville than I was expecting; however, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in survival stories.

Herman Melville: Bartleby

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Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby” gives the reader an odd relationship between employee and employer.  While I’m not sure this type of relationship exists in the real world (or at least not the 21st century real world), Melville makes the story work in a most memorable manner.

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The story is narrated by the boss who hires Bartleby as a scrivener for his law office.  Bartleby gets his own little section of the office and before long is politely refusing to do anything requested of him.   In one of my favorite lines (of which there are many), the boss says “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.”  The story seems to ask who has more control and more power.  It’s difficult to point to the boss as the answer.

Bartleby embodies the power of this passive resistance.  By doing – or not doing – whatever he wants, Bartleby gives some sort of meaning to his life as strange as it may seem.  This throws the boss for more than one loop.  In spite of the philosophical edge to the story, I couldn’t help but appreciate the humor in the situation.  The poor boss can’t shake Bartleby – even right up to the end.  Something about the story kept reminding me of the movie Office Space.

I’m not sure the idea of passive resistance would be useful to me in my job or career; however, the occasional “I prefer not to” could be helpful in a lot of life situations.

The title of this story in my edition is simply “Bartleby”; however, I have seen other editions (as the one pictured) in which the story is called “Bartleby, the Scrivener”.  I’m not sure which is right but I’m wondering if this could be similar to The Great Hyphen Controversy of Moby-Dick. 

I think I have said this before but it’s worth repeating – Melville is a master.

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

Herman Melville: The Piazza

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My gut instinct tells me that Herman Melville’s short story “The Piazza” will end up being my favorite short story from my Deal Me In 2014 project.  I chose it when I drew the Ace of Spades this week.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Last year, I read Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick and was swept away by his tale of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of his white whale nemesis.  In the novel, Melville always took me by surprise when he would mention something specifically American – such as  comparing a whale’s stomach to the Kentucky Mammoth Caves.  The international aspect of the story was so compelling that I sometimes forgot I was reading an American author and an American novel.

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Even with no sea adventure, “The Piazza” has a similar effect; however, it’s almost the opposite.  An unnamed narrator (Melville, himself, perhaps)moves to a secluded home on a New England mountainside.  Immediately,  he remedies the problem of a non-existent piazza.  The majority of the story takes place from this new piazza as the narrator views the landscape surrounding his home.  He doesn’t simply describe his surroundings but imagines them through the lens of his well-read and well-traveled mind.  Much of the American characteristics of this geography gets melded together with the South Seas, Shakespeare, Homer and Milton.

At one point, his eye catches a small house on another mountainside.  I loved his musings as he notices it:

…the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary coast, an unknown sail.

When the New England weather ceased being advantageous in viewing the cottage, his thoughts go this way:

…wishfully I gazed off towards the hills; but in vain.  Either troops of shadows, and imperial guard, with slow pace and solemn, defiled along the steeps, or, routed by pursuing light, fled broadcast from east to west – old wars of Lucifer and Michael; or the mountains, though unvexed by these mirrored sham fights in the sky, had an atmosphere otherwise unfavorable…

The narrator eventually leaves his piazza for a small trip that results in an unusual encounter, but this story will continue to amaze me for the manner in which I was whisked into someone’s world simply by the imaginings of his landscape.  Melville is a master.

 

Second Anniversary and some favorites…

Today is the second anniversary of my blog!  It’s been a fun outlet for all of my reading and I’m looking forward to what 2014 will bring.  It’s always been difficult for me to pick favorite books or stories, but there have been a few that stand out over the past year.

My favorite short story is J. D. Salinger’s “DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and it would also rank up there as the funniest story I read this year.  William Trevor’s “After Rain” was a very close runner up as favorite and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Camel’s Back” was a close second for funniest.  A few honorable mentions would include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”, Willa Cather’s “The Enchanted Bluff”, Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ambitious Sophomore”.

William Trevor and George Eliot are the winners for favorite “new-to-me” authors with Margaret Mitchell and Mark Helprin being next in line.

Picking a favorite novel has proved to be a harder task but I’ll go with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick which I finally read after it sat on my shelf for a very long time. And finally, here are a few quotes from the past year that I enjoyed:

Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

-Ishmael in Melville’s Moby-Dick

Men will sometimes reveal themselves to children, or to people whom they think never to see again, more completely than they ever do to their confreres. From the wise we hold back alike our folly and our wisdom, and for the recipients of our deeper confidences we seldom select our equals. The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention, and we play only in the shallows. It selects its listeners willfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour. There are moments too, when the tides run high or very low, when self-revelation is necessary to every man, if it be only to his valet or his gardener. At such a moment, I was with Mr. Crane.

-Willa Cather on meeting Stephen Crane in her essay “When I Knew Stephen Crane”

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.  Not drowned entirely, though.  Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.  So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

-and Melville again from Moby-Dick

The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson

Eugene Peterson is probably best known as the author of the widely popular (and, in some circles, controversial) version of the Bible called The Message.  While I haven’t read much of his work, although I have read The Message some, I happened to pick up his memoir and read his introduction.  In it, he referred to William Faulkner, Anne Tyler and Herman Melville.  My first thought was “Ah, a religious dude who likes literature, I might have to read the rest of this.”  So I did.

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I enjoyed his ability to keep spiritual ideas from being simply maxims, platitudes or clichés. He covered three areas that I found most appealing as he described his journey from childhood to college and on to his vocational life as a pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland.

First, his childhood in rural Montana during the depression gave his life “sacred space” in his words.  His father built a log cabin in the side of a glacier several miles from their home to which his family continues to vacation even today.   He describes the importance of this homeland:

But wherever I went, I always ended up here.  This was the geography of my imagination:  the sighting of a pygmy owl in feathered silence pouncing on a field mouse on Blacktail Mountain, the emergence through spring snow of the first avalanche lilies in Jack’s Meadow, surprising a grizzly bear, the iconic beast of these mountains, on the Garden Wall trail.  Holy ground, sacred space.

Next, while he went to college and did graduate work in New York City (significantly different from Montana), he coached a church basketball team and in the process, ran into a number of artists who didn’t much care for church but hung out at his church, anyway.  The idea that these artists considered their trade a vocation was a new idea for him.  They would be staying along this artistic path regardless of whether they made money or not.  He also noticed how they were not afraid to embrace a certain ambiguity of life – a mystery:

The artist has eyes to connect the visible and the invisible and the skill to show complete what we in our inattentive distraction see only in bits and pieces.

And finally, he takes a scene from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and applies it to his pastoral life.  In Melvilles’ novel, when chasing a whale the ship’s crew continuously rush around grabbing the oars and working in a frenzy to get the whale in the right position.  All except one: the harpooner.  This person sits quietly and still among the chaos waiting for the right moment to release his weapon.  Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, puts it this way:

To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.

Peterson explains his application of Melville’s idea this way:

Melville’s harpooner found company in my imagination with Jesus’ metaphor that feature the single, the small, and the quiet – salt, leaven, seed – that have effects far in excess of their appearance.  Our culture publicizes the opposite: the big, the multitudinous, the noisy.  Is it not, then, a strategic necessity that some of us deliberately ally ourselves with the quiet, poised harpooners, and not leap, frenzied, to the oars?

Peterson writes in a manner that feels comfortable.  I got the feeling I was having coffee with him.  He only briefly discusses what lead him to write The Message.  He spent some of his time while a pastor as a professor, also.  The pastor vocation; however, always seemed to be what he was “meant” to do.  When once asked what he liked about being a pastor, his reply was “the mess”.  Through the stories he retells of the people he has met and with whom he has interacted over the years, the reader understands “the mess” in a more positive light than one might first think on hearing the term.

 

Anyone for Forewords?

The Classic Club’s monthly meme for August poses an interesting question:  Do you read forewords/notes that precede many classics?  Does it help you or hurt you in your enjoyment/understanding of the work?

Right off the bat, I will have to say that I usually do not read forewords or notes.  I’d rather get right to the story and read it for myself.  In the case of many books, I tell myself that I will read the foreword or the notes after I’m finished; however, I typically am ready to move on to the next book by then.

I’m more likely to read a foreword if I recognize the author.  In a rare instance, I’ve actually read a foreword by Vladamir Nabakov for Charles Dicken’s Bleak House but still have not read Bleak House.  Here’s the beginning paragraph:

We are now ready to tackle Dickens.  We are now ready to embrace Dickens.  We are now ready to bask in Dickens.  In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room.  In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port.

After reading this, I couldn’t help but read the rest of it.  Maybe someday I will actually read Bleak House.

This year, I’ve read two books in which I have read the forewords/notes in small pieces as I was reading the book.  The first one was for Gone With The Wind (it was actually a preface – I’m sure there’s a difference).  It was written by South Carolina novelist, Pat Conroy.  I’ve enjoyed Conroy’s novels and his insights into Gone With The Wind were worth reading. The afterword to my editon of Moby-Dick by Denham Sutcliffe of Kenyon College helped immensely as I read what is shaping up to be my favorite book of 2013.

What is your opinion on notes and forewords for classic novels?  Have you read any that are especially memorable?