Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  The only woman he sincerely, devotedly and disinterestedly loved in his life was Elisa Schlesinger. One evening at dinner chez Magny, when Théophile Gautier, Taine and Edmond de Goncourt were present, Flaubert made a curious statement: he said that he had never really possessed a woman, that he was virgin, that all the women he had had were never anything but ‘mattresses’ for another woman, the woman of his dreams. Maurice Schlesinger’s speculations had ended in disaster, and he took his wife and children to live in Baden. In 1871 he died. Flaubert, after loving Elisa for thirty-five years, wrote his first love letter to her. Instead of beginning as he had been used to do, ‘Chère Madame,’ he began: ‘My old love, my only loved one.’ She came to Croisset. Both were greatly changed since they had last seen one another. Flaubert was gross and fat, his face red and blotchy; he wore an immense moustache and to cover his baldness a black cap. Elisa had grown thin, her skin had lost its delicate hues and her hair was white. The lovely description in L’Education Sentimentale of the last meeting of Madame Arnoux and Frédéric Moreau probably faithfully describes the meeting of Flaubert and Elisa after so many years. They met once or twice after that, and then, so far as anyone knows, never again.

  A year after Flaubert’s death, Maxime du Camp spent the summer at Baden, and one day, when he was out shooting, found himself near the lunatic asylum of Illenau. The gates were opened to allow the female inmates, under the care of keepers, to take their daily walk. They came out two by two. Among them was one who bowed to him. It was Elisa Schlesinger, the woman whom Flaubert so long and so vainly loved.


  Herman Melville and Moby Dick


  Hitherto I have been dealing with novels which, with all their differences, descend in a fairly direct line from the novels of a remote past. ‘The novel,’ I learn from The Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘has been made a vehicle for satire, for instruction, for political or religious exhortation, for technical information; but these are side issues. The plain and direct purpose of the novel is to amuse by a succession of scenes painted from nature, and by a thread of emotional narrative.’ This puts the matter in a nutshell. The novel, I learn further, came into favour in Alexandrian times, when life was sufficiently easy for people to take pleasure in accounts, realistic or fanciful, of the adventures and emotions of imaginary characters; but the first work of fiction that has come down to us which can strictly be called a novel is one that was written by a Greek called Longus and entitled Daphnis and Chloe. From this, through unnumbered generations, with many ups and downs, with many diversions, are derived the novels I have been briefly considering, whose direct purpose is, as the Encyclopaedia puts it, to amuse by a succession of scenes painted from nature, and by a thread of emotional narrative.

  But now I come to a small group of novels which are so different in their effect on the reader, which seem to be written with an intention so extraneous, that they must be put in a class by themselves. Such novels are Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights and The Brothers Karamazov; and such are the novels of James Joyce and Kafka. Novelists are, of course, mutations from the common stock of bishops and bar-tenders, policemen and politicians, and so forth; and mutations occur repeatedly. But biologists tell us that most are harmful, and many lethal. Now, since the sort of book an author writes depends on the sort of man he is, and this depends partly on the association in the chromosome of genes from different parents and partly on the environment, it is surely significant that novelists are inclined to sterility; there are only two in history, Tolstoy and Dickens, who were greatly fertile. The mutation is evidently lethal. But perhaps that is just as well, since, whereas oysters when they proliferate produce oysters, novelists generally produce nitwits. The particular mutation I am now concerned with has left, so far as I know, no literary descendants.

  I am going to take first the author of that strange and powerful book, Moby Dick. I have read Raymond Weaver’s Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic, Lewis Mumford’s Herman Melville, Charles Roberts Anderson’s Melville in the South Seas, William Ellery Sedgwick’s Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind, and Newton Arvin’s Melville. I have read them with interest, profited by most of them, and learnt from them a number of facts useful to my modest purpose; but I cannot persuade myself that I know more about Melville, the man, than I knew before.

  According to Raymond Weaver, an ‘uncircumspect critic at the time of Melville’s centenary in 1919’ wrote: ‘Owing to some odd psychological experience, that has never been definitely explained, his style of writing, his view of life underwent a complete change.’ I don’t quite know why this unnamed critic should be described as uncircumspect. He hit upon the problem which must puzzle everyone who is interested in Melville. It is on this account that one scrutinises every known detail of his life and reads his letters and books, books some of which can only be read by a determined effort of will, to discover some hint that may help to elucidate the mystery.

  But first let us take the facts, so far as they are made known to us by the biographers. On the face of it, but only on the face of it, they are simple enough.

  Herman Melville was born in 1819. His father, Allan Melville, and his mother, Maria Gansevoort, were gentlefolk. Allan was a cultivated, travelled man, and Maria an elegant, well-bred and pious woman. For the first five years of their marriage they lived at Albany, and after that settled in New York, where Allan’s business – he was an importer of French dry goods – for a time prospered, and where Herman was born. He was the third of their eight children. But by 1830 Allan Melville had fallen on evil days and moved back to Albany, where two years later he died bankrupt and, it is said, insane. He left his family penniless. Herman went to the Albany Classical Institute for boys and, on leaving school at the age of fifteen, was employed as a clerk in the New York State Bank; in 1835 he worked in his brother Gansevoort’s fur store, and the following year on his uncle’s farm at Pittsfield. For a term he was a teacher at the common school in the Sykes district. At seventeen he went to sea. Much has been written to account for this, but I cannot see why any further reason need be sought than the one he gives himself: ‘Sad disappointments in several plans which I had sketched out for my future life; the necessity of doing something for myself, united to a naturally roving disposition, had now conspired within me, to send me to sea as a sailor.’ He had tried his hand without success at various occupations, and from what we know of his mother we may surmise that she did not hesitate to express her displeasure. He went to sea, as many a boy before and after has done, because he was unhappy at home. Melville was a very strange man, but it is unnecessary to look for strangeness in a perfectly natural proceeding.

  He arrived in New York wet through, in patched trousers and a hunting jacket, without a penny in his pocket, but with a fowling-piece his brother Gansevoort had given him to sell; he walked across town to the house of a friend of his brother’s, where he spent the night, and next day with this friend went down to the waterfront. After some search, they came across a ship that was sailing for Liverpool, and Melville was signed on as a ‘boy’ at three dollars a month. Twelve years later he wrote in Redburn an account of the voyage there and back, and of his stay in Liverpool. He looked upon it as hack-work; but it is vivid and interesting, and it is written in English that is simple, straightforward, easy and unaffected. It is one of the most readable of his works.

  Nothing much is known about how he spent the next three years. According to the accepted accounts, he ‘taught school’ in various places: at one, Greenbush, N.Y., he received six dollars a quarter and board; and he wrote a number of articles for provincial papers. One or two of them have been discovered. They are without interest, but give signs that he had done a lot of desultory reading; and they have a mannerism of which to the end of his life he could never rid himself, namely that of bringing in without rhyme or reason allusions to mythological gods, to historical and romantic characters, and to all kinds of authors. As Raymond Weaver neatly puts it: ‘He called up
Burton, Shakespeare, Byron, Milton, Coleridge and Chesterfield, as well as Prometheus and Cinderella, Mahomet and Cleopatra, Madonna and Houris, Medici and Mussulman, to strew carelessly across his pages.’

  But he had an adventurous spirit, and it may be supposed that in the end he could no longer endure the tameness of life to which it seemed circumstances had condemned him. Though he had disliked life before the mast, he made up his mind to go to sea again; and in 1841 he sailed from New Bedford in the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. With one exception, the men in the forecastle were coarse, brutal and uneducated; the exception was a boy of seventeen called Richard Tobias Greene. This is how Melville describes him: ‘Toby was endowed with a remarkably prepossessing exterior. Arrayed in his blue frock and duck trousers, he was as smart a looking sailor as ever stepped upon a deck; he was singularly small and slightly made, with great flexibility of limb. His naturally dark complexion had been deepened by exposure to the tropical sun, and a mass of jetty locks clustered about his temples, and threw a darker shade into his large black eyes.’

  After fifteen months of cruising, the Acushnet put in at Nuku-Hiva, an island of the Marquesas. The two lads, disgusted with the hardship of life aboard the whaler and the brutality of the captain, decided to desert. They stowed away as much tobacco, ship’s biscuit and calico (to give the natives) as they could get into the front of their frocks, and made off for the interior of the island. After several days, during which they had sundry mishaps, they reached the valley inhabited by the Typees, and were by them hospitably received. Shortly after their arrival, Toby was sent away on the pretext of getting medical help, for Melville on the way had hurt his leg so badly that he could only walk with pain, but in fact to arrange their escape. The Typees were reputed to be cannibals, and prudence suggested that it would be unwise to reckon too long on the continuance of their good will. Toby never returned, and it was discovered much later that, on reaching the coast, he had been kidnapped on to a whaler. Melville, by his own account, spent four months in the valley. He was well treated. He made friends with a girl called Fayaway, swam and boated with her, and except for his fear of being eaten was happy enough. Then it chanced that the captain of a whaler, coming to anchor at Nuka-Hiva, heard that there was a sailor in the hands of the Typees. Many of his own crew having deserted, he sent a boatload of taboo natives to secure the man’s release. Melville, again by his own account, persuaded the natives to let him go down to the beach and, after a skirmish in which he killed a man with a boat-hook, effected his escape.

  Life in the ship he now boarded, the Julia, was even worse than in the Acushnet, and after some weeks of fruitless cruising on the look-out for whales, the skipper hove his craft to off the island of Tahiti. The crew mutinied and presently, after trial at Papeete, were consigned to the local jail. The Julia, having signed on a new crew, sailed, and the prisoners were in a short time released. With another member of the old crew, a medical man who had come down in the world and whom he calls Doctor Long Ghost, Melville sailed to the neighbouring island of Moorea, and there the pair hired themselves out to two planters to hoe potatoes. Melville had not liked farming when he worked for his uncle in Massachusetts, and he liked it less still under the tropical sun of Polynesia. With Doctor Long Ghost he wandered off, living on the natives, and eventually, leaving the doctor behind, persuaded the captain of a whaler which he calls the Leviathan to sign him on. In this ship he reached Honolulu. What he did there is uncertain. It is supposed that he found employment as a clerk. Then he shipped as an ordinary seaman in an American frigate, the United States, and after a year, upon the ship’s arrival home, was discharged from the service.

  We have now reached the year of 1844. Melville was twenty-five. No portrait of him in youth exists, but, from those taken in middle age, we can picture him in his twenties as a tall, well-set-up man, strong and active, with rather small eyes, but with a straight nose, a fresh colour and a fine head of waving hair.

  He came home to find his mother and sisters settled at Lansingburg, a suburb of Albany. His elder brother, Gansevoort, had given up his fur shop and was become a lawyer and a politician; his second brother, Allan, a lawyer too, had settled in New York; and his youngest, Tom, soon to go to sea like Herman, was still in his teens. Herman found himself the centre of interest as ‘the man who had lived among cannibals’, and he told the story of his adventures to eager listeners; they urged him to write a book, and this forthwith he set out to do.

  He had tried his hand at writing before, though with little success; but he had to earn money, and to write seemed to him, as to many another misguided author, before and since, an easy way to do so. When Typee, the book in which he described his sojourn on the island of Nuka-Hiva, was finished, Gansevoort Melville, who had gone to London as secretary to the American Minister, submitted it to John Murray, who accepted it, and some time later Wiley and Putnam published it in America. It was well received and Melville, encouraged, wrote the continuation of his adventures in the South Pacific in a book which he called Omoo.

  It appeared in 1847, and in this year he married Elizabeth, the only daughter of Chief Justice Shaw, whose family had long been known to the Melvilles. The young couple moved to New York, where they lived in Allan Melville’s house at 103 Fourth Avenue, together with Herman’s and Allan’s sisters, Augusta, Fanny and Helen. We are not told why the three young women left their mother and Lansingburg. Herman settled down to write. In 1849, two years after his marriage and a few months after the birth of his first child, a boy named Malcolm, he crossed the Atlantic again, this time as a passenger, to see publishers and arrange for the publication of White Jacket, the book in which he describes his experiences in the frigate United States, From London he went to Paris, Brussels and up the Rhine. His wife wrote as follows in her arid memoir: ‘Summer of 1849 we remained in New York. He wrote Redburn and White Jacket. Same fall went to England and published the above. Took little satisfaction in it from mere home-sickness, and hurried home, leaving attractive invitations to distinguished people – one from the Duke of Rutland to pass a week at Belvoir Castle – see his journal. We went to Pittsfield and boarded in the summer of 1850. Moved to Arrowhead in fall – October 1850.’

  Arrowhead was the name Melville gave to a farm at Pittsfield which he bought on money advanced by the Chief Justice, and here he settled with his wife, child and sisters. Mrs. Melville, in her matter-of-fact way, says in her journal: ‘Wrote White Whale or Moby Dick under unfavourable circumstances – would sit at his desk all day not writing anything till four or five o’clock – then ride to the village after dark – would be up early and out walking before breakfast – sometimes splitting wood for exercise. We all felt anxious about the strain on his health in the Spring of 1853.’

  When Melville established himself at Arrowhead, he found Hawthorne living in the neighbourhood. He took something that very much resembles a schoolgirl crush for the older writer, a crush which may have somewhat disconcerted that reserved, self-centred and undemonstrative man. The letters he wrote to him were impassioned: ‘I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you,’ he said in one of them. ‘Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.’ Of an evening he would ride over to the Red House at Lenox to talk – a little, it appears, to Hawthorne’s weariness – of ‘Providence and futurity and of every thing else that lies beyond human ken.’ While the two authors discoursed, Mrs. Hawthorne sewed at her stand, and in a letter to her mother she thus described Melville: ‘I am not quite sure that I do not think him a very great man … A man with a true, warm heart, and a soul and an intellect – with life to his finger-tips; earnest, sincere and reverent; very tender and modest … He has very keen perceptive power; but what astonishes me is, that his eyes are not large and deep. He seems to see everything very accurately; and how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way. His nose is straight and ra
ther handsome, his mouth expressive of sensibility and emotion. He is tall, and erect, with an air free, brave and manly. When conversing, he is full of gesture and force, and loses himself in his subject. There is no grace, nor polish. Once in a while, his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of these eyes to which I have objected; an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that moment taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into itself.’

  The Hawthornes left Lenox; and the friendship, eager and deep-felt on Melville’s side and on Hawthorne’s sedate, and perhaps embarrassed, came to an end. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to him. The letter he wrote after reading the book no longer exists, but from Melville’s reply it looks as though he guessed that Hawthorne did not like it. Nor did the public, nor did the critics; and Pierre, with which he followed it, fared even worse. It was received with contemptuous abuse. He made very little money from his writings, and he had to provide not only for his wife, his two sons and two daughters, but also, presumably, for his three sisters. Melville, to judge from his letters, found farming his own land as little to his taste as he had found cutting his uncle’s hay at Pittsfield or digging potatoes in Moorea. The fact is that he had never cared for manual labour: ‘See my hand – four blisters on this palm, made by hoes and hammers within the last few days. It is a rainy morning, so I am indoors, and all work suspended. I feel cheerfully disposed …’ A farmer with hands as soft as that is unlikely to have farmed with profit.

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