Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  The difficulty of the kind of writing Melville set himself to use in Moby Dick is that the rhetorical level must be maintained throughout. The matter must fit the manner. The writer cannot afford to be sentimental or humorous. Melville was too often both, and then you read him with embarrassment.

  His taste was unsure and sometimes, attempting the poetic, he only succeeded in being absurd: ‘But few thoughts of Pan stirred Ahab’s brain, as standing like an iron statue at his accustomed place beside the mizzen rigging, with one nostril he unthinkingly sniffed the sugary musk from the Banshee isles (in whose sweet woods mild lovers must be walking), and with the other consciously inhaled the salt breath of the new-found sea …’ To smell one odour with one nostril and, at the same time, another with the other is more than a remarkable feat; it is an impossible one. I have little sympathy with Melville’s partiality for archaic words and words only in poetic usage: o’er for over; nigh for near; ere for before; anon and eftsoons; they give a fusty, meretricious air to prose that at its best is solid and virile. He had an extensive vocabulary, and sometimes it ran away with him. He found it hard to set down a noun without tacking on to it an adjective mystic, and used it as though it meant strange, mysterious, awe-inspiring, frightening, in fact whatever at the moment he wanted it to mean. Professor Stoll in the article to which I have already referred, and which is as eminently, and even as devastatingly, sensible as everything he writes, has justly stigmatised this as pseudo-poetic. In this article Professor Stoll has remarked on a characteristic that must disturb all readers of Melville, and that is his predilection for adverbs formed out of participles. It may be that it is on this account that Stevenson claimed that Melville had no ear, for one has to admit that these constructions seldom have euphony to recommend them. The most ill-sounding that I have noticed is whistlingly, but Professor Stoll has quoted others, burstingly, suckingly, and he might have quoted a hundred more that run it pretty close. Newton Arvin in his painstaking, but to my mind wrong-headed, book in the American Men of Letters Series has given examples of Melville’s coining of words: footmanism, omnitooled, uncatastrophied, domineerings; and appears to think that they add a peculiar excellence to his style. They add certainly to its idiosyncrasy, but surely not to its beauty. If Melville had had an education more catholic, and a taste less uncertain, he could have achieved the effects he was presumably aiming at without the distortions of language he affected.

  Melville’s dialogue has little resemblance to ordinary speech. It is highly stylised. Since the principal persons on the Pequod are Quakers, it is natural enough that Melville should have used the second person singular, but I think, moreover, that he found it suited the deliberate purpose he had in view. He may well have felt that it gave an hieratic turn to the conversations he reported and a poetic flavour to the words used. He had no great skill in differentiating the speech of different characters: they all talk very much like one another, Ahab like his mates, the mates like the carpenter and the blacksmith, in a highly figurative manner, with an abundant use of metaphor and simile. Queequeg, thinking he is about to die, is lying in the coffin he has made for himself, and Pip, a little coloured boy who has lost his wits, ‘drew nigh to him where he lay, and with soft sobbings, took him by the hand; in the other, holding his tambourine’; and this is how he addressed Kanaka: ‘Poor rover! will ye never have done with all this weary roving? Where go ye now? But if the currents carry ye to those sweet Antilles where the beaches are only beat with water-lilies, will ye do one little errand for me? Seek out one Pip, who’s now been missing long, for he must be very sad for look! he’s left his tambourine behind; – I found it. Rig-a-dig, dig, dig! Now, Queequeg, die; and I’ll beat ye your dying march.’ Starbuck, the first mate, is ‘gazing down the scuttle’ on this scene, and he murmurs as follows: ‘I have heard that in violent fevers, men, all ignorance, have talked in ancient tongues; and that when the mystery is probed, it turns out always that in their wholly forgotten childhood those ancient tongues have been really spoken in their hearing by some lofty scholars. So, to my fond faith, poor Pip, in this strange sweetness of his lunacy, brings heavenly vouchers of all our heavenly homes. Where learned he that, but there?’

  Of course, in fiction dialogue is necessarily stylised. To reproduce it accurately would be intolerable. It is a question of degree. It should surely have such verisimilitude as not to shock the reader. Ahab, speaking to Stubb, the second mate, about the white whale, cries: ‘I’ll ten times girdle the unmeasured globe; yea and dive straight through it, but I’ll slay him yet!’ You dismiss the high-sounding bombast with a laugh.

  But for all that, notwithstanding the reservations one may make, Melville wrote English uncommonly well. Sometimes, as I have pointed out, the manner he had acquired led him to rhetorical extravagance, but at its best it has a copious magnificence, a sonority, a grandeur, an eloquence that no modern writer, so far as I know, has achieved. It does, indeed, at times recall the majestic phrase of Sir Thomas Browne and the stately period of Milton. I should like to call the reader’s attention to the ingenuity with which Melville wove into the elaborate pattern of his prose the ordinary nautical terms used by sailormen in the course of their daily work. The effect is to bring a note of realism, a savour of the fresh salt of the sea, to the sombre symphony which is the strange and powerful novel of Moby Dick. Every author has the right to be judged by his best. How good Melville’s best is the reader can judge for himself by reading the chapter entitled ‘The Great Armada.’ When he has action to describe, he does it magnificently, with force, and then his formal manner of writing grandly enhances the thrilling effect.


  No one who has read anything I have written will expect me to speak of Moby Dick, Melville’s only title to rank with the great writers of fiction, as an allegory. Readers must go elsewhere for that. I can only deal with it from my own standpoint of a not inexperienced novelist. The purpose of fiction is to give æsthetic pleasure. It has no practical ends. The business of the novelist is not to advance philosophical theories; that is the business of the philosopher, who can do it better. But since some very intelligent persons have taken Moby Dick for an allegory, it is proper that I should deal with the matter. They have regarded as ironical Melville’s own remark: ‘He feared,’ he wrote, ‘that his work might be looked upon as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.’ Is it rash to assume that when a practised writer says a thing, he is more likely to mean what he says than what his commentators think he means? It is true that in a letter to Mrs. Hawthorne he stated that he had, while writing, ‘some vague idea that the whole book was susceptible of an allegorical construction’; but that is slender evidence that he had the intention of writing an allegory. May it not be possible that if, in fact, it is susceptible to such an interpretation, it is something that came about by accident and, as his words to Mrs. Hawthorne seem to indicate, not a little to his dismay? I don’t know how critics write novels, but I have some notion how novelists write them. They do not take a general proposition, such as Honesty is the Best Policy or All is not Gold that Glitters, and say: ‘Let’s write an allegory about that.’ A group of characters, generally suggested by persons they have known, excites their imagination, and sometimes simultaneously, sometimes after an interval, an incident or a string of incidents, experienced, heard of or invented, appears to them out of the blue to enable them to make suitable use of it in the development of the theme that has arisen in their minds by a sort of collaboration between the characters and the incidents. Melville was not fanciful, or at least, when he attempted to be so, as in Mardi, he came a cropper. To imagine, and his imagination was powerful, he needed a solid basis of fact. Indeed, certain critics have on this account accused him of lacking invention – I think, without reason. It is true that he invented more convincingly when he had a substratum of experience, his own or that of others, to sustain him; but then so do most novelists; and when he had this, his imaginatio
n worked freely and with power. When, as in Pierre, he had not, he wrote absurdly. It is true that Melville was of a ‘pondering’ turn and, as he grew older, he became absorbed in metaphysics, which Raymond Weaver, strangely enough, states is ‘but misery dissolved in thought’. That is a narrow view: to which a man can more fitly give his attention, for it deals with the greatest problems that confront his soul. Melville’s approach to them was not intellectual, but emotional; he thought as he did because he felt as he did; but this does not prevent many of his reflections from being memorable. I should have thought that deliberately to write an allegory required an intellectual detachment of which Melville was incapable.

  Professor Stoll has shown how ridiculous and contradictory are the symbolic interpretations of Moby Dick that have been hurled at the heads of an inoffensive public. He has done it so conclusively that there is no need for me to enlarge upon the topic. In defence of these critics, however, I would say this: the novelist does not copy life, he arranges it to suit his purpose. He disposes of the data given him according to the peculiarity of his own temperament. He draws a coherent pattern, but the pattern he draws varies according to the attitude, interests and idiosyncrasy of the reader. According to your proclivities, you may take a snow-clad Alpine peak, as it rises to the empyrean in radiant majesty, as a symbol of man’s aspiration to union with the Infinite; or since, if you like to believe that, a mountain range may be thrown up by some violent convulsion in the earth’s depths, you may take it as a symbol of the dark and sinister passions of man that lour to destroy him; or, if you want to be in the fashion, you may take it as a phallic symbol. Newton Arvin regards Ahab’s ivory leg as ‘an equivocal symbol both of his own impotence and of the independent male principle directed cripplingly against him’, and the white whale as ‘the archetypal Parent; the father, yes, but the mother also, so far as she becomes a substitute for the father’. For Ellery Sedgwick, who claims that it is its symbolism that makes the book great, Ahab is ‘Man – Man sentient, speculative, purposive, religious, standing his full stature against the immense mystery of creation. His antagonist, Moby Dick, is that immense mystery. He is not the author of it, but is identical with that galling impartiality in the laws and lawlessness of the universe which Isaiah devoutly fathered on the Creator’. Lewis Mumford takes Moby Dick as a symbol of evil, and Ahab’s conflict with him as the conflict of good and evil in which good is finally vanquished. There is a certain plausibility in this, and it accords well with Melville’s moody pessimism.

  But allegories are awkward animals to handle; you can take them by the head or by the tail, and it seems to me that an interpretation quite contrary is equally plausible. Why should it be assumed that Moby Dick is a symbol of evil? It is true that Melville causes Ishmael, the narrator, to adopt Ahab’s crazy passion to revenge himself on the dumb beast that had maimed him; but that is a literary artifice which he had to make use of, first, because there was Starbuck already there to represent common sense, and second, because he needed someone to share, and to an extent sympathise with, Ahab’s tenacious purpose, and so induce the reader to accept it as not quite unreasonable. Now, the ‘empty malice’ of which Professor Mumford speaks consists in Moby Dick defending himself when he is attacked.

  ‘Cet animal est très méchant,

  Quand on l’attaque, il se défend.’

  Why should the White Whale not represent goodness rather than evil? Splendid in beauty, vast in size, great in strength, he swims the seas in freedom. Ahab, with his insane pride, is pitiless, harsh, cruel and vindictive; he is evil; and when the final encounter comes and Ahab with his crew of ‘mongrel renegades, castaways and cannibals’ is destroyed, and the White Whale, imperturbable, justice having been done, goes his mysterious way, evil has been vanquished and good at last triumphed. This seems to me as plausible an interpretation as any other; for let us not forget that Typee is a glorification of the noble savage, uncorrupted by the vices of civilisation, and that Melville looked upon the natural man as good.

  Fortunately Moby Dick may be read, and read with intense interest, without a thought of what allegorical or symbolic significance it may or may not have. I cannot repeat too often that a novel is not to be read for instruction or edification, but for intelligent enjoyment, and if you find you cannot get this from it you had far better not read it at all. But it must be admitted that Melville seems to have done his best to hinder his readers’ enjoyment. He was writing a strange, original and thrilling story, but a perfectly straightforward one. The romantic beginning is admirable. Your interest is aroused and held. The characters, as they are introduced one by one, are clearly presented, alive and plausible. The tension rises and, with the acceleration of the action, your excitement increases. The climax is intensely dramatic. It is hard to understand why Melville should have deliberately sacrificed the grip he had got on his readers by pausing here and there to write chapters dealing with the natural history of the whale, its size, skeleton, amours and so forth. It is as senseless, on the face of it, as it would be for a man telling a story over the dinner table to stop now and then to tell you the etymological meaning of some word he had used. Montgomery Belgion, in a judicious introduction to an edition of Moby Dick, has supposed that since it is a tale of pursuit, and the end of a pursuit must be perpetually delayed, Melville wrote these chapters merely to do so. I cannot believe that. Had he had any such purpose, during the three years he spent in the Pacific he must surely have witnessed incidents, or been told tales, that he could have woven into his narrative more fitly to effect it. I myself think that Melville wrote these chapters for the simple reason that, like many another self-educated man, he attached an exaggerated importance to the knowledge he had so painfully acquired and could not resist the temptation to parade it, just as in his earlier writings 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’.

  For my part, I can read most of these chapters with interest, but it cannot be denied that they are digressions which sadly impair the tension. Melville lacked what the French call l’esprit de suite, and it would be stupid to assert that the novel is well-constructed. But if he composed it in the way he did, it is because that is how he wanted it. You must take it or leave it. He knew very well that Moby Dick would not please. He was of an obstinate temper, and it may be that the neglect of the public, the savage onslaught of the critics, and the lack of understanding in those nearest to him only confirmed him in his determination to write exactly as he chose. You must put up with his vagaries, his faulty taste, his ponderous playfulness, his errors of construction, for the sake of his excellencies, the frequent splendour of his language, his vivid and thrilling descriptions of action, his delicate sense of beauty and the tragic power of his ‘mystic’ ponderings which, perhaps because he was somewhat muddle-headed, with no striking gift for ratiocination, for just that reason are emotionally impressive. But, of course, it is the sinister and gigantic figure of Captain Ahab that pervades the book and gives it its unique force. You must go to the Greek dramatists for anything like that sense of doom with which everything you are told about him fills you, and to Shakespeare to find beings of such terrible power. It is because Herman Melville created him that, notwithstanding any reservation one may make, Moby Dick is a great book.

  I have said, and said again, that in order to get a real insight into a great novel you must know what there is to be known about the man who wrote it. I have an idea that in the case of Melville something like the contrary obtains. When one reads, and re-reads, Moby Dick, it seems to me that one gets a more convincing, a more definite, impression of the man than from anything one may learn of his life and circumstances; an impression of a man endowed by nature with a great gift blighted by an evil genius, so that, like the agave, no sooner had it put forth its splendid blooming than it withered; a moody, unhappy man tormented by ins
tincts he shrank from with horror; a man conscious that the virtue had gone out of him, and embittered by failure and poverty; a man of heart craving for friendship, only to find that friendship too was vanity. Such, as I see him, was Herman Melville, a man whom one can only regard with deep compassion.


  Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights


  Hugh Prunty, a young peasant-farmer in County Down, in 1776 married Elinor McClory; and on St. Patrick’s Day in the following year the eldest of his ten children was born and given the name of Ireland’s patron saint. It looks as though he could neither read nor write, for he seems to have been uncertain how his name was spelt. In the baptismal register it is given as Brunty and Bruntee. The small-holding he farmed was insufficient to provide for his large family, and he worked in a lime-kiln and, when things were slack, as a labourer on the estate of one of the neighbouring gentry. It may be supposed that Patrick, his eldest son, did odd jobs about his father’s bit of land till he was old enough to earn a wage. Then be became a hand-loom weaver. But he was a clever lad, and ambitious; and, somehow or other, by the time he was sixteen he had got enough education to become a teacher at a village school near his birth-place. Two years later he got a similar job at the parish school at Drumbally-roney, and held it for eight years. There are two accounts of what happened then: one states that Methodist ministers, impressed by his ability and expecting him to train himself for the ministry, subscribed a few pounds which, added to the little he had saved, enabled him to go to Cambridge; another states that he left the parish school to become a tutor in a clergyman’s family, and it was with his help that he entered St. John’s College. He was then twenty-five, old to enter a university, a tall, very strong young man, handsome and vain of his good looks. He subsisted on a scholarship, two exhibitions and what he was able to earn by coaching. He took his B.A. at the age of twenty-nine, and was ordained in the Church of England. If the Methodist ministers really helped him to go to Cambridge, they must have felt that they had made a bad investment.

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