Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review: Billy Budd and Other Tales by Herman Melville

When a friend of mine from high school couldn't sell this book back at the end of the year and threatened to throw it out instead, I happily offered to take it off of his hands and save it from the bin. I mean, I have always been a fan of free books and I prided myself on being able to read and enjoy literature that frustrated and bored others. It turns out I should have let him throw the book in the trash can no matter how free it was. If Ahab had been real (and yes, I know that this is not Moby-Dick, which I, in fact, read long ago, and Ahab plays no part here), I would have begged him to take off his wooden leg and beat Melville around the head until he was too insensible to write any more of his dreadfully boring and tormenting works. In case I'm being too subtle, this is a roundabout way of admitting that I loathed this novella and short story collection and it took me well over a year to work my way through it, forcing myself all the way, unwilling to let it defeat me.

The longest section of the book is the novella, Billy Budd. The story of a sweet, comely, exceedingly strong, and perfect sailor who in a moment of passion, accidently kills his accuser and therefore must be condemned to hang as per naval law, the tale is full of digressions and philosophical weavings and quite honestly, I was ready to hang this paragon of virtue myself by the end of it all just to be finished. Interpreting Billy as Adam, sinning through no fault of his own but doomed to be punished heavily for that sin or as a Christ figure, making the ultimate sacrifice in order that goodness might triumph over evil, did nothing to make the story more appealing or enjoyable. Perhaps I just don't like allegories, having had this visceral reaction to others as well. But the other stories in the collection were almost as tedious as Billy Budd with the slight advantage that they were shorter. And while I fully appreciate Melville's place in the American literature canon, I'd be happy to be the one to light the fuse and blow him away over the yardarm. (And yes, before any smug and pretentious defenders of literature come out of the woodwork, I do know the difference between canon and cannon and made a deliberate choice here.)

1 comment:

  1. I remember finding Billy Budd boring and full of itself, although I didn't hate it as much. This is probably because I didn't carry it around for twenty years before reading it. But I'm with you on not recommending Melville.

    And I saw what you did with canon/cannon.


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