Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The style of The Confidence-Man

Reading The Confidence-Man, I sometimes come across a rather tiresome sentence, though not as odd as many sentences written by Henry James. 
For example, from chapter VII: 
“Upon his hitherto moderate enough companion, this suggestion had an effect illustrative in a sort of that notion of Socrates, that the soul is a harmony; for as the sound of a flute, in any particular key, will, it is said, audibly affect the corresponding chord of any harp in good tune, within hearing, just so now did some string in him respond, and with animation.Which animation, by the way, might seem more or less out of character in the man in gray, considering his unsprightly manner when first introduced, had he not already, in certain after colloquies, given proof, in some degree, of the fact, that, with certain natures, a soberly continent air at times, so far from arguing emptiness of stuff, is good proof it is there, and plenty of it, because unwasted, and may be used the more effectively, too, when opportunity offers.” 
Or from chapter XII: 
“What made it yet more lamentable was, that the unfortunate man, thinking that, before the court, his wisest plan, as well as the most Christian besides, being, as he deemed, not at variance with the truth of the matter, would be to put forth the plea of the mental derangement of Goneril, which done, he could, with less of mortification to himself, and odium to her, reveal in self-defense those eccentricities which had led to his retirement from the joys of wedlock, had much ado in the end to prevent this charge of derangement from fatally recoiling upon himself—especially, when, among other things, he alleged her mysterious teachings.” 
At this point I don’t have much to say. The only thing is that the novel’s very different from Moby Dick. The exuberance, the joy and enthusiasm of Melville’s magnum opus are not to be found here. Nor is humour as we see in Moby Dick, though perhaps The Confidence-Man does have humour, a different kind. 
I’m noting, not really complaining. 
What do you think? 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Melville's The Confidence-Man: who is the con man in chapter 3?

I've returned to Melville- I'm reading The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. What can be a better read now, whilst one follows the elections in the US? 
People who know the book all know that it's about a con man or more in different disguises. What bothers me is, who is the con man in chapter 3? Everywhere I look, people say it's the crippled black man, because he wins people's pity and thus gets money, but is he? What I see in the chapter is that out of nowhere "a limping, gimlet-eyed, sour-faced person", a custom-house officer, appears and loudly says the black man's deformity is a sham, "got up for financial purposes". How does he know? What are those allegations based on? Does he have evidence or anything to back up those claims?After saying it's a sham, the custom-house officer just says "He can walk fast enough when he tries, a good deal faster than I; but he can lie yet faster. He's some white operator, betwisted and painted up for a decoy. He and his friends are all humbugs." but doesn't bother to prove any of his words. He is like a Donald Trump, loudly and confidently throwing out claims and accusations based on nothing, showing no regard for facts. Then he leaves, but before that, has successfully sowed a seed of doubt in everyone's minds. 
Doesn't that make him, rather than the black cripple, a con artist? 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Updates: life, The Sympathiser, the restaurant

Here I am again.
Last week, some time after my trip to Greece, I finished reading The Sympathiser, and should have written a review or something by now. Sadly, the problem with taking so long to read a book that isn't so thick is that once you're finally done with it, you no longer feel the urge to write anything, and just want to move on with your life. What can I say? On the 1 hand, the sense of responsibility keeps nagging me- as a Vietnamese who feels strongly about literature and about the war and who has an advantage over many Vietnamese people in that she can read the Pulitzer-winning book in the original instead of waiting for a translation that perhaps would never come, I should write a few words. On the other hand, I've been changing from a watcher to a doer, having fun, enjoying life, trying out fascinating stuff and experimenting, and then analysing myself as I've just discovered another side of myself. At the moment it appears a bit pointless to get worked up about a book when I just prefer to embrace my joie de vivre philosophy instead (which, I know, is merely a fancy way of saying I'm just frivolous and lazy).
Perhaps some day I'll write. The verdict: I'm not impressed.
To get back to the restaurant, I keep in touch with a few former co-workers to know that the ex-boss aka the bitch still talks of me constantly, and would never forget me because she has owned a restaurant for 28 years and nobody has ever dared to write a word, so on and so forth. She should have known better than to mess with me, I thought, if she couldn't handle something so light, let's go hardcore. But now, except for a few headaches, I'm generally in such a good mood that I don't bother- after all, who cares really, I didn't hear it, she didn't say to my face.
I'm feeling great.
Here's some Louis Armstrong:

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Some note on my waitressing experience

As you may remember, in May I stopped working at the restaurant and had a rant about it on my blog
Soon afterwards I started writing for Trẻ magazine, and in July, used my own experience to write about the working conditions in 1 Vietnamese restaurant in Oslo, which was published on 27/7. The article was shared around and apparently became a thing in the Vietnamese community in Oslo, at least among the restaurant people, and reached the owner of the restaurant, my former boss. She called me last Saturday, 30/7. The conversation lasted about half an hour- long story short, she spoke of the reactions in the community and their fear of its effect on the restaurant business, explained several points in the article, tried to justify herself, spoke of things I'd said at the beginning, asked why I included so many details, said she didn't remember such trifles, noted that other restaurants of Vietnamese people paid their employees the same salaries and of course wouldn't be the same as Norwegian restaurants, on the 1 hand, wanted to put me down and made it personal, on the other hand, asked me to understand and sympathise, and tried to sweet-talk me into taking down the article. 
(That was a surprise. I rather expected some furious insults). 
I did say it's not personal- if I had really wanted a revenge, I would have filmed or recorded her and taken it to the Norwegian media or even the tax agency, or at least named the restaurant and included photos of it in my article. 
On the same day, 2 girls from the restaurant contacted me. For 1 thing, many of my former co-workers have read the article, and like it- it's all correct, they said. They even asked why I didn't publish in a Norwegian newspaper*. 
More importantly, the boss called the restaurant to ask how people felt about working for her, and over the past few days, has been nicer and more gentle than usual. She even asked 1 of the 2 girls about her pay, and decided to raise it herself. 
I'm too cynical and pessimistic to believe that 1 article of mine can change a person- she's 60 years old, but it feels good anyway. At least I made her think a bit. 

*: To be truthful, I wanted to bring down the whole restaurant. Then I contacted Arbeidstilsynet and realised that Norwegian's law is actually fucked up, and didn't bother... That article I wrote mostly for the fun of it. 

Monday, 1 August 2016

Some top 10 lists about books

- 10 favourite novels (updated):
Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy
War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

- 10 most important novels- 10 novels that have most influenced me or been most significant to me in some ways:
Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy
War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Emma by Jane Austen
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

- 10 novels I hate the most:
The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Corregidora by Gayl Jones
The Tattooed Girls by Joyce Carol Oates
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
(A possible candidate for 1 of the 2 empty spots might be The Sympathiser, but I have to finish the book). 

- 10 novels I feel worst for not having read:  
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe 
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes* 
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 
Bleak House by Charles Dickens**
The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass** 
Hunger by Knut Hamsun** 
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf** 
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo** 
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

- 10 novels I very much want to read but won't read any time soon: 
Ulysses by James Joyce
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust 
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov**  
Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
The Red and the Black by Stendhal 
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco 
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray 
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov 
The Golden Bowl by Henry James

- 10 novels I don't think I'll ever read: 
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien 
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre 
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce 
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys** 
Min Kamp by Karl Ove Knausgård
Nỗi buồn chiến tranh by Bảo Ninh
Anything by V. S. Naipaul
or Graham Greene
or E. L. Doctorow 
or Ayn Rand

*: I believe the book I read as a kid was an abridged version. Not sure. 
**: I tried and gave up on these books. 

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Brief comments on The Sympathiser

Hello folks. 
After a period of silence, here I am again. 
I've been busy, writing for Trẻ magazine, watching Eurocup (Portugal becoming the champion is 1 of the most ridiculous things in football history, I have to say), facebooking, arguing about Donald and Melania Trump, following the protests in Vietnam regarding Formosa and the mass fish deaths, exploring things, etc. 
Reading-wise, I've been dealing with 2 books at the same time: Joseph Epstein's Plausible Prejudices and Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathiser (actually The Sympathizer, but I write British English).
Usually, instead of 1 long essay or review, I write a series of posts whilst reading the book, comment on things I notice, and often change my mind as I go along. This time I choose not to do so, believing it better to know the whole book and understand the author's point of view, and only make notes for myself. 
However, here are some brief comments I've posted on facebook: 

Let's see. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Revisiting "Bartleby"- questions and more questions

How can I find anything new to write about "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street", Melville's 2nd most known work and perhaps most widely read work, more than Moby Dick (because it's short, more accessible, and taught in schools)?
1 thing though, I won't make any claims or conclusions, because after several readings I've decided that "Bartleby" is a rich, open and ambiguous work that supports multiple interpretations and can mean many things at once.

1/ 1 Sunday morning, the narrator goes to church and, finding it early, decides to go to his office. To his surprise, he discovers that the door is locked from the inside, and:
"... thrusting his lean visage at me, and holding the door ajar, the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but he was deeply engaged just then, and—preferred not admitting me at present. In a brief word or two, he moreover added, that perhaps I had better walk round the block two or three times, and by that time he would probably have concluded his affairs."
What's Bartleby doing then?

2/ How does the narrator feel, upon discovering that Bartleby has been making the office his home?
"Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!
For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam."
That feeling doesn't last long.
"... Revolving all these things, and coupling them with the recently discovered fact that he made my office his constant abiding place and home, and not forgetful of his morbid moodiness; revolving all these things, a prudential feeling began to steal over me. My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach."
Then he decides to fire him. That he doesn't do yet, as we see in the next scenes, but he thinks of firing him, even though at that point Bartleby hasn't stopped copying.
The narrator isn't as kind as he thinks and says he is.

3/ Later, having sacked Bartleby, given him money and expected him to have gone, our narrator comes to his office the next morning in a feeling of relief mixed with uncertainty.
"As I had intended, I was earlier than usual at my office door. I stood listening for a moment. All was still. He must be gone. I tried the knob. The door was locked. Yes, my procedure had worked to a charm; he indeed must be vanished. Yet a certain melancholy mixed with this: I was almost sorry for my brilliant success. I was fumbling under the door mat for the key, which Bartleby was to have left there for me, when accidentally my knee knocked against a panel, producing a summoning sound, and in response a voice came to me from within—'Not yet; I am occupied'."
At this point, Bartleby has given up on copying (actually, the word in the text is "writing"). The only thing he does all day, according to the narrator, is standing and staring at the wall.
What's he possibly doing then? Occupied with what?
To me, it's unlikely that he's simply standing there in his dead-wall reveries. There must be something secretive that Bartleby does in the office before other people show up. I have no idea. Let's start speculating.

4/ This is the goodbye scene, when the narrator changes his office:
"I re-entered, with my hand in my pocket—and—and my heart in my mouth.
'Good-bye, Bartleby; I am going—good-bye, and God some way bless you; and take that,' slipping something in his hand. But it dropped upon the floor, and then,—strange to say—I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of."
What is the something?

5/ Look at Bartleby's corpse: 
"Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. " 
Like a foetus? 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Vere the tyrant

My book Melville's Short Novels—Norton Critical Edition includes some criticisms, and from the look of it, readers of “Billy Budd, Sailor”, as with “Benito Cereno”, fall into 2 camps: Vere or anti-Vere. 
Here are Robert K. Martin Jr’s anti-Vere arguments in “Is Vere a Hero?”: 
1/ “Nothing that we know about the role of the Captain from the earlier works could lead us to believe that Melville would create a captain who represents the moral perspective of the author: every Captain in Melville is corrupt, a tyrant, or a madman.” 
2/ Vere is a snob. What does he read? “Those books that ‘every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines’ toward (my emphasis). His conservatism is not the product of careful reflection on new ideas, but instead ‘a dike against those invading waters of novel opinion social, political and otherwise’.” 
That’s a good point. Let’s look at Melville’s text. 
“In this line of reading he found confirmation of his own more reserved thoughts—confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive convictions which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired.” 
Vere reads to find confirmation of his own ideas, i.e. avoids books that challenge them. That is narrow-mindedness. We see that later, when Billy Budd strikes Claggart dead, he decides at once that “the angel must hang” and afterwards sticks to it, without much struggle.  
Let’s go on. 
“While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.” 
He’s afraid of change, afraid of anything that looks like a threat to his sense of peace and stability. His fear of such threats later becomes so strong, stronger than anything, that he forgets justice and conscience in his judgement of Billy. 
The narrator then says that Vere lacks “the companionable quality”*, that he is dry and bookish. We see later that Vere thinks in the abstract and forgets that Billy Budd is a human being. 
Besides, speaking of snobbishness, Vere makes allusions without caring whether or not his listeners understand them. 
3/ Martin notes that Vere “betrays the very code he claims to believe in. It is not even necessary to accept the idea of a moral code higher than military justice (although I am certain that Melville did) in order to condemn Vere. Revolution may be a legitimate fear, but does it justify the suspension of legal procedure? And if Vere acts only out of a justified fear of mutiny, why not act on that basis instead of cloaking his behavior in legal self-righteousness.” 
The court doesn’t determine evidence.
“Vere is the accuser, the witness, and the judge; he is even the defense counsel at moments. No witnesses are heard; no attempt is even made to determine the truth of Claggart’s accusation. Of course, the fact that the accusation is false does not alter the fact that Billy killed Claggart, but it does determine a great deal about motive and justification.” 
Martin adds, “it is Vere’s assumption of the danger of mutiny that justifies his suspension of proper procedure, although no effort whatever is made to examine that assumption. Vere has decided Billy’s fate before the court meets, and he uses his power to manipulate the court’s decision. The trial is a sham, the pretense of justice and not justice itself”. 
Now let’s examine Vere’s language as he speaks before the drumhead court. 
“Quite apart from any conceivable motive actuating the master-at-arms, and irrespective of the provocation to the blow, a martial court must needs in the present case confine its attention to the blow’s consequence, which consequence justly is to be deemed not otherwise than as the striker’s deed.” (the italics are Martin’s, to emphasise Vere’s exploitation of the legalese) 
All of those words mean nothing but that Billy struck Claggart. 
“It is not possible to imagine that Melville would cast as hero a man who could so abuse the language.” 
4/ Martin says, defenders of Vere argue that he represents “a higher ethic” than “justice to the individual”, namely “the claims of civilized society”. 
That is not true. “Vere’s decision to hold the court is contrary to law and to the opinion of his officers. It corresponds only to his own desires. Far from establishing a higher social order, Vere imposes the rule of the individual (himself) over social justice.” 
5/ “Vere, that double of Claggart, is driven by ‘the most secret of all passions, ambition’. But as Claggart is never able to profit from his currying of favor with higher authority by denouncing Billy, since he is killed by Billy, so Vere does not live long enough to attain to ‘the fulness of fame’, since he is killed in battle by the French shortly after Billy’s execution. The deaths of the 2 men who might have gained by the death of Billy adds a final turn of the ironic screw: all that killing, and not even ambition is served.” 

*: This is a quality that Melville ranks high, as Carolyn L. Karcher argues in “Melville and Revolution”: For example, see Melville’s description of John Marr “to a man wonted… to the free-and-easy tavern clubs… in certain old and comfortable sea-port towns of that time, and yet more familiar with the companionship afloat of the sailors… something was lacking [in the company of his neighbors]. That something was geniality, the flower of life springing from some sense of joy in it, more or less”. Or Melville’s disparagement of Emerson’s lack of convivial geniality. 

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The 2 halves of "Billy Budd, Sailor"

What can I possibly say that hasn't been said of "Billy Budd, Sailor"? 
The story is cut into 2 halves, by the scene of John Claggart speaking to captain Edward Fairfax Vere: 
- The 1st part is chiefly about 2 things: Claggart's envy and Billy Budd's innocence. 
Regarding envy, Melville makes an interesting point: 
"... Now envy and antipathy, passions irreconcilable in reason, nevertheless in fact may spring conjoined like Chang and Eng in one birth. Is Envy then such a monster? Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did ever anybody seriously confess to envy? Something there is in it universally felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime."
It makes me think of a passage by Angus Wilson: 
"All the seven deadly sins are self-destroying, morbid appetites, but in their early stages at least, lust and gluttony, avarice and sloth know some gratification, while anger and pride have power, even though that power eventually destroys itself. Envy is impotent, numbed with fear, never ceasing in its appetite, and it knows no gratification, but endless self-torment. It has the ugliness of a trapped rat, which gnaws its own foot in an effort to escape." 
Linked to the theme of envy is the theme of evil and human nature. Knowledge of the world and knowledge of human nature are "distinct branches", and some people, like Claggart, are "a nut not be cracked by the tap of a lady's fan". This theme is connected with another one- Billy Budd's innocence, or his inability to recognise and acknowledge evil. 
- In the 2nd part, Billy Budd fades into the background. He's still there, the characters talk about him, the actions concern and affect him, but the 2nd part is more about captain Vere- more specifically, his rigidity, his reasoning and all of his actions that cause Billy's death. 
There can be several themes: Vere's rigidity and his abstract thinking (reminiscent of Shakespeare's Brutus), the law (Vere mounts a drumhead court instead of turning the case to admirals, and takes over as sole witness, prosecutor, judge, and executioner), and the harm of the inaction of those who are unable to change a thing (intellectually inferior, the men of the drumhead court are unable to articulate their disagreements or hesitations) or who are able but indifferent (the surgeon and the chaplain), for example. 
"Billy Budd, Sailor" is so rich, as Melville's works usually are. We can go on and on and talk about other themes, like Christ, Adam, angels, father and son, Abraham and Isaac (if Vere is Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, that is, Billy Budd, what does he sacrifice him for?), conscience, fate, God, Billy's last words and Vere's last words, the falsified report... but I'll stop here. (If you're a student stealing my ideas for an essay, please let me know which grade you get). 
What I find really interesting is how sharply divided in half the story is, at least that's how it feels to me.
Do you feel the same?