Is Melville’s Pierre a “Kraken” novel?

I have read for the second time Melville’s novel Pierre or the Ambiguities, this time through the lens of the “Kraken” edition, a creation of the Melville scholar and biographer Hershel Parker with illustrations by Maurice Sendak.* A note of disquiet, even more pronounced than the first time, has accompanied my second tour of this novel.

Is Pierre a kraken book? Parker and Sendak certainly thought so. But the world at large is less certain. And that is unlikely to change any time soon. And it’s not because Melville ruined Pierre by pasting in material about Pierre as an author aimed at his (Melville’s) enemies—the stuff that Parker took back out to make the Kraken edition—no, it’s not because of that but because of something more mundane: the marriage of form and content. Melville’s grand language, a triumph in Moby Dick, seems a poor fit when embarking on the adventure of Pierre, and that’s a strange but explicable phenomenon. One knows at the outset of Moby Dick that the theme is BIG. All one knows when starting Pierre is that it’s about a very young man. And that is all the difference. One is ready for the grand language in the former. By contrast the first two chapters of Pierre, taking about sixty pages, are like seeing a boy dressed in man’s clothes. He may grow into them, wait and see; in the meantime he just looks silly.

Noticing this made me notice other things. Like Melville’s loooooong compound sentences full of semi-colons. It never bothered me in Moby Dick. In the first two chapters of Pierre I found myself—stopping every few—words in—anticipation of the next—comma or worse—semicolon. I couldn’t predict when they’d come, they didn’t feel like natural pauses to my twenty-first century ear. I ran back to Moby Dick and leafed through. For sure, the same kinds of sentences appear there—never noticed them before. In fact, that book sang to me. Why was I stumbling through Pierre? Can it all really be explained by the relationship of form to content? Or was Melville in good form—the way we’d speak of a musician—in the former and not so good form in the latter? I can’t discount the second possibility. At a glance the placement of semi-colons in Moby Dick seemed proper in comparison to some questionable ones in Pierre, but this would take a closer, more painstaking study than I am prepared for now. Presently I have some other observations to make.

Firstly, as a package the Kraken edition is so beautiful—sent over the top by Sendak—that one doesn’t realize how audacious it is. Mesmerized by its beauty and in thrall to Parker’s credibility as a Melville scholar, one might easily miss the bold move to produce it and to publish it. For it is nothing less than a radical redaction of the novel that Melville made. And not simply an abridged version, as in the old Readers Digest Condensed Books series (when I was a boy my mother had three shelves full of these. I’d look at all those shortened books-five or six to a volume—and wonder why anyone would waste their time looking at so many works of art that had been razored up and spliced back together with huge chunks missing). The Kraken edition is not presented as a condensed version of a long book. It is selectively abridged, the result of Parker’s belief that Melville sabotaged his own novel. He presents his investigative editing work as evidence that Melville had a finer work to begin with. And this has been done to honor the man and the artist.

Parker could be right on every one of his points. But even if he is, the question remains: does the artist not have the right to mold his own work any way he likes? Andrew Green may have had a great eye when he begged Picasso to stop the endless revisions of his portrait of Gertrude Stein. The version he saw may have been better than the one we have, we’ll never know, but did Picasso not have the right to say, “non” and continue his investigations? Of course he did, and I don’t doubt that Parker would agree. But the world generally agrees that the Gertrude Stein portrait is a masterpiece and so strong were Parker’s convictions that he has presented his Kraken edition as a what if: what if Melville hadn’t ruined his own work?

But there’s nothing humble about this what if. It ignores the fundamental fact that the author has the right to make his own work better, worse or even to throw it in the trash. Honoring this fact is nothing less than honoring the humanity of the artist. Every reader is free to play Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in their own studies and conversations. But to publish “improvements” is a whole other matter.

Regardless, the Kraken edition has landed in the world, used copies are easily available, and readers may pick it up in ignorance, as I did, of the fact it is not the book Melville wrote and delivered to the publishers. And we can ask, is the Kraken edition better than Melville’s own book? I was prepared for the answer to be yes, expected it to be. Parker has spent far more time than me studying Melville’s work and life. But to my surprise I found this is not the case at all. The book that Melville delivered to the publishers—the book that Melville wrote—is better.

To be sure, Pierre is a flawed book. I believe it is a beautiful and fascinating but flawed gem. The manuscript Melville delivered to the publishers is flawed, and the version Parker created is flawed. But even if I did not think it took colossal cojones to bring out the Kraken edition, I would still argue that the author had a better book.

As stated, Melville’s grand language feels out of place in a story about an adolescent. It serves the image of the mysterious white whale and the scaffold of 19th century whaling and the philosophical themes attached to it. The majestic, opulent language is cemented to these images and themes the way ornamentation is to Chartres cathedral. Pierre, in the first two chapters, cannot duplicate this success because the scaffold won’t support it. That, I suspect, gets many readers off to such a rough start that the novel in its own right and as part of an oeuvre can’t possibly rise to the stature of Moby Dick. So it can’t be a kraken novel if a kraken is supposed to be a more impressive creature than a whale. We should remember, however, that a kraken is a mythical beast, whereas a whale is very much a part of the real world. And as a mythical creature, it lives in our minds and hearts. And this makes Pierre a much harder novel to handle than Moby Dick. This kraken is more elusive than the whale.

We begin to get our bearings—that is, Pierre begins to fill out those clothes—in the third chapter and I think a pivotal moment comes on page 74 (of the Kraken edition). The chapter begins ten pages earlier with premonitions concerning the face of a young woman that, once glimpsed by Pierre at a social event, haunts him for two days. This haunting or presentiment begins to swell in the big clothes of Melville’s language until page 74 when we come to a vision that I think is characteristic of Melville. He writes:

From without, no wonderful effect is wrought within ourselves, unless some interior, responding wonder meets it.

From this sentence on Pierre’s immaturity, rather than being a defect when counter-balanced against Melville’s language, accrues dramatic weight. We perceive something in Pierre, perhaps dimly as of now, perhaps something in the bud. Pierre’s sudden awareness, as of eyes beginning to open in a flickering or dim light, absorbs our attention and provides the interest or drama that swells and meets Melville’s grand language. And this is precisely why the Pierre-as-author segments are important and should not have been hacked out of the book. When we get to this statement on page 94:

Doth Truth come in the dark, and steal on us, and rob us so, and then depart…. If this night, which now wraps my soul, be genuine as that which now wraps this half of the world; then Fate…. hast lured me on through gay gardens to a gulf.

we are taken, with Pierre, to interstitial space, where great literature flourishes. The poetic language here is no longer out of place, but appropriate. On the way there, at page 87 with Pierre’s view of the sunset—“a tongue to all humanity, saying: I go down in beauty to rise in joy”—we have language that seemed weird and ill-fitting in the first chapters but now justifies the invocation of Beethoven’s name a few pages prior. The language is beginning to feel right. Before page 74 it would have felt like the rest of the first two chapters—overblown, almost satirical if one knew the point of the joke (which raises the question: do we forgive the loooong sentences and abuse of the semi-colon only when Melville’s thought rises to meet its bulk and byzantine angularity?). Now we are ready to appreciate the difficulty of this shadow world, to “probe” with Pierre (p 121), where the “physical world” stops being secure and solid, slipping into an “ether of visions” (p 122) due to the ruin and ensuing reorganization of “the charred landscape within him” (p 124). We get to the drama on pp 150-51 of Pierre’s inner landscape sliding and mashing into the outer one, forming the stormy climate of Pierre’s emerging world. And then, on page 154, the author himself steps in to tell us, “I shall follow the endless, winding way,—the flowing river in the cave of man; careless whither I be led, reckless where I land.”

This last quote is worth lingering over, because it is not the only place where Melville makes an appearance. Parker singles out the excised passage in which Melville declares he’ll violate narrative order and write as he damn well pleases as a particular violation of novelistic decorum and proof that Melville viciously and even carelessly ruined his book—suddenly we learn that all along Pierre has been an author! But in fact this same violation of convention occurs repeatedly throughout the entire novel. Indeed it is one of the weakness of the book, with or without the Pierre-as-author material. We don’t hear about Glen Stanley until Pierre needs somewhere to go, and we don’t learn until he inherits Saddle Meadows that Stanley was a favorite of Pierre’s mother. Likewise we don’t find out who Charlie Millthorpe is until we need to. This is the staggered construction of the narrative throughout: each step of the staircase is built as one climbs. Taking the Pierre-as-author material out does not solve this problem.

Unfortunately these are not the novel’s only flaws. Isabel, Lucy and Delly never come alive as characters. They remain shadows throughout. However, they are less shadowy with the Pierre-as-author material than without. For me the biggest flaws of the book are its narrative implausibilities. Why was there no argument between Pierre and his mother? She simply drops him. Why did Pierre not give Lucy a chance to be as noble as he? Why did Pierre not simply make sure his sister was living comfortably and go about his business? Why is the one lie/secret (Isabel ((in reality my sister)) is my wife) better than the other (I will take care of my sister in secret)? It is not. We do not understand why Pierre chose the first disastrous lie over the more plausible second lie. And if it was the hypocrisy of it all that tormented him so, why does Melville not make this clear or understandable? Melville does not convince us that Pierre’s character necessitated his actions. And yet here again, while the Pierre-as-author material does not solve these problems, the novel is better with it than without it. With the book that Pierre tries to write we at least see that he is grappling with problems that he is not strong enough or wise enough to resolve. And the book writing portion of the narrative gives the drama more force and focus. At any rate, it is what Melville in fact wrote and delivered to the publishers.

Finally, Parker writes that

it is folly to look for ways of seeing the Pierre-as-author theme as unified with the rest of the book. To find unity in the mixed product of ecstatic confidence and reckless defiance after failure is to trivialize Melville’s aspiration, his achievement, and his wrecking of that achievement—to dehumanize Melville as man and artist. (p xlii)

It is simpler than that. Pierre is a great but flawed work. We might compare it in our time to some of the films of Terrence Malick. There are no more arresting, beautiful or important films being made today. And yet, aesthetically, some of them are flawed. Pierre is flawed as Melville wrote it, and it is flawed as the version Parker created. And whether you believe it is better with or without the material Parker took out, to suggest that honoring the work as the artist made it dehumanizes him and that altering that work, however well-intentioned and well-researched, restores that humanity, is a mind fuck. Our flaws are part of our humanity. The Kraken edition of Pierre is a crime against art and the artist.

I wouldn’t support the removal of a single comma, not even one of those semi-colons that drive me crazy, but with his taking out entire chunks of text Parker has removed some of the grandest passages of the novel. Case in point section 1 of chapter 21 which ends:

By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and no body is there!—appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of a man!

Taking out these forty-three words alone was an unjustifiable act.

* The Kraken Edition of Pierre was published by HarperCollins in 1995

This entry was posted in book review and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.