THE CONFIDENCE MAN
I have been on medical leave for three months. I had three tears in my rotator cuff repaired and biceps reattached. Minor surgery with a major recovery. That’s three months without working. The last time I had three months off was in 1987. The last time I had two months off was in 1996. Since then time off has come in two or three week increments or less. So the question I had was, will I be able to use the time to write? And the answer was yes. I wrote a 400 page novel in three months, or rather, I finished a 900 page novel, of which the first 435 pages were written. Or something like that. It was immensely pleasurable and incredibly stressful to sit in a chair for fours a day, five days a week, playing with my imaginary friends. Sometimes I felt like I was in Trollope territory, in terms of the tonnage. Anyway, Isle of Dogs is now complete, and on the revision block. The poor fellow is getting a major work out. I have so far not been cutting a whole lot, but streamlining it. The loose baggy monster will hopefully be a svelte, feral cat. Or maybe just one of Harry Crews’ body builders with small testicles and a broad chest.
Another consideration was reading. It seemed a paradise of reading was upon me. How fast the hours of the day slip by! But I plunged into the Brontes and Melville. And it was fabulous. The Piazza Tales, Benito Cereno, Billy Budd and Pierre. I am now, today, starting The Confidence Man. It happens that a Melvillean coincidence is at work: today is April First, and The Confidence Man begins on April First and was published on April First. I don’t need to sing Melville’s praises here. God knows he doesn’t need ’em. Pierre is an incredible eccentricitie. I don’t recommend it lightly, as there is much to frustrate the reader. He set out, after Moby Dick, to write things that would NOT be popular, and Pierre reads like his savagely funny farewell to literature. I also read Melville’s poetry, an undiscovered gem of the 19th century. After Whitman and Dickinson he is by far the best American poet of the 19th century, but that’s not saying much. Battle Pieces, his contemporary account of the Civil war in poems, is one of the best books of poems I have ever read. It is not in style particularly innovative but it is anti-heroic, realistic, narrative and deeply existential. The music of Melville’s prose, the rhythm of his thought, is difficult but once you have got it it is beautiful, subtle, cutting and capable of entertaining paradox, ambiguity and the nuances of the contrarian. Melville’s volumes of poetry after Battle Pieces are all worth reading.
As for the Brontes, I am reading a biography of the whole delightful, benighted clan, and read Jane Eyre for the first time and reread Wuthering Heights. Jane Eyre is a perfect novel and Charlotte Bronte is a master of story, of setting a scene, of drawing characters and of moving her story through time. From the first sentence one is the hands of an enchantress. Emily Bronte on the other hand is a great artist of unbelievable strength. Wuthering Heights was better the second time through and I think it may be one of the novels I love best in the world. There is nothing else like Heathcliff out there, and the occult suggestions of Jane Eyre are full blown hauntings in Wuthering Heights. It is a frightening book, yes, and delightfully wicked. Both Brontes knew how to pillory a clergyman or religious fanatic. Joseph, the Calvinist servant who snarls in Yorkshire dialect is delicious to the point of sinfulness. Since I am a completist of sorts I had to at least read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This books is much more conventional in feel and Anne has not her sisters’ perfections, but about 235 pages in her descriptions of debauchery are astonishingly true. The story of this book (I’m not done with it) is of a serious, intelligent, upright woman’s marriage to a dissipated alcoholic who destroys himself. Anne shares with Charlotte a stern morality (utterly absent in Emily) but she is much more christian, much more conventional. Nevertheless her book was condemned by critics as vulgar. They were horrified by the suggestion that a woman might have written it (it was published under the pseudonym of Acton Bell, but many suspected a female author, and many thought there was a single author of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, her first novel). Anyway, Anne, Emily and their brother Branwell were all dead within six months of each other. Charlotte married and died from complications of pregnancy seven years later. There is something so compelling about this it incites fantasies. But the biography reveals that the Brontes were a loving family, a bit poor, but doing better than their neighbors. They ate well, read widely, traveled and were engaged with the world. They are astonishingly fearless writers. They don’t defy convention because they never were conventional to begin with.
Well, I’m back to work on April 3rd. But it has been an interesting 3 months. In another 3 I’ll have my shoulder back.