Kim was original, and full of ideas and words I did not instantly understand, and significant parts of the book slipped from my grasp to the extent that I questioned the wisdom of writing about it after a single pass. Now I will compound my doubts, and sins, by seeing what I can do with Herman Melville’s Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), Melville’s final novel.
It is such a strange and difficult book, an easy candidate for my old category of Books Few People Should Read. How Melville thought anyone but a handful of friends would understand it, or pay money for it, is beyond me. Writing the book seemed to break his spirits, leading his family to wonder if he was going mad. When it was finished, he took a long vacation to the Holy Land and then switched to poetry, permanently, or almost permanently, until his death thirty-four years later.
Fortunately, I have the 1971 Norton Critical Edition of the novel, ed. Hershel Parker, at hand to assist me:
… the scrupulous reader of The Confidence-Man is rewarded by an intensity of intellectual and aesthetic exhilaration comparable to almost nothing else in our literature except some early Swift (such as A Tale of a Tub) and some late Nabokov (such as Pale Fire). To share that exhilaration is the purpose of
Wuthering Expectationsthis Norton Critical Edition. (xi)
Pale Fire has long been a touchstone book for me, and as for the Swift, I refer the interested reader to Sect. VII of A Tale of a Tub, “A Digression in Praise of Digressions,” which will illuminate one of Melville’s methods. Or perhaps Sect. IX, “A Digression Concerning Madness,” is more directly relevant.
What I am saying is this is high praise from Parker. And I think am going to try to make something out of a book like this, like those, after reading it once! Nonsense. Worse, after this I have convinced myself that it would be a good idea to write about a George Meredith novel (repeated throughout the Penguin Classics endnotes: “one of Meredith’s more baffling sentences,” “a baffling phrase,” and so on). Perhaps I should stick with books for children, like another one I just finished, Tove Jansson’s Comet in Moominland (1946), written for, I don’t know, six year-olds, which should be simple enough. It turns out to be an allegorical novel. Has anyone read it? Can you guess the allegorical subject? The date is a clue.
That was “A Digression Concerning My Recent Reading.” “As the last chapter was begun with a reminder looking forwards, so the present must consist of one glancing backwards,” as the narrator of The Confidence-Man says in one of the two – I think only two – purely digressive chapters in the novel (Chapter 14 in this case), when the narrator interrupts the characters for some metafictional chatter. This time he is worried his reader will find his characters inconsistent, so he pauses for a defense. The other digressive chapter is entitled “In Which the Last Three Words of the Last Chapter Are Made the Text of Discourse, Which Will Be Sure of Receiving More or Less Attention from Those Readers Who Do Not Skip It” (Ch. 44). That last part could almost be the motto of the week; the motto of Wuthering Expectations. The motto of all literature.