“In the middle of life’s journey,” wrote Dante Alighieri, “I found myself in a selva oscura.” Host Jacke Wilson and frequent guest Mike Palindrome take stock of their own selva oscura in a particularly literary way: What books have they read? What books have been the most important to them? What do they expect to come next? It’s a celebration of reading – and friendship – on this episode of The History of Literature Podcast.
Authors discussed include: John D. Fitzgerald, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elena Ferrante, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Jay McInerney, Rene Descartes, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, Graham Greene, Patrick O’Brian, Marcel Proust, Javier Marias, Haruki Murakami, Paul Celan, and Leo Tolstoy.
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Off we go! First up in our celebrity novella deathmatch are a couple of heavyweights from the Dead White Male division:
Billy Budd by Herman Melville
The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
Batten the hatches! Beat to quarters! “Shall we start the contest, Cap’n?” “Make it so, sir, make it so!”
Let’s get started.
This is a strong matchup between two undeniably great authors with many similarities. Both are more famous for other works – in fact, they each have novellas that are seeded higher in the Tournament of Champions (Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Although Melville belongs to the nineteenth-century and Conrad seems firmly grounded in the twentieth, the two contestants are actually closer in era than one might think. The Secret Sharer was written only twenty years after Billy Budd. It was also the first to be published, in 1912. (Billy Budd languished in some drawer until 1924.)
Billy Budd comes in as the favorite: it routinely makes lists of top novellas. If this burb is to be believed, The Secret Sharer has apparently been called “among the finest of Conrad’s short novels, and among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language” by a Stanford professor I’ve never heard of, but this seems like a ridiculous quote, as it suggests that Conrad by himself has three or four of the top six novellas of all time.
Word Count: 30,326
Author credibility: +10 points
Come on! It’s Herman Melville! It’s hard to get bigger than that. This guy swings for the fences! Billy Budd is often viewed as a good “get a Melville fix without loading yourself down with you-know-what.” Oddly, I found Moby Dick to be a faster read.
Inferior work penalty: -5 points
Calm down. It’s Melville, but it’s not Moby-Dick or Bartleby. Should be no higher than third on your Melville list.
The Sea, the Sea!: +3 points
Stories taking place on wooden ships earn 3 bonus points. Years ago anything taking place on the sea was a big negative for me. After reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series I’m into it now. I’m a big fan of the sea!
Author lifetime obscurity points: +2 points
Wrote Moby Dick at age 32; died 40 years later in obscurity, with his classic novel never having sold out its initial print run of 3,000 copies. That’s worth a couple of points from Jacke. RIP big fella.
First page what the huh? moments: -5 points.
Even putting the racial stereotypes in the context of their era, it’s tough to keep going when such outdated physical descriptions hit you all at once, right at the start. Billy Budd is characterized by his flashing white teeth, his “barbaric good humor,” and compared with a “grand sculptured Bull.” Ugh. Luckily things do get better…
Clotted prose: -25 points.
…but not for a while! I admire Melville, but good lord is this novella a slog. I had to run at this so many times I felt like Martin Short as the soldier who had never learned how to climb stairs. A taste:
Noting this uncomplaining acquiescence, all but cheerful one might say, the shipmates turned a surprised glance of silent reproach at the sailor. The Shipmaster was one of those worthy mortals found in every vocation, even the humbler ones–the sort of person whom everybody agrees in calling “a respectable man.” And–nor so strange to report as it may appear to be–though a ploughman of the troubled waters, life-long contending with the intractable elements, there was nothing this honest soul at heart loved better than simple peace and quiet. For the rest, he was fifty or thereabouts, a little inclined to corpulence, a prepossessing face, unwhiskered, and of an agreeable color–a rather full face, humanely intelligent in expression. On a fair day with a fair wind and all going well, a certain musical chime in his voice seemed to be the veritable unobstructed outcome of the innermost man. He had much prudence, much conscientiousness, and there were occasions when these virtues were the cause of overmuch disquietude in him. On a passage, so long as his craft was in any proximity to land, no sleep for Captain Graveling. He took to heart those serious responsibilities not so heavily borne by some shipmasters.
That is some serious overwriting. Paragraph after paragraph. Page after page. Looking for the narrative in all this prose made me feel like a confused dog digging up the whole yard. Why was I digging up the yard? Because my master hid my bone because he is cruel and hates me.
Ability to go deep: +35 points
A whopping score for this category. But there’s no getting around it – once you get through the agonizingly dull prose, you are rewarded with some very rich themes. With a fairly simple story and a limited set of characters, Melville nevertheless manages to unlock some seriously compelling issues. The law, society, submission to authority, psychology, the death penalty, discipline and punishment, the meaning of justice, homoerotic behavior and how it manifests itself among sailors – it’s all here. The rules of the sea – so necessary to maintain order and preserve safety – require you to execute a man you believe in your heart is innocent. How do you live with yourself after that? And yet it must be done. Eeeyah, we still haven’t figured these issues out.
“God Bless Captain Vere!”: +10 points
Billy Budd’s plaintive wail at the end. More than a shade of “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Sure, it’s buried in the overstuffed graveyard that is Melville’s prose, but even so: heartbreaking.
“Billy Budd, Billy Budd”: +10 points
The captain’s dying words. A cliche? I don’t care, I’m a total sucker for this. An entire life lived… and nothing else weighed on him more.
The concluding poem “Billy in the Darbies”: +0.5 points
This poem is… um… heartfelt. Oh, Herman. You deserved so much better. Life failed you.
Billy Budd Total: 35.5 points
Ah, here we go…
The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
Word Count: 16,667
After the agony of reading Billy Budd, I was expecting the worst. Isn’t Conrad also verbose? Painfully slow? Obtuse? No! I had misremembered this, or at least The Secret Sharer does not suffer from it. Or is this because of my Aubrey-Maturin training? Whatever the reason, reading Conrad after Melville is like reading Hemingway after Faulkner. Therefore…
A strong start for Conrad, who famously wrote in English despite being a native Polish speaker. He deserves the points – this tale zips along and drives hard toward its conclusion. A novella at its best.
Author bonus points: +10
Joseph Conrad! An all-time great. Some people were born to write. He is one.
Inferior work penalty: -4
Not Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Tough standards to live up to, but there you have it.
The Sea, the Sea!: +3
Eh, might as well follow through with this to be fair.
Conrad the unfathomable: +2
One of my all-time favorite literary stories: Ford Madox Ford claimed that Conrad used to come over to his house and the two of them would look into one another’s eyes for hours, going deep into each other’s soul. That is very Conrad. Only Conrad could earn a point for…
“The place was literally not big enough to swing a cat in.”: +1
A cliche that’s not a cliche, you see, because he means it literally. Except that the narrator was not holding a cat. Literal has its limits. The point is that Conrad’s unyielding seriousness, coupled with his desperate lion-tamer’s relationship to language, always make me smile.
Unbelievably good title: +5
I did not realize until reading this novella, which is about a captain “sharing” his quarters with a shadowy figure he conceals from the crew, that Conrad invented the phrase (I think). I knew of the title, of course, but I’ve been using “secret sharer” as a synonym for doppelganger for years without knowing it was something Conrad had originated.
There are some interesting themes here – mostly about the growth of a captain during his first command. His attempts to assert his authority over his crew – and the effects of this on his mind – are compelling. The shaky, shifting narration is a nice literary touch.
Ambition, absence of: -15
Even so, the themes here are a little simple for Conrad, who would go far deeper with Heart of Darkness. Billy Budd is more ambitious. Put it this way: had this been all Conrad had written about, I doubt Ford Madox Ford would have looked into his eyes for more than 45 minutes, tops.
Orson Welles bonus points: +3
Orson Welles liked Melville, but he loved Conrad. The three points are for the recording of Orson Welles reading The Secret Sharer. Perfect marriage of voice and story.
Orson Welles “Come on, Internet!” penalty: -1
I spent ten minutes clicking links trying to get to this audio recording. Gone, gone, gone. Finally I gave up. Don’t email me a working link. The recording is dead to me.
Opening sequence “Hey, this will work!” passage: +5
Here’s Conrad setting the table:
“All these people had been together for eighteen months or so, and my position was that of the only stranger on board. I mention this because it has some bearing on what is to follow. But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.”
Awesome. That table would have taken Melville at least 700 words to set. In the time it would have taken him to set out the plates and silverware and glasses and candles and tea cozies and napkin holders, Conrad would have wolfed down five chops and would be picking his teeth as Ford Madox Ford tried to stare into his eyes.
Narrator’s queasy relationship with his crew and his own authority, economically rendered: +5
Before I could collect myself the words “Come in” were out of my mouth, and the steward entered with a tray, bringing in my morning coffee. I had slept, after all, and I was so frightened that I shouted, “This way! I am here, steward,” as though he had been miles away. He put down the tray on the table next the couch and only then said, very quietly, “I can see you are here, sir.”
Narrator’s blurry sense of self: +5
Too many great passages here to quote. And the novella doesn’t go on too long. No Krusty and The Big Ears problems here.
Point for the scene where the visiting captain notes he only had to pull a couple of miles to get from one ship to the other, suggesting that the Secret Sharer could have swum the distance (as he had). I gasped. Not literally though. Oh, and I swung a cat. Also not literally.
Genuine suspense!: +2
Billy Budd felt like homework. The Secret Sharer was an under-the-covers-with-the-flashlight pleasure – I literally wanted to know what happened. Excellent for a novella, even if it doesn’t have the deep themes of Billy Budd.
The Secret Sharer (total points): 47
Billy Budd (total points): 35.5
Winner: The Secret Sharer
Have a different score on your card? Or an idea for a novella that belongs in the Tournament? Let Jacke know in the comments. And check this space for Jacke’s novellas, which are on their way!