Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Preferring not to

In rain-lush Winchester this afternoon to see my Mum, whose birthday it is. We'd talked about going to see a matinee of the Queen, but got to talking more generally and so couldn't really be bothered. Talked films and things with the wee brother (who could also show some clips), and marriage and inheritance with the elder folk.

By something of coincidence after yesterday's post, my Dad is about to go visit Dresden...

The Dr had asked me to collect some of my 19th century novels for something a bit gothic she's working on. So on the train home I reread Melville's "Bartleby".

It's told by the master of a law office with chambers at some number on Wall Street. We hear of the three amusingly grotesque copyists under his employ: "Turkey", who is quiet by morning by pugnacious after his presumably boozy lunches; "Nipper" who's the opposite and quietens down in the p.m.; and "Ginger nut", the 12 year-old runner nicknamed after the cakes he's sent out for.

They're an odd and unlikely bunch, amusingly Dickensian and bit sloppy in their works. You feel the narrator is a little too accommodating of their whims. And then along comes Bartleby.

He's immaculate in demeanour and his copying is exemplary. But every now and then he'll respond to some minor request with, "I'd prefer not to." And the narrator is completely unable to say, "Like bollocks!" or "You're fired!"

And then it turns out Bartleby doesn't go home and spends his whole life in the office, and as the narrator investigates further it turns out the scrivener doesn't have much of a life anyway...
"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 succour, common sense bids the soul be rid of it."

Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street.

For all it now reads as a period piece, it's also suffused with modernity. Sherlock Holmes is "modern" because he embraces the new - bicycles and railway trains and fingerprints and science. But this is modern because it's caught up in the loss of old systems - beginning with the narrator's change in status because of the
"sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution,"


- and ending with the abolition of the "Dead Letter Office at Washington".

It's all built up on atmospherics and the narrator's own sense of strange impotence. I think it could be told more concisely - and suspect Melville might have been paid by the word. But it's a creepy story about eroded identity and how we decline to confront the abnormal.

No comments: