Melville House Publishing, The Art of the Novella, Benito Cereno

Readers of this blog will know that I rarely do product placement, but I wanted to say something about a press, and a series, that I really like. Melville House publishes The Art of the Novella, a collection of classic and modern novellas, printed simply and rather beautifully. Old writing that, in part due to its brevity, feels a good fit for the rush of contemporary life.

The art of the novella

But not merely due to the page count. The two novellas I bought at the AWP conference, Michael Kohlhaas (by Heinrich von Kleist) and Benito Cereno (by Herman Melville), both leap into action with the kind of immediate openings that make me sigh, “Ah, yes, this is storytelling.”

Michael Kohlhaas, the inspiration, by the way, for E.L. Doctorow’s character Coalhouse Walker in the novel Ragtime, opens:

Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day.

I would keep quoting, but every single sentence, for the first page and a half, keeps increasing the tension and raising the stakes, so I’m going to stop there, at the first.

Melville’s Benito Cereno begins in marginally slower fashion:

In the year 1799, Captain Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, in Massachusetts, commanding a large sealer and general trader, lay at anchor, with a valuable cargo, in the harbor of St. Maria—a small, desert, uninhabited island towards the southern extremity of the long coast of Chili. There he had touched for water.

On the second day, not long after dawn, while lying in his berth, his mate came below, informing him that a strange sail was coming into the bay.

Benito Cereno is a remarkable book, not only combining the tension and twists of a thriller with an intensely philosophical examination of race and slavery, but also doing some really unsettling things with narration. Captain Amasa Delano boards a mysterious, half-wrecked slave ship, within which most of the Spanish crew, and many of the slaves, have apparently died of disease and thirst. Its captain, Benito Cereno, seems awfully peculiar, and could even be a little sinister, but Captain Delano is such a good sort that, as his day on board progresses, even though things feel off, he convinces himself everything is fine, and that he is in no danger.

One fascinating aspect of Melville’s book is that, from the opening, it seems that we have a very classic, distant, omniscient narrator, giving us dates, locales, and facts about naval trade. As the story progresses, that same narrator starts dropping in observations about the black slaves on board Cereno’s ship, giving us little insights such as “the peculiar love in Negroes of uniting industry with pastime,” which are easy for the reader to take as Melville’s—or his otherwise reliable narrator’s—opinions and experiences. But this is one of the book’s tricks, and when we think we are hearing a narrator’s facts about the world, we are really only hearing Captain Delano’s very limited thoughts and expectations. We see almost the whole story through his eyes, and all the thoughts about the nature of black people that the narration has been encouraging us to consider have been, in fact, concealing a very different, unseen reality. We have been tricked into mistaking surface for substance, prejudice for knowledge.

I’d say more, but it’s not the kind of ending to give away—only that the book closes with the implication that slavery is permanently destructive to slave-owners, as well as to its victims. Ralph Ellison chose lines from that conclusion as one of the epigraphs for Invisible Man.

Melville House publishes two sets of novellas, classic and contemporary, and they include in the series works that you probably have always thought of as long short stories or short novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway or “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (or should it be The Death of Ivan Ilych?). They also have a discounted valentine-themed pack of six classics for only thirty dollars, which, raised all my life to love a bargain, I have to admire.

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