Jonathan Mirsky

You have been warned

The Confidence Man: His Masquerade<br /> by Herman Melville

The Confidence Man: His Masquerade
by Herman Melville

Many years ago in Texas, a movie advertisement urged viewers ‘to thrill to Herman Melville’s immortal story of the sea, Moby-Dick, with Gregory Peck in the title role,’ prompting the New Yorker to comment, ‘A whale of a part.’ And how! I’ve just finished reading the book again. It was my fifth read and the first time I’ve read every word. When I was a boy I read the whaling chapters and skipped everything else. Later I advanced through the hero Ishmael’s relationships with the harpooner Queequeg, Captain Ahab and the first mate, Starbuck. Then came the sorts, parts and habits of whales and, finally, Melville’s views on life, the universe and everything else, all stitched together into a magnificent whole.

Moby-Dick, more than any other book I know, is often referred to as either unreadable or as a Big Book that one really must get around to reading some time. Well, let me tell you something. Moby-Dick is to The Confidence Man as Neighbours is to King Lear. Written in 1857, The Confidence Man almost finished off Melville’s already shaky reputation. It is easily the most difficult book I’ve ever read and if it weren’t by Melville I think I would have laid it down after 50 pages. It took a long time to get even that far; the great Melville specialist, H. Bruce Franklin, who wrote the introduction (in 1967), peppers the text with dozens of footnotes. Here is my advice: read the introduction, which is of some help. Skip the new preface by Daniel Handler, a farrago of dopey comment. Resist Franklin’s awesome footnotes; they make you feel ignorant, because they explain how learned Melville was and, by extension, Franklin is. They also make it even more difficult to keep one’s mind on the — what? — plot, cat’s-cradle of themes, puns, subterfuges, tricks and seeming explanations that turn out to be more subterfuges and faux-revelations.

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