Herman Melville, Pierre or The Ambiguities (1852)
William C. Spengemann begins his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of this novel by stating, “If Pierre were not written by the author of Moby-Dick, it would probably not be in print today”. I can’t say I disagree. Ezra Pound once described later Henry James as “cobwebby,” and it’s a term that might apply here as well; Melville seems, at times, more interested in spinning out metaphors than in telling a story.
Now, if you love that sort of thing – if you read Moby-Dick and thought, “The writing was great, but I could have done without the whole chasing the whale storyline” – then this could be the book for you. It’s even been made into a film: POLA X (the trailer really doesn’t do it justice), directed by Leos Carax, who also made the exuberantly bizarre Holy Motors.
When I watched POLA X, just as I started reading the book, I was really put off by Guillaume Depardieu’s performance, particularly in the latter half of the film, when he starts limping and staring madly around for no apparent reason; having read the book, I now understand what he was trying to convey. But the first third of the film is exquisite; the buildings and scenery make it look like a period piece set in the late 1700s, and then Depardieu comes roaring through on his morotocycle – marvellous.
But to return to the novel.
I feel like I need to set up the quote with some sort of summary of the plot, but it’s difficult to know exactly where to begin. I’ll give it a go: Pierre is a youth living a charmed life in the idyllic surroundings of Saddle Meadows, his family estate. His father is dead, he lives with his mother, and he is engaged to marry the beautiful and perfect Lucy.
But then … a mysterious young woman named Isabel appears, and tells Pierre that she is his half-sister, conceived when their father had an affair with a Frenchwoman, who is now dead. For various reasons, Pierre accepts this information as true, and as the novel progresses, what he thought to be his life essentially falls to pieces around him. The following passage comes after he has learned (from a letter) that Isabel is his sister but before he has met with her and heard her full story; I’ll quote it at length to give a bit of the flavour of the prose:
It was long after midnight when Pierre returned to the house. He had rushed forth in that complete abandonment of soul, which, in so ardent a temperament, attends the first stages of any sudden and tremendous affliction, but now he returned in pallid composure, for the calm spirit of the night, and the then risen moon, and the late revealed stars, had all at last become as a strange subduing melody to him, which, though at first trampled and scorned, yet by degrees had stolen into the windings of his heart, and so shed abroad its own quietude in him. Now, from his height of composure, he firmly gazed abroad upon the charred landscape within him; as the timber man of Canada, forced to fly from the conflagration of his forests, comes back again when the fires have waned, and unblinkingly eyes the immeasurable fields of fire-brands that here and there glow beneath the wide canopy of smoke. (86)
The metaphor here is fairly straightforward in its essence, if somewhat lengthily elaborated and filigreed, in accordance with Melville’s style at this point in his career: Isabel’s revelation has destroyed the things Pierre thought he knew about himself and his life as completely as fire destroys a forest. Naturally a lumberjack (“timber man”) would look on the ruined forest the way Pierre looks on his overthrown preconceptions; and when Melville thinks of lumberjacks, apparently, he thinks of Canada.
This is a little odd; the United States must have had its fair share of lumberjacks in the 1850s. But Melville seems to be imagining a land that is nothing but forests; not a country with some urban areas and some forests, as he no doubt thought of the U.S., but a country that contains nothing but trees and has no reason to exist other than to employ lumberjacks.
A country, in other words, like Canada. As the phrase “the immeasurable fields of fire-brands” clearly indicates, Melville thinks of Canada as little more than an endless, empty wilderness of trees, punctuated by the occasional lumberjack.
A Wounding Omission
Regardless of the precise nature of the reference – and yes, even if it includes lumberjacks – it’s always exciting to see Canada mentioned in a book by a non-Canadian. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a certain pain that comes from a moment in a book when one expects a reference to Canada, and then it doesn’t come. I’ll memorialize one such moment here, where Melville refers to the death of one of Pierre’s ancestors, also named Pierre:
Grand old Pierre is dead, and like a hero of old battles, he dies on the eve of another war; ere wheeling to fire on the foe, his platoons fire over their old commander’s grave; in A.D. 1812, died grand old Pierre. The drum that beat in brass his funeral march, was a British kettle-drum, that had once helped beat the vain-glorious march, for the thirty thousand predestined prisoners, led into sure captivity by that bragging boy, Burgoyne. (31)
The year is 1812, a new war is beginning; as a Canadian, one naturally expects a reference to Canada here, as we think of the War of 1812 as a conflict between Canada and the U.S. But Melville sees it as another conflict – or a fresh eruption of an ongoing conflict – between the U.S. and Britain. And no doubt he’s right – the vast majority of the military assets deployed on “our” side must have been British.
Still, it comes as a bit of a shock, particularly given the extensive commemorative efforts (check out those costumes!) made by the Canadian government for the bicentenary of the war last year.
Poor Herman, he can’t win. When he talks about Canadian lumberjacks, we’re offended that he thinks we’re all lumberjacks; when he fails to mention us, we’re offended at the omission. This is why they say literature is a thankless profession.