Friday, December 19, 2008

Billy Budd

Oh, Billy Budd. What to say about you?

A few years ago, I read Moby Dick and LOVED it. There are so many levels to it, it’s so rich, so perfectly written. Definitely one of the top three American novels of the 19th century, and definitely one of the top ten American novels ever.

Then…I think it was earlier this year…I read "Bartleby the Scrivener." WTF is that all about? "I'd perfer not." Melville is clearly a very talented writer, but, what? You lost me there, Herman.
And now Billy Budd. I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know that I have anything to say. It’s Billy Budd – he’s a 21 year old popular strapping sailor who is drafted (essentially) into the British Navy in 1797. Claggart, the ship’s Master-at-Arms has it out for him, and eventually turns him into the Captain for trying to start a mutiny. When Billy Budd is told of the charges, he hits Claggart so hard he kills him. Billy is tried, convicted, and hung. There’s a lot of pontificating and waxing poetic in between.

I know, I know…Abraham and Isaac, Jesus metaphors, etc. The Publishing Triangle put it at #13 on their list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels. But it’s not really a gay novel, is it? There are sort-of gay overtones, or undertones, to the story. Claggart’s hatred of Billy Budd clearly springs from some kind of attraction or jealousy towards Budd. But really. That list is crazy anyway…To Kill A Mockingbird, Death Comes for the Archbishop AND Little Women are on there.

I’m ambivalent about the whole thing. It was certainly well written, I just wasn't pulled into the story. Oh Herman, where did our relationship go wrong? But I'm willing to work on it. I am committed to my relationship with Melville. In the future: Typee, Pierre, Confidence Man, and probably others. Hopefully, these issues with the intimate relationship between writer and reader will resolve themsevles.


Robby Virus said...

"To Kill a Mockingbird" = gay??? How does that figure?

I too loved "Moby Dick" but I've never read anything else by Melville.

Kristin said...

There is a blogger that, when responding to the NY Times' list of the best American fiction from about 1980-2005, defined the "gay voice" as follows: "It is a voice that resonates with perspective of the sexually-oriented "outsider," so that we come away with an understanding (and it does not have to arrive by way of a literal representation) that "heterosexuality" is...the subject of some dissonance, if not revolt. Further, it is typically a voice that conveys ambivalence for the present, a fundamental pessimism (in the philosophical sense) with regard to life, and an understanding that only the most obsessively detailed examination of the past can bring us any sense of reconciliation with the present in which we so obviously do not belong, or at least are not wanted by the more established and powerful elements of society." In that sense, seeing the "gay voice" as expounding a type of outsider literature, as opposed to dealing with the subject of being gay in some way, does make a little more sense in describing why some books on the Triangle Publishing list that don't seem to belong there.

The Triangle Publishing list appears to be a combination of works by gay writers, and "gay novels" in addition to mysterious ones, including Little Women, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Having only read about 15 books off the list of 100, I can't justifably make much judgment about the majority of the list, but those are ones that stood out as strange choices.

Sieglinde said...

Try the Ustinov movie or the oepra version. It helps to understand it. Believe me, it IS gay - not even Captain Vere is the lovely father figure he seems at first sight. :D And Claggart is a frustrated uke who plays the seme, but all he wants is to be "done" by Billy.