The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg – Mark Twain

Scene from the Table of the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed) - Hieronymous Bosch

A mysterious stranger is somehow insulted during a visit to the town of Hadleyburg, proud of its reputation for scrupulous probity. We are never told the nature of the insult, but the stranger’s revenge is to destroy the town’s hard earned reputation. His weapon is greed, which infallibly brings down eighteen of the leading townspeople. For the nineteenth citizen, and his wife, Twain allows their greed to lead all the way to the grave, dying raving and bitter.

It is of course a morality tale. Though I know little of Mark Twain’s politics, I interpret The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg as a criticism of emerging consumerism and a generational shift in attitudes to debt.

In some cases light-headed people did not stop with planning to spend, they really spent-on credit.

To bastardise a speech from the book, this story is not without merit, not without interest, not without grace; yet I was pleased to reach its conclusion.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

First Love by Ivan Turgenev

For my second of the Art of the Novella series, my daughter selects Turgenev’s First Love. This is good, I am on surer ground with Turgenev than Melville. I consider the short stories in Sketches from a Hunter’s Album as among the finest and Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands the most perfect of that collection.

In First Love Turgenev writes with an artful simplicity, despite the slightly fusty Constance Garnett translation. Sixteen year old Vladimir falls hopelessly in love with twenty-one  year Zinaida, daughter of a diminished aristocratic family. With the self-possession of a twenty-one year old beauty, Zinaida, flirts effortlessly with Vladimir, playing him off against a contingent of fervent admirers. Suddenly her gaiety turns to wretchedness – as Vladimir (and the reader) decipher who has captured Zinaida’s love, Turgenev misdirects the reader and leads his story to a shocking ending. Full appreciation of the viciousness of the penultimate chapter, as so often with stories of this period, requires attentive reading. A few words conceal a lot of detail.

It is a weaker tale than those in Sketches, though just rescued from sentimentality by those last two chapters. I’ve never been able to decide whether I prefer Turgenev or Dostoyevsky, on this reading my vote is tipping in favour of the latter.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

After reading Submergence, with its watery thematic base, it is mildly amusing that a random selection from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series yields Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, a maritime adventure. Maritime is not a genre of the literary ecosystem I find seductive, but I found Melville’s story absorbing, though assuaged by its mere one hundred and twenty four pages.

A fictionalised account of a real event, Benito Cereno tells of a slave insurrection on a ship travelling in South America. The captain of an American merchant ship, Amasa Delano, boards to assist what he considers a ship in distress after illness, bad weather and probable incompetence. Delano discerns, but continually misreads, a more macabre misery. Understanding more than the captain, we observe and participate in his unease.

Melville’s tale has more of the quiet horror of a Edgar Allen Poe story, rather than the swashbuckling of Horatio Hornblower (this is an assumption, I have no direct knowledge of Hornblower). It was Dore’s Ancient Mariner etching that kept coming to mind.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

Submergence begins in a rathole where a man is confined by jihadists. The Englishman, James More, hears the Indian ocean and relives icy showers taken in his house in Nairobi. Eleven thousand miles away, an eventual ferry ride across the Mediterranean Sea, a biomathematician, Danielle Flinders travels to a sumptuous hotel on the French Atlantic coast. In his incarceration, James, descendant of Thomas More, recalls his chance encounter with ‘Danny’, whilst she prepares for a journey to the depths of the Greenland Sea, seeking the origins of life.

Like any truly accomplished work of fiction, Submergence defies genre: part love story, part adventure but much else. The author is unafraid of digression, meditating on morality and phenomena of the physical world. My notes on references to seek out, from the first twenty three pages alone, cover Stygian crypts; the Somalian city of Kismayo and the Norwegian county of Finmark; the Kaaba (Islam’s holiest building); a Nabokov quotation; how Nairobi acquired the name ‘Nairobbery’; the identity of Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar (fifth Qajar king of Iran); Ibsen and Mark Twain references; the wonderful, allegorical narrative poem Piers Plowman, and a Czeslaw Milosz quotation. That may sound exhausting, but the author’s skill is to demonstrate the complexity of a character, a person; not just an intelligence operative, but also an admirer of Donne’s poetry  and of Norse mythology.

Water glides through the narrative, thematically linking the settings and characters, from the dry water pipe in the Somalian rathole to the turbid waters that greet Danny’s arrival at the hotel. The story begins with water, and concludes the same way. Early in the story, Danny says:

‘We exist only as a film of water,’ she said. ‘Of course, this goes against the religion of the Garden of Eden and the canon of political documents ending with the international law of the sea which promote the primacy of man on the planet. Just take a look at it,’ she said, running the pencil over the lines and curves. ‘We’re nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness. Any study of the ocean and what lies beneath it should serve notice of how easily the planet might shrug us off.’

Within the two-hundred page book are surprises, even a single Sebaldian picture of Hugo Simberg’s The Wounded Angel. It’s a strange, beguiling and brave book, highly recommended. I am very grateful that Nicole made me aware of the book’s existence, and will read Ledgard’s Giraffe later in the year.