Monday, December 8, 2014

Book Review: Billy Budd

c. 1888-91, by Herman Melville (published posthumously in 1924)

About a year and a half ago I DVR’d 1962’s Billy Budd to watch while the ladies were all vacationing down south for the week.  The black-and-white semi-classic was adapted from Melville’s story by Peter Ustinov and starred a very young and blond General Zod (Terence Stamp) as the simple-hearted sailor Billy and a grizzled Robert Ryan as Mr. Claggart, Billy’s antagonist.

I was very, very pleasantly surprised.  The movie was – great.

Though the plot is simple, the mental and moral conundra it brings about are complex.  Taking place on a British royal man o’ war sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century, military discipline is both strict as well as necessary in an era where the Crown is confronted by several mutinies.  In a scene rife with symbolism, Billy is sort of “eminent domain”-ed off a commercial vessel (named The Rights of Man) to fill a vacancy on Captain Vere’s Bellipotent.  Within a few weeks our young lad has won over the new crew and command (and even Vere himself) with his innocence, good humor, and sense of wonder.  All, except, for Master-at-Arms Claggart.  This antagonist brings up false charges of sedition against poor Billy, and both are hauled to Captain Vere’s cabin.  Nervous under the captain’s questioning, unable to defend himself rationally, Billy lashes out at the untrue accusations and strikes Claggart.

Who falls to the deck, dead.

Billy killed an officer.  That’s a hanging offense.  But the officer was lying.  Should never have brought false allegations to his superior.  The quandary: What to do with Billy …

The rest of the story teases out this ethical Gordian knot.

A week or so ago, I tried my hand at Melville’s novella.  And I finished it quicker than I thought – two days, I believe, to navigate nineteenth-century New English prose.  (Side note: Back in 1999, during a first summer vacation with my future wife, I brought Moby Dick with us to Cape Cod.  And struggled through the darn thing long after the vacation was over.  Think it took me two months.  Was expecting more of the same, and wasn’t disappointed.  Read on!)

Melville’s writing style to this modern ear is dense and meandering.  His arsenal includes words whose meanings themselves have meandered over the decades since first inked on to paper.  Poor Hopper found himself having to re-read sentences and paragraphs again and again as his mind meandered.  He – I mean, me, er, I – I would lose the main idea of any given sentence by the time I reached the conclusion of said sentence.  And this went on and on and on.

Fortunately, I had seen the movie.  So I knew what was going on.  And the movie was great.  Ergo, it is a good idea to see the movie before reading the book.  Got that, high school English students?

The movie fleshed out the conflict between Claggart and Billy with much more depth.  Subsequently, the consummation of Claggart’s report against Billy in front of Captain Vere was more shocking (though still effectively written in the novella).  As was Billy’s response.  The wrenching debate on Billy’s Fate between Vere and his lieutenants is dramatized quite effectively, and the movie spent a great deal more on it, if memory serves me correctly, than the novella does.  However, I felt the ending of the film a bit more cheesy, having a studio-execs-demands-Billy-get-avenged-via-the-death-of-Captain-Vere feel to it.  The novella was more satisfying, having a trio of codae, none of which gives definitive closure to the affair, but that sat all right with me.

A big mystery in the novella (not sure if it’s the mystery or just a mystery) is Claggart’s rationale.  If you’re the type of person who needs to have things explained, the movie may be a better fit for you.  For the novella leaves his motivations absolutely, puzzlingly, and antagonizingly hidden.

Grade: B.  

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