A couple of days ago I finished The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and I’m still trying to figure out what just happened to me. Not long before, I’d read Moby-Dick, and that of course was overwhelming as well, but I knew what to expect, having read it already (though not since college). About The Confidence-Man I knew only that it was Melville’s last novel and that it had been very poorly received (one New York review was headlined “Herman Melville Crazy”). Having put down Pierre, equally unwelcomed, after only a few chapters, I was quite prepared to do the same here; instead, I found myself gripped from the first sentence (“At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis”). Mind you, I can understand why readers had trouble with it, then and now: it has no plot and no real characters, just a procession of scenes in which one participant tries to extract money or goods from one or more others, unfailingly appealing to the need for people to have confidence (the word recurs on every page, with increasing force), and it presents the passengers on “the favorite steamer Fidèle” — and by extension all Americans, and by further extension all of humanity — as either fools or conmen, and who wants to think of themselves as either? But I gobbled it up avidly, and as I went I started making marginal lines by more and more passages. Here’s one from Chapter 21:

“And who of my sublime species may you be?” turning short round upon him, clicking his rifle-lock, with an air which would have seemed half cynic, half wild-cat, were it not for the grotesque excess of the expression, which made its sincerity appear more or less dubious.

“One who has confidence in nature, and confidence in man, with some little modest confidence in himself.”

“That’s your Confession of Faith, is it? Confidence in man, eh? Pray, which do you think are most, knaves or fools?”

“Having met with few or none of either, I hardly think I am competent to answer.”

“I will answer for you. Fools are most.”

“Why do you think so?”

“For the same reason that I think oats are numerically more than horses. Don’t knaves munch up fools just as horses do oats?”

“A droll, sir; you are a droll. I can appreciate drollery—ha, ha, ha!”

“But I’m in earnest.”

And from later in the chapter:

“How can he find it lonely,” returned the herb-doctor, “or how desire a companion, when here I stand by him; I, even I, in whom he has trust. For the gulling, tell me, is it humane to talk so to this poor old man? Granting that his dependence on my medicine is vain, is it kind to deprive him of what, in mere imagination, if nothing more, may help eke out, with hope, his disease? For you, if you have no confidence, and, thanks to your native health, can get along without it, so far, at least, as trusting in my medicine goes; yet, how cruel an argument to use, with this afflicted one here. Is it not for all the world as if some brawny pugilist, aglow in December, should rush in and put out a hospital-fire, because, forsooth, he feeling no need of artificial heat, the shivering patients shall have none? Put it to your conscience, sir, and you will admit, that, whatever be the nature of this afflicted one’s trust, you, in opposing it, evince either an erring head or a heart amiss. Come, own, are you not pitiless?”

“Yes, poor soul,” said the Missourian, gravely eying the old man—”yes, it is pitiless in one like me to speak too honestly to one like you. You are a late sitter-up in this life; past man’s usual bed-time; and truth, though with some it makes a wholesome breakfast, proves to all a supper too hearty. Hearty food, taken late, gives bad dreams.”

From the magnificent Chapter 22, “IN THE POLITE SPIRIT OF THE TUSCULAN DISPUTATIONS”: “Sorry, sorry. But truth is like a thrashing-machine; tender sensibilities must keep out of the way.” From Chapter 24: “‘Ah, now,’ deprecating with his pipe, ‘irony is so unjust: never could abide irony: something Satanic about irony. God defend me from Irony, and Satire, his bosom friend.'” From Chapter 29: “And I return you the pledge, Charlie, heart-warm as it came to me, and honest as this wine I drink it in” (followed immediately by “Talking of alleged spuriousness of wines…”). And the opening of Chapter 33 (“WHICH MAY PASS FOR WHATEVER IT MAY PROVE TO BE WORTH”):

But ere be given the rather grave story of Charlemont, a reply must in civility be made to a certain voice which methinks I hear, that, in view of past chapters, and more particularly the last, where certain antics appear, exclaims: How unreal all this is! Who did ever dress or act like your cosmopolitan? And who, it might be returned, did ever dress or act like harlequin?

Strange, that in a work of amusement, this severe fidelity to real life should be exacted by any one, who, by taking up such a work, sufficiently shows that he is not unwilling to drop real life, and turn, for a time, to something different. Yes, it is, indeed, strange that any one should clamor for the thing he is weary of; that any one, who, for any cause, finds real life dull, should yet demand of him who is to divert his attention from it, that he should be true to that dullness.

I could go on, but you get the picture: this is not a novel that respects either conventions or the fourth wall, it is very much a novel of ideas, and the main idea is one that cannot but be repugnant to persons of good, open, honest natures and tender sensibilities. On the other hand, I cannot but wonder if there are not fewer such persons than there are cracked up to be. At any rate, if you enjoyed the excerpts above, I can pretty much guarantee you will enjoy the novel, and it’s available for free in various formats from the good folks at Project Gutenberg, in whom you may have the utmost confidence. And if you would like to read a more thoughtful analysis, I offer you — again, absolutely free! — this fine essay by our own John Emerson.

Two final thoughts:

1) The novel could be taken as an extended gloss on Pushkin’s famous lines from the fourth chapter of Eugene Onegin (I give Nabokov’s translation):

Кого ж любить? Кому же верить?

Кто не изменит нам один?

Whom, then, to love? Whom to believe?

Who is the only one that won’t betray us?

2) The book that kept coming to mind as I read was Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (see this post). DeWitt, like Melville, was coming off a Great American Novel of tremendous scope and complexity that didn’t do as well as it should have, and like him, she produced a follow-up that was less sprawling, more focused, superficially more approachable. Both novels could be described by the phrase I used of DeWitt’s, “a scathing but increasingly funny satire of American culture,” and both are told in a genial narrative voice that sucks you into the ever stranger goings-on being recounted. And both made me laugh heartily and often. Go thou and do likewise.

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