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Pierre Or The Ambiguities

Pierre Or The Ambiguities (Paperback) by Herman Melville

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From Library Journal

This was Melville's 1852 follow-up to the then flop Moby Dick. His publishers, fearing they had another failure on their hands, forced Melville to make additions to the text before they'd publish it. Melville later referred to the original, shorter version as his "kraken" book. Editor Parker has here restored the psychological novel to Melville's intended form. The text is buttressed with 30 full-color illustrations by Maurice Sendak. For serious literature collections.

Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.-This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Contemporary Review

Yet another negative contemporary American review of a Herman Melville work from the November 1852 issue of The American Whig review


5 out of 5 stars Bad, Bizarre and Brilliant, February 17, 2000

By A Customer

This review is from: Pierre, or The Ambiguities: Volume Seven, Scholarly Edition (Melville) (Paperback)

Pierre is perhaps the strangest novel of all time: bizarre, to say the least, but brilliant in its extravagence. At a minimum, it is one of Melville's central novels that deconstructs the entire myth of pre-war American society in its explorations of incest, patricide and psychosis. It is almost inconceivable that Melivlle really believed that it would be popular (which he did), for it shows the impossibility of writing as an American author, the impossibility of originality, and the impossibility of self-reliance. Beware: it is not for the faint of heart. It is demanding, relentlessly challenging, and very rewarding.

5 out of 5 stars Memorable and Disturbing, April 5, 2000

By Padma Thornlyre "padmat2" (Evergreen, CO United States)

This review is from: Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)

It's been since grad school, in the early 80s, that I last read Melville's "Pierre", yet it's stuck to my ribs ever since. I recall a quote from Freud, that he ventured nowhere that a poet hadn't preceeded him, and I have to wonder if he had this unfortunately obscure masterpiece in mind. For Melville examines themes of psychology and sexuality as no other writer before him...excepting perhaps the Pagan mystics of old Europe. "Pierre" brilliantly illuminates the darknesses of the human psyche, those tunnels and strange rooms few of us ever explore, lest we be artists and therefore honest and courageous enough to sacrifice our egos. Melville considered "Pierre" his most important work, a suitable novel to follow "Moby Dick" (justifiably considered by many THE great American novel). Yet I find "Pierre" more moving, because more tragic, than "Moby Dick"--Ahab is obsessed and while his obsessions mixed with his intelligence make him complex, he is clearly one-dimensional in his drive. Pierre, however, is drawn by instincts which defy his conscious realization, by desires which emanate from the dark belly of humanity and therefore can't be seen. Ahab wants revenge; Pierre wants fulfillment. For a landlocked person such as myself, "Pierre" is also an easier read: no boggling display of nautical terminology to refer to on every page. Yeah, Freud was right: he owed a great deal to the poets...and while, technically, Melville was more storyteller or novelist than poet, here is a poetry there that's unmistakeable. Embrace this book, and embrace the spirit of the great man who possessed the courage to write it.

5 out of 5 stars Adultery, incest, madness, murder, and suicide--all in "a narrative nervous breakdown", April 29, 2006

By D. Cloyce Smith (Brooklyn, NY) (TOP 500 REVIEWER)    

This review is from: Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)

"Pierre" is perhaps Melville's most difficult and challenging novel--and that's saying something. Despairing over his inability to support his family, Melville began writing a book designed to be popular--a counterpoint to the sensational novels written and read by contemporary women, using inspiration from French romances and even from Hawthorne's novels. Wavering between psychological melodrama and social satire, Melville ultimately increased the book's length by half again, incorporating his rage against the literary world by adding a subplot about a young man's desperate struggle to become a writer.

The stumbling points for most readers are the novel's opaque prose, the "thees and thous" of its antiquated dialogue, and the labyrinthine hodgepodge of a plot. But the density is broken by colloquial asides, sparkling sarcasm, and an occasional passage that approaches Dickensian mirth, such as Melville's description of the "Preposterous Mrs. Tartan!" and her undercover attempts to play matchmaker between Pierre and her daughter: "Once, and only once, had a dim suspicion passed through Pierre's mind, that Mrs. Tartan was a lady thimble-rigger, and slyly rolled the pea."

Behind the mask of the prose, however, is a modernist--even scandalous--story of a young, somewhat deluded man whose nihilistic descent leads to his destruction. Engaged to Lucy Tartan, Pierre adores his mother (their make-believe brother-sister relationship is almost creepy in its amorous undertones) and worships the memory of his long-dead father. This idyllic world is shattered by a missive from a woman, Isabel, who claims to be his half-sister--a claim supported by a more-than-passing resemblance to a portrait of his father. Complicating matters are his romantic feelings for this alleged half-sister.

Convincing himself that he is choosing honor over duty, he breaks off his engagement and flees to Manhattan with Isabel, taking along a local woman who had been disgraced by an out-of-wedlock tryst. Disowned by his mother and cut off from his family fortune, Pierre finds shelter for this odd trio among bohemian neighbors in a dilapidated part of town. His finances slowly evaporating, Pierre struggles to support them by writing a novel. And then, just when the plot can barely handle another twist, his estranged fiancee Lucy shows up at their doorstep.

To go any further would spoil the fun for the reader. Yet even such a basic plot summary omits some memorable and extraordinary scenes and sketches: his first meeting with Isabel, the near-riot that greets them during their first night in Manhattan, the eccentric philosopher who refuses to put his scholarly brilliance into written form.

Adultery, incest, madness, murder, and suicide--all the ingredients of a bleak nineteenth-century melodrama are wrapped in archaic language and modern themes. In her life of Melville, Robertson-Lorant calls "Pierre" "a narrative nervous breakdown" that is a "minefield" for biographers. It's also a goldmine; in no other work does Melville more clearly ridicule his critics, his friends and family, and even himself. The weird universe of "Pierre" is not the place to start if you've never read Melville, but it's certainly where you should go if you want better to understand his life and works.

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