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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

I used "ineffable" last week to describe Melville's character, Billy Budd. Why am I using this word again? I meant 'ineffable' for Billy in a sadly, ironic way. His tragic flaw was to stutter or be rendered mute. Billy needed words to defend himself against Claggart's accusations; and absent words, Billy only had his powerful fists.


This week, reading Death in Venice, how could I not mark Mann's phrase: "Tadzio's ineffably sweet look." And how could Thomas Mann not have thought of Billy Budd in relation to his own character: the beautiful, young, wordless Polish boy, Tadzio?


I first read Death in Venice in fall 1963 at USC. The course was contemporary German and French literature in translation, held in a large hall, two unapproachable German and French professors, who gave multiple blue book essay exams. None of this is important except that through this course I was introduced to Franz Kafka and Albert Camus.


Although intrigued with Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, I knew I did not understand this multi-layered story of an aging writer, Aschenbach, overcome by aridity and fatigue. The professor must have unriddled the puzzle of this artist/writer's nature. And I would have parroted his abstractions into my blue book, lauding the ideas, having recognized that Mann was a personal favorite of this professor. He provided more background on Mann than other writers, let us know Thomas had died eight years earlier in 1955, won the Nobel Prize for literature, openly wrote against fascism, had left Germany, come to the USA and lived here, though died in Switzerland. Then the mind had to store information, not depend on a hand-held device! -😊


This week I located my Penguin copy from the USC course and was surprised to see a work by J.M. Turner on the cover. This English artist had influenced Melville. I wonder if Herman in his travels went to Venice. I do know it became my desire to go there after I saw Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice in 1972. Earlier in college, I had not understood Mann's story, though it haunted me. I loved the film's overwhelming physical beauty and its detailed rendering of Venice in the early 1900s. Yet Visconti presented the German Aschenbach as homosexual, a man overcome with lust for the beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio. In 1963, this idea had not been discussed in the German professor's lecture. The story was about an intellectual author whose life had become dry and arid, who had begun to question his fame, his intellectuality, the nature of art. And because I had not read Mann's short work of fiction in any depth (and did not remember the professor's abstract analysis) I accepted Visconti's interpretation. His film mesmerized me with Venice's beauty; and I imagined my own journey there one day. More even than the visual beauty was the film's music. As beautiful and romantic as anything I had ever heard. I speak of Mahler's 5th symphony and the fourth movement, the adagio. Visconti made Aschenbach, the writer, into the musical genius, Gustav Mahler. Mann might have had Mahler in mind when he created Aschenbach, but he clearly made his character, a writer.


I reread Death in Venice twice this week. In Mann's telling of the story, no words are exchanged between the German artist/writer and the boy, Tadzio. I will read the story again and explain why, almost fifty years later, I question Visconti's interpretation of Mann's story.

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

I deeply admire Herman Melville's three brilliant B's: Bartleby, Benito, and Billy. Yet I love best of all, his last work of fiction, Billy Budd.

From 1866 to 1886, Melville worked as a customs inspector in New York City. This literary genius worked six days a week, earned at most four dollars a day, was offered bribes that he refused to take, had to pay some of his measly salary to the political party in power, found himself increasingly forgotten as a novelist, and wrote only poetry. But then, after his retirement in 1886, he began writing Billy Budd. It was unpublished at the time of his death in 1891, and remarkable for a tone and style distinct from Moby Dick.


Thomas Mann, the famous German writer, as he neared death, read Billy Budd. Mann called it "the most beautiful story in the world," even expressed a wish to have written this work of fiction. How the manuscript finally reached the hands of Columbia University's Raymond Weaver in the early 1920s is quite a story. The piecemeal manuscript given to Weaver reflected Lizzie Shaw Melville's help as Herman's scrivener. And yes, despite marital difficulties, Lizzie remained with Herman until his death, then re-established in her new lodgings, a room devoted to her husband, the writer. The original Billy Budd manuscript is in the Houghton Library at Harvard, with the comingled handwriting of Herman & Lizzie, along with excisions, insertions, pinned and pasted scraps, and Melville's "cryptic hand."


Although I read and "taught" Billy Budd (whatever that means) in the past, it seemed fitting at age 77 to read and reread the novel in an elegant 1993 edition from Easton Press. The book has a black leather cover accented in 22 kt. gold, archival quality paper with gilded gold edges, end-sheets of exquisite fabric, and a silk ribbon marker.

This was a Christmas gift from a dear friend in Sedona, Arizona, whose neighbor was having to drastically downsize and offered her his collection of Easton Press literary masterpieces. Carole knew I was working on a novel that involved Moby Dick, so she sent me her copy of Billy Budd & Benito Cereno. I looked on Abe Books and learned this edition is on offer for 179 dollars. Wisely, as I read both Benito and Billy, I made light pencil marks only!


The title page reads: Billy Budd, Sailor

An inside narrative.

What Befell him

in the year of the GREAT MUTINY.

Then at the bottom of the page:

Dedicated to Jack Chase, Englishman, wherever that great heart may now be, here on earth or harboured in paradise. Captain of the maintop in the year 1843 in the U.S. Frigate United States.


This Monday, June 7th, I say good-bye to Herman on my website, though I will continue to read Melville. For the past months he has been an emotional and intellectual force for me; and his three B's are true works of art, as is Moby Dick.

Next week: Thomas Mann's own Billy: Tadzio and Death in Venice

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Dear Bishop Tolliver: While your son creates a card for my daughter, Lucinda, I will try to say in a few words why he and I are in Retén La Planta in Caracas, Venezuela.


It is not the drug alone that drove our madness, our insane monomania to consume. The drug is an illusion that grips the mind at the height of its wondrous delivery, which if habitual, brings the fateful urge, one beyond all reason, to break society's usual restraints, sail over the edge, and drown in cocaine's flood gates. This in part is why your son Robert and I are imprisoned in Caracas. Yet please know as an Episcopal bishop and father, that your son's art and his spirit are godsends to so many of those incarcerated in this prison. This is something that speaks to the decency and goodness of your son, for which you can be deeply proud.


Release by Christmas. Claro que si! Bob and Nate

Here in La Planta, I have spent months reading Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. The narrator, Ishmael, survives the Pequod's fateful voyage under the mad and monomaniacal, Captain Ahab. But is Ishmael the same child-man-orphan at novel's end as he was in the beginning? I do not have an answer; and Melville offers no certainties. But I will say this. Your son and I will return home with a clearer view of who we are and what we value.

Men on shore gaze to sea. Men at sea gaze to shore. And men in prison stare through bars at the open sky. Many prisoners reflect on their folly and cruelty, and some realize that what the human heart wants is its chance to love. Bob and I are painfully aware of how we debased the chance given to us in our daughters. But as to why debasement should be so deeply desired and have sent us over the edge is an existential dilemma for which I have no answer. Who understands any human's descent into darkness, though the world of philosophers, theologians, historians, psychologists, and countless others have written and continue to write about the mysterious behavior of human beings?

I do believe this, Bishop Tolliver.

Bob and I will leave here as wiser men than we were at the time of our arrests. Please offer prayers that soon we and others will leave Retén La Planta; that international pressure on Venezuela will cause changes to the country's judicial and penal systems. Lastly, my personal thanks to you for contacting Lucinda and offering to help her in sending letters to me through the Canadian embassy in Caracas. With gratitude this May day of 1993, Nate Moore


Next week: Heartfelt thanks to Herman Melville for his last work of fiction, Billy Budd

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