Monday, March 26, 2007

Sins of the Past, Redeemed

The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Read by Buck Schirner, Brilliance Audio, 1994

Nathaniel Hawthorne is commonly associated with his most famous work The Scarlet Letter, the exact nature of its fame I find a bit overblown. Often the best known book ranks highest in popular esteem because it really is the best work, and often it is the best known because it is the most accessible. Having not read the entire body of Hawthorne’s work, I can only say that I found the shorter, darker, later novel The House of the Seven Gables to be a far more gripping tale.

It might have been The Scarlet Letter’s well known story line or it might have been, for me, the rather obvious moral lesson Hawthorne sought to impress, but Seven Gables lacks the kind of preachy melodrama of its predecessor. Which isn’t to say that his pen is any less incisive or condemnatory of small town New England Puritanism. Consider this passage near the book’s beginning in which he unloads both barrels on men of the cloth and other such high society muckety-mucks:

Clergymen, judges, statesmen, — the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day, — stood in the inner circle round about the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived. If any one part of their proceedings can be said to deserve less blame than another, it was the singular indiscrimination with which they persecuted, not merely the poor and aged, as in former judicial massacres, but people of all ranks; their own equals, brethren, and wives.

It is in this way the author introduces his tale of a family blood feud cast down through the generations as each branch’s inheritance. Hawthorne was clearly fascinated by public professions of guilt and recriminations that echoed down through the years, and Seven Gables makes explicit reference to the witch trials and public executions and punishments to be found elsewhere in his work.

Matthew Maule, accused of witchcraft by his archenemy Colonel Pyncheon (for his land it is whispered by some), dies cursing the man, “God, God will give him blood to drink.” Seizing the land, the Colonel hires out the construction of his ancestral home on the property. Shortly after construction is finished, the Colonel is found dead, a gout of blood having poured down his face and into his beard.

Generations later, we catch up with the Colonel’s distant relative Hepzibah Pyncheon as her cash poverty (despite still living in the seven gabled home) has caught up with her. The renter she’s taken in, Holgrave, a daguerreotypist, doesn’t prove sufficient to keep her from starving and so, with the help of her recently arrived cousin Phoebe she contrives to run a small shop out of the front of the house. In this way, Hawthorne visits the family curse down through the generations to humble the Pyncheons into this mere commercial enterprise.

Thrown into this mix is the return from prison of Clifford Pyncheon who spent the last thirty years locked up for the alleged murder of his uncle. Adding one last stress point to he story is the clearly evil, clearly guilty Judge Pyncheon, a smooth snake who radiates malevolence and cunning. I’m not entirely sure why Hawthorne goes to such great lengths to indicate early on just who the villain of the piece herein is, but when you discover later just what his connection is to Clifford it won’t come as any particular surprise.

Hawthorne seems to have understood earlier (and perhaps better) than previous American authors just how much the past would rise up in the future of the nation, how the customs set down by the Puritans would echo throughout the decades, trembling the nights of generations to come; how the sins of the fathers became the sins even of the grandsons. How unfinished business in the Revolutionary War led to the Civil War, and how that conflict’s unresolved threads wound their way into the Civil Rights era and beyond.

And as sybaritic Clifford recuperates from his stint in the joint out in the Edenic backyard garden of the seven-gabled house among the blossoms, hummingbirds, bees, and all the pleasures of such a place, you know that the snake can’t be far away.

Compare this depiction of Clifford in his repose: “All his life long, he had been learning how to be wretched, as one learns a foreign tongue; and now, with the lesson thoroughly at heart, he could with difficulty comprehend his little airy happiness.”

With this fantastic insight: “Strength is incomprehensible by weakness, and, therefore, the more terrible. There is no greater bugbear than a strong-willed relative, in the circle of his own connections.”

And we see how in this drama that there are crimes between families as much as there are crimes within families. While we frequently invoke the external curse, it is the family’s internal evils who all too frequently damage them the most.

Throughout the novel there are a number of creepy threads involving the blood that seems to gush out of the mouths of the Pyncheon’s as in confirmation of the Maule curse, there are hallucinatory scenes involving hypnotism and recollections from the past, there are ghosts both real and metaphoric, and through it all is the scheming and manipulations of Judge Pyncheon.

Chapter Eighteen amazed me so much when I first listened to it, that I backed up and started it afresh just to marvel at the wonderful elasticity and suppleness of Hawthorne’s prose here. We circle around and around the idea, rather obvious at the chapter’s commencement, that Judge Pyncheon is dead, sitting in his chair, possibly murdered. The narrative discusses what plans he had for the day, how he could still make them; how he yet refuses to check his watch, to move his head or his hand in order to note the time; how his political cronies await him at a meal, then set to eating, believing he has been seduced by a rival faction; how the only sound in the room is the unsettling ticking of his watch as it pertinaciously moves along.

Having, in the previous chapter, followed Clifford and Hepzibah as they flee the house, she beset by a strange feeling of awful presentiment, he for the first time in years feeling free and unbound, we almost know before chapter eighteen has begun that death has come to the novel, the complication has truly and finally arrived. This chapter long sitting vigil, with its ironical tone, its curious narrative style, its peculiar metaphysical jests, is perhaps the most Melville-like section in anything by Hawthorne I’ve yet read; no surprise that it should be my favorite writing of Hawthorne’s.

How Hawthorne chooses to follow up this scene is an astonishing bit of narrative impudence, a previously minor character thrusting to the forefront in a most extraordinary manner.

To listen to The House of the Seven Gables after my dissatisfying re-encounter with The Scarlet Letter after so many years, I was thrilled to find that I didn’t in the end find Hawthorne almost as dull as I had in high school. Here, the author kept me on my toes with surprises in plotting and prose that was weird and remarkable in so many ways. I have often considered investigating more of Hawthorne’s writing, specifically his short stories, and with this entry into his oeuvre that’s just what I intend to do.

Buck Schirner’s narration was either so good it effervesced in the mind and has disappeared or it was so bad I’ve repressed all memory of it. At any rate, a month and a half after listening to the book, I can no longer honestly recall any particular element of his performance. Perhaps that, in and of itself, is its own damnation.

Brilliance Audio, the chuckleheaded company that presents books on CD in 99 tracks per disc here compounds their inability to quite grasp anything. As a single disc MP3 audiobook, Hawthorne’s 12 hour novel is broken up into 21 enormous tracks, the shortest of which is just over 20 minutes while the longest overtops an hour. I really can’t understand their system and why they imagine either method is helpful to their listeners. If there is any logic to their system, my only guess is that it involves making either option time consuming for online piracy, though that’s my best guess.

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