The Happy Failure
 by Herman Melville

Harper Perennial Classic Stories 2009, Paperback
First collection? No.

Herman Melville (1819 - 1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet, whose work is often classified as part of the genre of dark romanticism. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick and novella Billy Budd, the latter of which was published posthumously.

"‘Well,’ said my smiling host, ‘what do you make of the Temple here, and the sort of life we bachelors make out to live in it?’ ‘Sir,’ said I, with a burst of admiring candor- ‘Sir, this is the very Paradise of Bachelors! "

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

Unless you are familiar with the work of Herman Melville, this short story collection may seem tedious at times, with stories ambling very slowly, though Melville writes with aplomb and conviction. His characters, largely male-dominated, who are sinking in one way or another and grasp at hope on their way down, are ineffably characterized.

In Cock-a-doodle-doo! our character is suffering the strain of poverty, and sees all around him its effects. While trudging through the countryside he hears a cock crow louder than the rest and is perfectly amazed by the tenacity of its call all through the day. He becomes obsessed to the point of distraction by this bird whose owner he eventually finds and offers money he can’t afford. It’s a strange story, written with ecstatic reverie and reaches an unforeseen climax.

In The Two Temples a man is thrown out of the church because he is poor but finds solace in another country:
"Quickly was my wandering mind- preternaturally affected by the sudden translation from the desolate street to this bewildering and blazing spectacle- arrested in its wanderings…"
The man finds charity in an unlikely place and again narrates a tale brimming with joy and praise.

The Paradise of Bachelors is a dense, gothic story of Templars of London, all celibate bachelors. The narrator dines a great feast with them one evening:
    ‘Well,’ said my smiling host, ‘what do you make of the Temple here, and the sort of life we bachelors make out to live in it?’
    ‘Sir,’ said I, with a burst of admiring candor- ‘Sir, this is the very Paradise of Bachelors!'
Melville’s narratives are often punctured by such joviality that it’s hard not to smile at his ecstatic exclamations and descriptions.

Melville is a great narrator of place, and will describe a setting to its perfection, be it uncanny, dream-like, beautiful or ruined. The Tartarus of Maids is descriptive and takes the reader on a journey that feels eerie, to a paper mill; the machine there is almost personified as a mechanical beast. The workers are all "girls" or unmarried women who toil nearly every day of the year in the mill. The machine and the maids seem gothic and ethereal while Melville’s main character describes the place a "Devil’s Dungeon," perhaps in sympathy to the ceaseless work of the women and their difference to the Bachelors.

Sympathy and empathy are apparent in each of the characters he creates. I think that in Melville’s world he wanted equality and to create imaginative landscapes for his characters to live in and reveal their inequalities, and their most noble traits. There is scope for a new reader to enjoy these stories and grow accustomed to Melville’s style, which is gregarious and full of zeal.

In this particular edition, there is a bonus story by Alex Burrett, The Beast Of Beddgelert, chosen as an introduction to the new author. Already knowing the story, I was pleased there was a new slant in this new version. It is easy to see how Burrett fits in nicely with Melville, emphasizing every detail so that the reader does not get carried away by the story’s surface qualities. The characters are well developed, the descriptive prose arresting, and though a well-told tale it was enjoyable to read through a new writer’s eyes.

Read a story from this collection in 42Opus

Author of the book Patterns of Mourning by Chipmunka, Melissa Lee-Houghton writes poetry and short fiction most recently published in Succour and Tears in the Fence. She is currently taking part in a new Succour project online.

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David Gaffney "Aromabingo"

Elizabeth Baines "Balancing on the Edge of the World"

John Saul "As Rivers Flow"

Stephanie Johnson "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others"

Nicholas Royle (ed)"'68 Children of the Revolution"
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