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PN Review 276
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This article is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

on ‘Billy Budd’
translated by Simon Pare, with an afterword by Jeffrey Meyers
Thomas Mann
Herman Melville, creator of Moby-Dick! The name of his story that we discover or re-discover here is only slightly different: it is ‘Billy Budd’. If someone asks me where in this volume of stories I lingered the longest and where my heart swelled the most, I must confess the modernity of my taste by answering ‘Billy Budd’. How wonderful it is, how enthralling – masterful, cheerfully serious, virile and pure, remorseless and yet ending in poetic reconciliation! It is a blessing that the villain, Master-at-Arms John Claggart, gets his comeuppance and is committed to the sea, albeit with full naval honours, before his victim, Billy, is put to death by hanging!

This author knows all there is to know about a seventy-four-gun British naval ship at the time of the French Revolution, which was also a period of dangerous riots and mutinies in the Royal Navy. He knows so much about the outer and inner lives of the crew and their officers that one can only admire such certain knowledge. Knowledge that is so precise, that is as factually exact as it is psychological, intuitive and requiring no study – the principal condition for any storyteller who wishes to make his mark.

These Anglo-Saxons know how to tell stories – with an assurance, an urgency and a lack of sentimentality that still leaves room for emotion, with a talent for gripping the reader that elicits all my admiration. The most astonishing thing is that they also produced the greatest dramatist of modern times. Melville’s novella bears some Shakespearean traits, namely ...

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