AUGUST 27, 2017
READERS HAVE ALWAYS had a hard time sorting out Herman Melville’s life from his fiction. When his first novel Typee, based on his actual experiences on the Polynesian island of Nuku Hiva, was published in 1846, it was an immediate success, and it remained his most widely read work during his life. But, to the author’s frustration, the majority of critics, publishers, and readers refused to believe that Melville based Typee on fact. Even as he added chapters and supplementary material to make the story seem more accurate, audiences persisted in regarding it as a “Romance of Real Life.” To Melville’s contemporaries, his very life was fiction.
Melville may well have rolled over in his grave, then, when, half a century after his death, Jean Giono published Pour saluer Melville. In the book, Giono blends Herman Melville’s life through the genres of personal essay, literary criticism, and biographical novel, relishing the possibility that our understanding of an author might largely be an effect of that author’s fictional creations. This September, NYRB Classics has published an English translation (by Paul Eprile) of Giono’s book as Melville: A Novel. The book’s English title might be a more accurate depiction of how we understand the American author. To his posthumous readers, Melville has always been more a “novel” than a person. While this could be said of any author, Melville’s case is intensified by the fact that he burned most of his letters, and after his death, his papers or library were not preserved by an institution. In the absence of historical documentation, Giono sidesteps factual questions. While he takes Melville’s life as his ostensible subject matter, what he really seeks to understand is how we read Melville. While we can never reach a direct understanding of the author’s life, Giono illustrates how an author’s artistic output enriches and illuminates his life, in ways that historical facts cannot provide.
Giono wrote Melville as an accompaniment to the first full French translation of Moby-Dick, which, he writes in the book’s opening pages, “My friend Lucien Jacques and I began […] on November 16, 1936 and finished on December 10, 1939. But long before I embarked on this project, for at least five or six years,” he goes on, “Melville’s book was my foreign companion.” Typically, Giono pays closer attention to the particulars and dates of his own translation and reading than he will to the factual details of Melville’s life. His only access to Melville is through literature, so he subsumes historical facts under the details of his “project” of reading and translation. He describes these acts of reading almost as a literal substitute for living the life of Melville or one of his characters:
As soon as I entered those vast, wavelike but motionless solitudes, I’d sit down under a pine and lean against its trunk. All I needed was to pull out this book, which was already flapping in the wind, to sense the manifold life of the seas swell up below and all around me. Countless times, I’ve felt the rigging hiss over my head, the earth heave under my feet like the deck of a whaler, and the trunk of the pine groan and sway against my back like a mast heavy with wind-filled sails.
Lifting my eyes from the page, I’ve often thought Moby-Dick was breaching right in front of me, beyond the foam of the olive trees, in the boiling waters of the big oaks.
In Melville: A Novel, Giono reads and writes his way into Melville’s experience. The details of the book come not from correspondence, journals, or other historical materials but rather from the fictional adventures that Melville depicted. The book’s plot is fairly straightforward: Herman Melville travels to Great Britain to arrange the publication of White-Jacket (his fifth novel, just prior to Moby-Dick). After completing this task, Melville decides to explore the English countryside, where he meets the beautiful Adelina White (as in the color of Moby-Dick’s whale), a mysterious agent fighting for Irish independence. He falls in love with her; their romantic walks and conversations inspire Melville to produce his masterpiece, upon his return to the United States. After Moby-Dick’s publication, he awaits Adelina’s opinion of the novel, but never hears back. Her absence haunts him even on his deathbed.
Giono’s portrait of Melville diverges wildly from historical fact. As Edmund White notes in his introduction to the new NYRB edition, “Giono was the one with the big personality, and the character, ‘Melville,’ is his alter ego.” Pour saluer Melville was written during the onset of World War II, just after its author had been released from prison for “the crime of pacifism, which the French state condemned as ‘defeatism.’” In his preface, Giono frames Melville’s personal struggle in terms that reflect his own situation: “Even during times of peace (and likewise, in the midst of war), there are tremendous struggles one wages alone. This tumult is silence for everyone else.” His novel throws Melville into a similarly tumultuous Europe:
France has just been turned upside down by the events of 1848. Americans of all social classes share in the excitement of the French. It’s an all-consuming passionate affair. Everywhere in America, people are discussing it and debating it. Everything else is set aside, everything falls under its spell.
Giono creates a past version of his own political moment and turns to an excited and sympathetic American author, who he imagines as a literary and political companion across time. If Giono cannot overcome his actual political strife, Melville might at least do so in his imagination.
While the character Giono ascribes to Melville certainly matches his own, it also resembles many of Melville’s famous characters. Giono’s Melville shares the love of the sea that captivates Ishmael and Redburn: “From his infancy, boats and the sea had drawn him powerfully, like all potent draughts that lead to potent disorders.” Just like White-Jacket, he’s inquisitive and “takes a philosophical view” of strange occurrences like “kicks in the rear.” At the same time, he shares the tortured madness of Ahab and Pierre, in which obsession with the world’s deep mysteries becomes the precondition for their existence: “It’s inside of this mystery that his eyes have sight. It’s here that they fill with images. It’s here that they become tinged with bitterness and tenderness.” Giono goes so far as to assert that Melville’s fictions are, in fact, the truest expressions of his life: “His titles are, in reality, nothing but subtitles. The real title of each and every one of his books is Melville, Melville, Melville, again Melville, always Melville.” Likewise, Giono’s Melville is nothing but his books: Giono approaches “Melville” not as a historical personage, but rather as a literary text, or a collection of them.
Because the practical goal of Giono’s book was to introduce Melville to a French audience, he emphasizes his time across the Atlantic. While Melville is considered an American author, it’s notable that his first six novels take place almost completely outside the United States (often on the ocean). Giono expands Melville’s context, painting him as a transatlantic heir to Milton and Shakespeare. At the same time, he also expands Melville’s own influence, cementing his impact on French culture, which has been considerable. In the ’50s, Melville inspired the French avant-garde when his last novel The Confidence-Man was translated as Le grand escroc, and he received homages from figures like Jean-Jacques Mayoux and Jean-Luc Godard. In their recent Melville’s Philosophies, Branka Arsić and K. L. Evans note Melville’s influence on French philosophers including Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida. More recently, Melville has inspired such inventive adaptations as Leos Carax’s Pola X, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, and Jerome Charyn and François Boucq’s graphic novel Billy Budd, KGB.
Giono’s portrait of Melville is not without its flaws. He transforms Melville’s subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) homoeroticism into a burly Hemingwayish masculinity that brings out the most misogynistic aspects of his life. Ready to abandon the dull world of women on a whim, Giono’s Melville is a man’s man, with “formidable shoulders,” who drinks heavily, smokes, and struggles with his inner turmoil. When he arrives in London, he faces a minor crisis, as he prepares to dress for “English propriety.” Looking to the top hat that completes his costume, “[h]e couldn’t imagine he was going to put the thing on, especially with all the familiar sounds of a ship groaning and creaking around him.” Two images of masculinity confront each other, and Melville agonizes as he squeezes his sailor’s body into the outfit of a proper Englishman.
Traipsing around the English countryside, Herman finally meets the beautiful Adelina White. He is smitten. He encounters her voice first: “He really listened to it. This voice had soul. And the being reckless enough to have soul in our day and age, he thought, was a woman.” Giono never realizes her as a complete person. Rather, she provides the inspiration that Melville needs, and we know little of her life beyond that. In this regard, Giono shares a problem with his contemporary Melville scholars, who often disregarded the role that women played in Melville’s life, especially that of his wife Elizabeth, who supported his literary career throughout his life and after his death. In Giono’s one-dimensional portrait, the extent to which Melville cares for Adelina seems vague and patronizing: “For a woman of such distinction, the terrible thing is to be a woman, that is to say, a thing that’s pleasant to take possession of without worrying about painful consequences.” Melville initially desires to merely “possess” Adelina, and he’s largely successful. But he suffers from “painful consequences,” as he spends the rest of his life pining after the woman he left on the other side of the ocean.
When he returns to the United States (and his wife), he writes Moby-Dick. After he publishes the novel, Melville spends the rest of his life waiting for Adelina’s response, which never comes. Giono ends Melville’s life with a conversation between two of his nurses:
“Around six o’clock, I could tell it was coming. He was talking to himself. I asked him to explain: ‘What are you saying?’ He was asking whether we’d received anything from England. I said, ‘No, Mr. Melville, no, we haven’t received anything, don’t fret, sleep peacefully.’”
Melville’s last words are depicted indirectly, in the nurse’s voice, rather than his own. In her report, Melville transitions from “talking to himself” to putting his words in another’s custody. This nurse is the first biographer of Melville, marking the transition from the life Melville lived to the life we now narrate. This lineage stretches through Giono to Eprile, including all the Melvillean scholars, translators, and readers in between.
In reality, there was no Adelina White, but through this fictional creation Giono fantasizes that a brief, intense experience could inspire one of the most celebrated novels in American literature. This fantasy is hardly exclusive to Giono: it motivates the whole experience of reading Melville, or indeed any author. We posthumous readers understand Melville through novels like Moby-Dick that often accompany us for as brief a period as the fictional Adelina accompanied her fictional Melville. Isn’t this what reading is? We spend a week with a novel, it affects us greatly, and we feel we know its author better for it. It inspires us, and we respond with our own fictions, biographies, and translations. We spend the rest of our lives waiting for a response.