My introduction to Jean Giono last year, when New York Review of Books published Hill, was one of those moments when a half-known name exceeds all expectations, when an old voice sounds fresh and new, and when those first few pages suggest a long-term relationship. Impatiently moving onto another of his early novels, Second Harvest, I was delighted to discover that NYRB have a similarly enduring commitment to Giono, and have now released Paul Eprile’s translation of Melville (which will in turn be followed by his 1951 novel, The Open Road). As Edmund White points put in his introduction, Melville comes at a turning point in Giono’s writing life, as he moved away from his “Pan Cycle…works of an almost folkloric quality that highlighted his native Provençal landscape.” While this change may be related to the failure of Giono’s pacifism, Melville’s origins are particularly unusual as the novel began as an introduction to his own translation (alongside his friend Lucien Jacques) of Moby Dick. Instead it became an imaginative recreation of the author based on his reading of the book.

Melville begins strangely enough with the lines:

“In 1849, when Melville returned to America after a short stay in England, he had a strange item in his baggage. It was an embalmed head…but it was his own.”

It continues, however, with a summary of Meville’s biography, albeit in a style full of conversational interjections and imaginative interpolations – one in which Melville’s restless energy is echoed in the narrative voice. Giono focuses on Melville’s desire to escape to the sea, but where he is (unsurprisingly) particularly good is in his portrayal of Melville as a writer:

“For fifteen months, since he went to sea, he’d been wrestling with an angel. Like Jacob, he’s plunged into darkness and no dawn comes…He hasn’t a moment’s respite from the fight… He, Herman, wrestles with this dreadful angel who, by doing battle, illuminates the impenetrable mystery of the intercourse between humans and the gods. It’s inside of this mystery that his eyes have sight.”

It’s after Melville has dropped off the manuscript of White-Jacket with his publisher in London that the novel leaves his life behind and entirely enters Giono’s fantasy. Giono portrays Melville as a man who cannot live without adventure:

“…as long as there was the possibility of getting in discussion, in argument; as long as it should have been leading into something worthwhile, London was still bearable. But now – dark, soulless, noisy – he can’t stand it. What kind of trap had he fallen into?”

Dismissing his initial instinct to rebel by wearing a white top hat, Melville instead strikes up a conversation with the stable boy, asking him, “Supposing you had ten days of freedom to do whatever you liked, what would you do?” The stable boy’s answer, that he would visit his sweetheart, Jenny, in the village of Woodcut, is all Melville needs to begin an adventure. He acquires the appropriate costume, recreating the appearance of a sailor, a process which sees him feel alive once more:

“His heart was swelling again. Big, ferocious wings were starting to fan him furiously…”

This sense of adventure is inextricably linked to his inspiration:

“The battle with the angel has resumed. He always suspected it was only a truce.”

It seems likely that Giono sees something (or even everything) of himself in Melville, his attachment to the country echoed in Melville’s relationship with the sea. As Melville wrestles with his muse, we see Giono coming to terms with a change in his own writing:

“It’s up to me to devise my own compasses and my own rigging. In this game you set out either to win it all or lose everything… He’s no more a writer ‘of the sea’ than others are writers ‘of the soil’.”

The adventure of his coach trip is, of course, the adventure of a mysterious and beautiful woman, Adelina, as well as a brush with revolutionary politics. Though the plot is hardly complicated, it still feels as if everything moves at a breathless pace (perhaps partly because we spend a lot of time in the carriage). It is this relationship which gives him the inspiration, and motivation, to write Moby Dick.

This makes Melville one of the strangest pieces of literary criticism ever written. Whether it provides much insight into Moby Dick I cannot say (having never read it) but I suspect it is more revealing regarding Giono himself. Giono’s imaginative engagement with his subject is such, however, that it is impossible to resist.

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4 Responses to “Melville”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    I’d like to read something by Giono but I’ll probably read another one first.

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