My rating: 4 of 5 stars
20th-century French novelist Jean Giono is currently being introduced (or re-introduced by NYRB Classics) to American readers, and what better introduction than Giono’s bio-fantasia about Herman Melville, now translated by Paul Eprile? Melville was published in 1941 in France, and written in the wake of Giono’s own translation of Moby-Dick. The novella’s swelling, excitable style, and its conversion of description into philosophical speculation, are obviously inspired by Ishmael’s boisterous prose.
Giono does not tell Melville’s whole life story but only narrates one partially-invented episode. Melville traveled to England in 1849 to arrange for the publication of White Jacket, but Giono imagines a fanciful journey within this factual one: Melville, the child of a fastidious mother and freshly married to a somewhat conventional bride, is overcome with wanderlust in England and is moreover sick of writing marketable fiction. He gets himself outfitted in a sailor’s costume and sets out, half at random, on a voyage to the countryside.
Unlike the Melville of contemporary academe (and of another striking 20th-century French narrative, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail), Giono’s Melville seems entirely heterosexual; accordingly, he meets on the road and falls in love with Adeline White, a woman who is his intellectual and spiritual equal and who spends her time illicitly smuggling food to the starving Irish.
The above is about the extent of this short, lyrical novel as far as events go; the point is not a crowded plot but an examination of the desire to live a life consecrated to challenging the given and rising against the gods, whether in spirituality, art, or social life. According to Giono, the Biblical leitmotif of Melville’s life is his “battle with the angel”:
He never breathed a word of it to anyone. But plenty of times, since he came back from the sea, he’s locked again in secret tussles with the wing-bearer. While he’s been hunched over his manuscript, alone in his writing room, the angel has often leapt onto his shoulders from behind and grabbed hold of him. Grabbed hold of him with the terrible kind of grip that suddenly twists your neck a merciless sort of cruelty. Merciless: oh yes, no question about it! The cruelty that takes no account of weariness, of wants, of the right you have to live in peace. A right, after all, that you possess like everybody else: the right to live peacefully, while lying a little, ever so innocently, from time to time. Simply to live, to give up on grand resolutions, on yearnings for sacrifice, for self-denial, for things that are tough, things that are difficult to accomplish, things to which you have to drag yourself by the scruff of your own neck, things that wake you up in the night; to live like everybody else, with that great, complacent selfishness taught to us by all the churches and by all the powers that be; to travel the well-trodden roads, to hold the key to all the unbarred doors in everybody else’s stairwells and corridors, to everybody else’s bedrooms (short of venturing into the bedroom of Henry VIII…). To live, with one’s wife, one’s house, one’s garden, one’s modest job.
And Adeline, while not an artist, denounces the reductionism of economic theories and preaches an anti-calculus of love:
“Humans are the weakest creatures in the word because they’re intelligent. Intelligence is, by definition, the art of turning a blind eye. If you want to remedy an ill, you can’t turn a blind eye. For me, in this instance (choose your own, according to your nature), it’s a twenty-year-old boy who’s dying of starvation. He was born to live and to love.
“No dying person behaves better than someone who’s starving to death: He doesn’t speak, doesn’t moan…he dies without making a fuss, lying on the ground….And most of the time he hides his face, as though he were ashamed. To him you can turn a blind eye the most easily. But have the courage (or the sentimentality, if you like) to lift that head up and look at that face, and you’ll say to yourself: This man has to eat. He has to eat immediately.
“Then you won’t think anymore about selling. You’ll think about giving.”
To use the language of Melville’s Pierre, Giono’s hero and heroine are chronometers rather than horologes, keeping heaven’s time on earth while everyone else, whether in church or government, in marriage or at work, is just punching the clock. Both Melville and White (the reader of Moby-Dick will catch her surname’s significance) are inspired in their ecstasies by the abundant example of nature, as Giono remarkably recreates the rolling landscape as only a slower sea.
Melville is a strange, buoyant little novel, one seeking to escape the spirit of its own grim time and place (Europe, 1941) in quest of a more hopeful and energetic age (Europe and America in the age of democratic upheaval)—even if, as at the novel’s end, Melville’s own hopes for love and art are, after Moby-Dick, shipwrecked.