Melville: A Novel
by Jean Giono (Pour saleur Melville, 1941)
translated from the French by Paul Eprile (2017)
NYRB Classics (2017)
108 pp

It’s a daily topic: how do we separate an author’s biography from an author’s fiction. When he wrote his introduction to his translation of Moby-Dick, Jean Giono appears to have considered any such exercise futile and decided not to even bother. Indeed, taking advantage of whatever wide parameters the publisher set for the introduction, Giono decided to inject as much additional fiction as suited his purposes, producing this gloriously strange non-introduction to the historical man but instead serving, for those who have the patience for the game, as a fun exploration of how we internalize stories — in this case Melville’s tales of adventure and existentialism — and how that heady mixture of our own lives and the narratives we read works in our brains to form our view of an author, the author’s work, our existence.

Naturally, when we fall in love with an author’s work, we reverse engineer that author. This is one reason why I really don’t like to meet living authors; because they are not me and my experience, they are not the author of the book I’ve read. This is perhaps emphasized when we read classic authors, digging into works from a hundred years or more prior, works that still speak to us, and we think the author is with us:

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.

And so, Giono understanding this, forgoes all but the slightest bits of historical detail and skips to the chase. Here is another book called Melville, and it will be just as fictional and true, from Giono’s perspective, as Melville’s other works.

The basic set up here is this: the author Herman Melville has arrived in London to meet with British publishers to discuss his fifth book, White-Jacket. However, events transpire that keep him stuck in England longer than he’d hoped, so he takes a trip across England. This leads him to Adelina White, a woman involved in the fight for Ireland’s independence. One thing leads to another, and finally to Melville’s world-class masterpiece, Moby-Dick. It’s a crazy story, with only the slightest foundation in historical fact. For example, Adelina White? She doesn’t exist. Not really. Yet, we cannot fail to recognize that the metaphorical meaning she possesses (just look at her last name) is a real aspect of what a reader — in particular (this is a bit of a personal essay as well) Giono himself — might think about when they think about Melville’s work, in particular Moby-Dick.

With this fictional account of Melville’s life leading up the desperate need to write Moby-Dick, and then going in a few pages to Melville’s death, Giono was not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. He let’s us in on the game right at the start. Here’s how he opens his introduction:

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.

And there are many other fantastical things that remind us that we cannot and are not expected to trust that any of what we’re reading is historical truth. It’s perception and metaphor: “Yes, the world is nothing but what we make of it.”

Now, to get perhaps even stranger, perhaps my favorite part of this book is Giono’s introduction to his own introduction. This is a place where, in a few pages, he talks about sitting down to translate Moby-Dick, a book that had a major impact on his inner world:

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. But at twilight, when darkness deepens our inner dimensions, this pursuit of mine, into which Melville drew me, became at once more general and more personal.

It’s a fantastic ode to the book, by extension to the author, and, under it all, to the way even a masterpiece read by everyone in the world feels not the least common but rather intimately one’s own.

Even during times of peace (and likewise, in the midst of war), there are tremendous struggles one wages alone. This tumult is silent for everyone else. You no longer need earthly oceans and commonplace monsters; you have your own private oceans and personal monsters.

Adding our private oceans and personal monsters to a work of fiction and then adding all of that to the author is exactly what Giono does and is, in the process, exploring here. I highly recommend it.

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