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Jean Giono’s Slim ‘Melville’ Belies the Depths Within

Giono's quirky tale about Herman Melville reminds us that fiction can help us better understand reality.

Anyone who is honest about their love of literature knows the best novels grab us not because of their technical quality or literary merit, but because they speak to us at a deeply personal level. They resonate with some inward dilemma with which we’re grappling, or present characters we feel we know; one’s waging struggles that mirror our own.

When French novelist Jean Giono set about writing an introduction to the French translation of Herman Melville’s

Moby Dick (a translation project he undertook with two colleagues), the deeply imaginative and impressionistic introduction turned into a novel of its own, later published in French in 1941 as Pour saluer Melville, and now available for the first time in English translation under the title Melville: A Novel. What was intended to be a few pages promoting the iconic whale tale to prospective readers turned into a remarkable fantasy of its own. Think of Hemingway trying to write an introduction to a translation of Crime and Punishment, and the result turning into The Old Man and the Sea.

The strange little novella has been described as a literary essay, or a “lyrical novel about Herman Melville”, as Edmund White writes in the introduction to Paul Eprile’s English translation. The novella opens in 1849 with Melville arriving in London to deliver an early novel to the publishers, and unravels into an entirely fictional and fantastical account of Melville’s subsequent journey across England, during which time he’s inspired to write his famous
Moby Dick.

It’s interesting to consider what Giono was trying to do with this novel. Much of it is entirely fictional and as White points out, even the character of Melville as portrayed by Giono is a far cry from the historical reality. Giono was enraptured by
Moby Dick when he read it, and the Melville he conjures for us is the fantasy he undoubtedly conjured for himself. He found a hero, and wants to share this idealized vision of Melville with us, much the way we all fantasize about what our favourite authors are like in real life, and hope they correspond to our lofty and often unrealistic dreams. Giono’s Melville is a suave, confident fellow, a stereotypically macho and extroverted, masculinist sailor who despises city ways and yearns to tramp out into the wild backhills of Wales in pursuit of a beautiful woman (in fact, White reminds us, Melville was an often shy bisexual frequently beset by existential torment).

Giono is trying to express a lot in this unusual little novella, much of it personal. In addition to sharing with readers his love for this fantasy Melville he’s conjured, the book chronicles Melville’s wrestling with the public pressure he feels to write a great book. Giono wrote this at a time when he, too, was feeling a pressure to transition from his successful and naturalistic novels to something greater on the literary scale of things. He superimposes this struggle onto Melville, who wrestles in Giono’s novella with the dismissal by literary critics of his popular and successful early works. This criticism is personified as an ‘angel’ with which Melville grapples throughout the book. Giono has Melville respond to these criticisms in a rant which spans several pages, and is probably the high point of the work:

“Are you saying I preach to fill my pockets? Yes, I do preach to fill my pockets. Everybody preaches to fill their pockets. I too have the right. But you just said the word “pockets,” and that bothers me. You knew it would, that’s why you said it. You know how to get at me, better than anyone else… But I don’t give a damn! However glorious it might be to bear the distinction of spending one’s whole life in horrible struggles… I don’t give a damn for that glory and I’ve had it up to here with that distinction! I have no desire whatsoever to be distinguished… Don’t ask angelic things of a man. I am a man, I want my slippers. I want to live: yes, to eat, drink, sleep. Sleep, do you hear? And afterward, let those who want to explain do the explaining. Me, I’ve done enough explaining. It’s someone else’s turn to go without sleep. I want to go out for a walk, I want to go fishing, I want to play a game of patience at my dining-room table. No one man has ever stopped the world from turning.”

Rarely has commercial success been so artfully defended.

The second half of the story deteriorates into a tepid romance (with an entirely fictitious Irish woman named Adelina White, whom Edmund White suggests was a reflection of Giono’s own paramour and muse, Blanche Meyer). In its early pages, it’s a romance of the sort that not only doesn’t make sense in this day and age but whose misogyny is also likely to offend. It eventually turns pleasantly and almost incomprehensibly mystical, offering some lovely symbolic imagery, but the point of it is this: she provides him the inspiration to write
Moby Dick. Giono’s Melville eventually discovers that great accomplishments (like the writing of Moby Dick) aren’t fulfilling in and of themselves, but only in relation to the things and people that inspire us to act.

Melville: A Novel is a strange little work whose scant hundred pages belie the surprising depth of the text. There’s a lot to plumb those depths for. Historical accuracy is not among its offerings, so don’t expect a biography of Melville. But it does pick up Melville’s themes of obsession and the struggle for greatness, as a reflection of Giono’s own personal grappling with these questions. The book doesn’t help us see Melville, but it helps us see the Melville that Giono dearly wanted us to see and love: a reflection of himself.

RATING 7 / 10