‘Melville: A Novel’ and Its ‘Foreign Companion’

Something of a paean to Herman Melville and Moby Dick, just reading Jean Giono's writing for its own sake is both different from what you might expect -- and delightful.

Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, first published in 1851, is a perennial choice whenever people get together to debate which books constitute the best of American literature. And why not? It’s got everything—adventure, philosophy, discourses on whaling—and is written in a style that can be best described as “superabundant”. Melville’s big, sprawling novel reflects the complexity of the big, sprawling country from whence it came, and today it’s both a staple of the English classroom and an icon of popular culture, cited as a key influence by writers as diverse as Ralph Ellison and Bob Dylan.

Given the canonical nature of Moby-Dick, it’s somewhat surprising that a French translation was not published until 1941, 90 years after the novel’s first appearance in English. This translation was the work of Jean Giono, a distinguished Provençal author, who worked on it with his French friend Lucien Jacques and the English antiques dealer Joan Smith. After completing the translation, Giono began writing what was meant to be an introduction to the novel, but which became so long it was published as a separate book in 1941. This introduction, Pour saluer Melville (“to greet Melville”) is now available in English as Melville: A Novel, translated by Paul Eprile and published by NYRB Classics.

Melville, running a compact 105 pages, can justifiably be described as both a short novel and a literary essay (the French edition describes it as “un essai“, which can be translated as “a trial” or “an experiment”). Readers expecting a straight biography of Melville, or a conventional analysis of his work, will come away disappointed, while those who are content to set aside categories for the moment and experience Giono’s writing for its own sake will discover something both different and delightful.

The story of Melville begins in 1849, as the main character, an American writer named Melville, journeys to England to meet with his publishers regarding his latest novel. His previous works include Typee, Omoo, Redburn, and Mardi, while the most recent one is named White-Jacket. Once his business is concluded, Giono’s Melville decides to journey to the English countryside, where he falls in love with a beautiful woman named Adelina White. Together, they take long walks and enjoy deep conversations, inspiring Melville to produce Moby-Dick two years later. After publication of Moby-Dick, he anxiously waits to hear from Adelina, but no communication is forthcoming, an absence that haunts him until his death.

The real Herman Melville did travel to London in 1849 to discuss publication of White-Jacket, and two years later he did publish his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Beyond that bare skeleton of fact, Melville is largely a work of fiction, a story in which Giono imagines what might have provided the inspiration that allowed Melville to write Moby-Dick. His fictional Melville includes some of Giono’s own traits while generally not reflecting what we know about the real Herman Melville. The real Melville was shy, taciturn, and possibly bisexual, with impaired vision due to a childhood illness, while Giono’s Melville is a self-confident, burly man who loves the countryside and prefers to wear sailor’s clothing rather than a formal suit. We know of no analogue to Adelina White in the real Melville’s life, but Giono did fall in love with a married woman named Blanche Meyer, so Adelina White’s surname may refer to the first name of Giono’s object of affection as well as the color of the whale pursued by Captain Ahab.

Giono is not exactly a household name in the United States, but maybe this short and accessible work will bring him to the attention of more readers. He’s well-known in the French speaking world for his novels, and was elected to the Académie Goncourt (a prestigious honor for writers in the French language) in 1954. Giono’s best-known works available in English translation include the short story “The Man Who Planted Trees”, the novels The Horseman on the Roof and Second Harvest, and the fictionalized memoir Blue Boy.

In his forward to Melville, Giono offers great insight into his feelings about Moby-Dick and its author. He refers to Moby-Dick as his “foreign companion” for several years before he began the translation, and to Ishmael as a “patrician hero” who accompanied him on long walks in the hills. Deep in the countryside, Giono writes, he needed only to open Moby-Dick to “sense the manifold life of the seas swell up below and all around me” and to feel “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.” After darkness fell and he began the journey home, Giono says could feel himself becoming Melville, clothed in the skin of his imaginary companion as if by a giant overcoat.

Giono shared his enthusiasm for Moby-Dick with Lucien Jacques, and soon the process of translation became their “mutual dream”, guided by a principle stated by Melville himself: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” That’s the best description of the literary style of Moby-Dick that one could ask for, and it also lends insight to this short and interesting literary work inspired by Melville’s novel.

The NYRB edition of Melville also includes an introduction by Edmund White, who analyzes the place of Melville within Giono’s career, explores similarities and differences between the lives of Giono and Melville, and suggests some reasons this novel and its author may have held particular appeal for the Provençal novelist.

RATING 6 / 10