Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Melville: A Novel by Jean Giono

This is a literary oddity that I got as a Christmas present. Giono, a respected novelist who I had not heard of before this was brought to my attention earlier this year, and a friend fell in love with Moby Dick and translated it into French. The publisher asked Giono to write an introduction, and instead he wrote this novella with a fictional version of Melville as the protagonist. It’s a fascinating idea that is a little bit of a mixed but mostly positive bag for me on first reading.

Some of this is pure fantasy, and some of it is probably based on actual events, but until I read a biography I don’t know how much of the realistic points actually happened. The book begins with what reads like literary criticism but then transitions into an imagined version of Melville’s trip to visit his English publishers to deliver the manuscript of White-Jacket. Along the way he is visited by an angel and wrestles him like Jacob. In the process he becomes dissatisfied with the seafaring adventures he’s been writing. While in England he meets a woman (who runs contraband wheat to the Irish during the famine as England watched them starve!) and between her and the angel decides to aim higher. When he gets back to America he writes Moby Dick.

I really love some of the language, and, obviously, the appreciation for Moby Dick. There are some really beautifully written passages here, especially a speech by the wheat smuggler. Writers writing about writers can get old fast. But if you’re going to write a book about an author literally wrestling with an angel on the way to literary greatness, it’s less onanistic not to write it about yourself (at least not directly). For some reason this didn’t completely land for me. Then again, neither did Moby Dick the first few times I tried. I may like this more on a second pass, and I’m certainly open to reading more of Giono’s work. But for now, it’s a mild recommendation.


Gifts and Everything Else 2020 47/35

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