Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Passages of Herman Melville

I’ve just finished reading The Passages of Herman Melville by Jay Parini; a satisfying and entertaining read. This is a novel, not a literary biography, in which Melville’s life and thoughts are laid out in alternating chapters, one narrated in the third person and the other by his wife Lizzie. The narrative isn’t chronological which I found a bit confusing at first, but once used to the form, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Parini is at pains to remind the reader that this is a novel. He has played with what facts are known about Melville, rearranging, surmising and embellishing here and there to forge a rollicking good tale of seafaring, cannibalism, homoeroticism and creative angst. Of Elizabeth Shaw Melville, the author writes, ‘I should add that very little is known about Lizzie Melville, so I made her up.’ Quite tantalising really; Parini’s Lizzie is an opinionated woman who isn’t afraid to tell her allegedly violent husband when she doesn’t think much of his work. An educated and well-read young woman, captivated by Dickens (she met him when he paid a visit to her father), it’s hardly surprising she was swept away by the hirsute Melville, romantic sailor-cum-writer full of fresh tales of the South Seas. According to the author anyway - one has to keep reminding oneself that this is a novel.

The ending is rather sentimental but not so overdone as to please Dickens. And you kind of want Melville’s story to end as benignly as it can. It’s a sad fact that in his lifetime, he just wasn’t appreciated for the great writer he is. I can’t help feeling the book could do with some pictures though; one can never have too many pictures.

I am no book reviewer so have a look at Phillip Hoare’s review in the Guardian for the views of someone who knows what’s what in these matters. And read the book yourself.

Herman Melville is one of those writers who keeps popping up for me. I greatly admire his work though I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only read Moby-Dick and his short stories. It’s daft really because I’ve certainly appreciated what I’ve read. And it has inspired some of my images. The characters and stories are entertaining and intriguing, sometimes downright befuddling (take Bartleby for instance), but for me, it’s the language that really does it. It’s so vivid and poetically put together, but not in a flowery way. A line that comes to mind is one from Moby-Dick where Ishmael is describing death by whaling as ‘a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity’.

Melville appeals to all the senses as this passage from Redburn shows. The young Wellingborough Redburn muses on one of his father’s paintings.

‘Then we had several oil-paintings and rare old engravings of my father’s, which he himself had bought in Paris, hanging up in the dining-room.

Two of these were sea-pieces. One represented a fat-looking, smoky fishing-boat, with three whiskerandoes in red caps, and their trowsers legs rolled up, hauling in a seine. There was high French-like land in one corner, and a tumble-down gray lighthouse surmounting it. The waves were toasted brown, and the whole picture looked mellow and old. I used to think a piece of it might taste good.’

I can almost taste that chocolaty painting as I read the passage… Or is it toffee?

2011 started out as the Year of The House owing to the large number of domestic challenges to be faced. I think I’m going to add to that the task of becoming much better acquainted with Melville’s work. Here’s to 2011 – my own personal Year of Herman Melville.

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