A deeply peculiar homage to an American author by a French author writing a narrative that unfolds largely in the liminal landscape of England, Jean Giono’s Melville is a work of identification and projection, infatuation and imagination.
The book was prompted by a publisher’s request for a preface to Giono and Lucien Jacques’s translation of Moby-Dick; Giono complied, yet what he delivered is a short novel in which Herman Melville – or a fantasy version of Melville –
is transformed into a romantic hero, bearing characteristics that unequivocally contradict those of the historical figure, and featuring a pivotal character who never actually existed. Melville was published in French in 1941; NYRB Classics is now reissuing it in a finely chiselled English rendition by Ontario translator, publisher, and poet Paul Eprile, who pushes the prose to invoke the tenor of Melville’s sentences.
At times eliding transitions completely, Melville slips between points in time, just as it does, rather disorientingly, between third-person narration and its protagonist’s first-person reveries. Most of the action transpires over a short span of days, with 30-year-old Melville seeking adventure after negotiations with his London publisher regarding the U.K. edition of his novel White Jacket go unexpectedly smoothly.
Everything Giono’s Melville does is lyrical and sensuous. He shops for sailor’s clothes and marvels at the sensation of a second-hand sweater against his hairy, masculine chest. He visits a pub and is virtually spellbound by a double-helping of crabs and rice. He gets into passionate exchanges with an angel it appears no one else can see. And he catches a ride on a coach to an unremarkable provincial town, where he encounters one Adeline White. Melville is drawn first to Adeline’s disembodied voice, and is so taken by its soulfulness that he avoids actually meeting her for some time, intuiting, it would seem, that their encounter will forever trouble his destiny.
Their first conversation is, initially at least, heady and seductive: a meditation on the colour of a bay leaf yields sweet torrents of sense-memory. Giono’s besotted rendering of Melville soon turns hyperbolic: “He made her come to life, no longer as a woman … but as an absolute ruler of the weather.” Given license to ruminate further, Melville increasingly resembles a pedantic windbag.
Eventually, Adeline gets to tell her story: she’s married, has a child, and runs contraband wheat to the starving citizens of Ireland. Melville listens to her, they begin falling in love – and then they must part. They agree to correspond, but by the time Melville publishes Moby-Dick, Adeline has vanished from his life. Has she died? Or has she merely cut the writer out of her heart?
We don’t know how her story ends, but for Giono’s Melville, it’s all downhill from there, resulting in 30 years of silence and creative dissatisfaction. Of course, as Edmund White points out in his excellent introduction, the historical Melville still had numerous significant works ahead of him, Billy Budd among them. So Giono’s Melville is perhaps best regarded as an extrapolation, a possibility, a composite – a myth who lives and dies within the confines of this slim, bizarre, at times arresting little book.