November 30, 2010


The Voyager: a review of THE PASSAGES OF H. M.: A Novel of Herman Melville By Jay Parini (MEGAN MARSHALL, 11/28/10, NY Times Book Review)

Parini clumsily appropriates some of Melville’s best-known lines, as when his protagonist signals his desire for increased intimacy by asking Lizzie to “call me Herman.” A scrofulous sailor too sick to get out of his bunk speaks Bartleby the Scrivener’s enigmatic words of refusal — “I prefer not to” — robbing the sentence of its eccentric genius.

Parini presses on us two “truths” about Melville, both of them reductive: first, that “Herman spent the whole of his life trying to comfort that child,” the crying boy inside him who had suffered the early loss of his father. The second may be a corollary: that Melville was recurringly attracted to young men as potential sex partners, his advances repeatedly spurned. By the end of the novel the parade of nearly interchangeable boys, many of them invented, has become tiresome. Melville’s late realization “that his life, especially his journeys, had been strangely full of elusive young men” merely states the obvious, and Melville himself has begun to seem a leering old goat. Along the way, Parini treats us to a wholly fabricated skinny-dipping scene involving Nathaniel Hawthorne and a wet kiss on the lips from Walt Whitman, although he and Melville apparently never met in “real” life.

For those who haven’t braved a reading of “Moby-Dick,” yet retain some curiosity about this great American novel and its author, “The Passages of H. M.” may satisfy — but at the expense of the “truth” of Herman Melville’s life. The man is, from this distance, unknowable. Any biographical treatment can only hope to be, as Ishmael describes his unfinished record of all the world’s knowledge of whales, “but the draught of a draught.” Worse, a fictionalized account of a life can easily enter the consciousness of the reading public as truth — not the kind of universal human truth Parini may have had in mind, but literal truth. As his older brother complains here of Melville’s yarns: “His fond embellishments soon hardened into fact.”

Parini, a poet, biographer and literary critic as well as a novelist, can write with admirable lyric intensity: “In these islands, the sun shone as if from within, the moon burned in his brain. Water became sky, and night exchanged its sultry qualities with day.” But even these passages make us hunger for Melville’s own words: “Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty Leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.”

Mr. Melville had Billy Budd hang.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2010 6:11 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus