The Passages of Herman Melville

The Passages of Herman Melville, by Jay Parini, Canongate, RRP 17.99, 464 pages

The term “biofiction” was coined in the 1930s by a mediocre writer, Irving Stone, who had a brilliant idea. Why not, Stone thought, use fiction to fill in biography’s gaps? Stone duly produced such pioneer “bionovels” as Lust for Life (Van Gogh) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michelangelo). They are better known today as films starring Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston.

The genre has evolved over the years in the hands of a succession of gifted practitioners, from Beryl Bainbridge (Young Adolf) to Colm Tóibín (The Master, about Henry James). Biofiction has gone beyond supplying imaginary putty to fill factual holes. It has become a way of getting more out of a life than biography can, restricted as the biographer is to the evidence.

Jay Parini is the author of the recently filmed The Last Station, an imaginative reconstruction of the final months of Leo Tolstoy. He now turns his biofictional attention to Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick.

There are attractions for the novelist in the life of “HM”, as Parini calls him. The sperm whale was hunted in the 1840s not for sushi or cat meat but for its fuel-oil. Moby-Dick is as topical as ever in our never-ending oil crisis.

Then there is the sheer oddity of Melville’s life and what, despite voluminous biographies, we don’t know about it. Herman was the descendant of a paternal grandfather who had led the Boston Tea Party in 1773. His maternal grandfather had served as a general in the revolutionary wars. Herman belonged, as his biographer Hershel Parker puts it, to “the highest aristocracy in the country”.

It was a heavy mantle for a child not initially recognised as exceptional. Melville’s father, Allan, did not add to the familial distinction. The family business in dry goods was bankrupted and Herman’s father died when his son was 12.

Melville’s real life began when, like Ishmael, he answered the call of the sea and enrolled as a common sailor on the whaler Acushnet, in January 1841. He was crammed for months into the forecastle – one of the only places in America where different races, even blacks and Indians, mixed on equal terms. Sexual misconduct was rife. Melville refers darkly to the “sins of Gomorrah”; whether or not he himself indulged he does not say. Parini’s biofiction does tell us.

Melville jumped ship in Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands and with a companion, Toby, went native. Toby disappeared (biography doesn’t tell us what happened to him; Parini reconstructs his grisly fate). Melville enjoyed a voluptuous relationship with “the beauteous nymph Fayaway”, clad in “the garb of Eden” before making his way back to the US.

After a couple more voyages (including one involving mutiny) Melville came ashore for good in the late 1840s, married well and settled down to writing novels. His early seagoing yarns – notably Typee and Omoo – did moderately well.

Spectacularly, his later work, including Moby-Dick, didn’t do well. The story of Captain Ahab and the white whale baffled its readers for decades. Was it even a novel, contemporaries wondered, as they ploughed through chapter after chapter of cetaceous zoology, marine myth and abstruse nautical history.

Melville’s downward career as a novelist climaxed, five years after it took off, with Pierre: Or the Ambiguities. He devoted his last years to the composition of an epic poem, Clarel, which has the distinction of being the longest ever published in America.

The Melvilles’ marriage was a disaster. He was temperamental, chronically disappointed, drunken and mentally unstable. The couple’s two sons predeceased them – one, apparently, by suicide. Elizabeth Shaw Melville had a lot to put up with. She brought money and good breeding to the marriage and got nothing in return but woe. And occasional battery.

What, then, does Jay Parini bring to this life that is not found in the biographies? His eminently readable narrative convincingly fills in hitherto dark places. What, for example, really went on during those paradisal months in the Marquesas? Parini hypothesises, equally convincingly, about the nature of Melville’s passionate friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne (the dedicatee of Moby-Dick) about which biography knows tantalisingly little. Most effectively, he creates (out of pure speculation) Mrs Melville’s story.

The Passages of Herman Melville will not replace the standard biographies; it will, however, add flesh to their bones. It’s very well done.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus at University College London

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