The Passages of Herman Melville Hardcover – 1 Jan 2011
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In fiction and biography, Jay Parini has brought to life Tolstoy, Frost, Faulkner, Benjamin, and Steinbeck. Now he has added Herman Melville to that remarkable pantheon, and the tale is surprising, insightful, and deeply moving. Melville has never seemed more alive to me - and more human. --Chris Bohjalian, author of Secrets of Eden, The Double Bind, and Midwives
Once again Jay Parini has taken us in literary imagination, cultural history, and biography through his ingenious fiction. In elegant and moving prose, Parini opens up Melville..... A novel of startling and inventive journeys, and no reader will come away from it seeing Melville the same. --Peter Balakian, author of Black Dog of Fate
Jay Parini, against all odds, captures his white whale of a subject and then frees him for us to behold. [He] re-animates Melville to startling effect: the creator walks as a character; the genius turns back into a husband; imperishable literature springs from the accidents of life. --Tom Mallon, author of Fellow Travelers and Henry and Clara
[A] compelling novel...What is most rewarding about this richly detailed book is Parini's ability to frame a story of heroic faiure with the knowedge that its subject will one day triumph. --The Sunday Times
Parini's novel is a bravura and often engrossing attempt to blend the disparate strands of Melville's art and life in two perspectives. --Guardian
Parini's eminently readable narrative convincingly fills in hitherto dark places. [This novel] will not replace the standard biographies; it will, however, add flesh to their bones. --Financial Times
Powerfully conveys the allure of the sea, and of the ships that do battle with its creatures. And Parini's evocation of Melville's relationships is moving. --The Observer
Parini, a poet, biographer and literary critic as well as a novelist, can write with admirable lyric intensity. --The Scotsman
Engaging and sympathetic. --The Literary Review
A thrilling tale... [Parini] has the knack for finding just the right phrase. ... There is much to admire in this novel. --Independent on Sunday
The story of an American literary giant's extraordinary life from the author of The Last Station
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Choosing to seek out the companionship or male heroes such as Hawthorne and Dickens, nevermind the impact this has on his family, HM evaluates these friends in terms of their intelligence, ability to generate quality literature and always, their willingness to befriend him in ways that were not acceptable to much of society at the time. We see how there is a lack of self-knowledge in HM in recognising this trait in himself - the fall out of not finding such relationships is explored well by Parini.
He also lets us understand the often valid self-doubts that HM had about his own artistic skills. In turns selfish, self-obsessed, inspired with flashes of literacy genius, needy and grasping, greedy for exploration and thrill, you are given a picture of HM that leaves you relieved you didn't walk down the aisle with him... Although the author has admitted he was unable to find much substantiated information on HM's wife, he builds a brilliant picture of the life she makes with him and of the relationship (or lack of) that she has with his mother. It's so well written and such fun to read that I can only 100% recommend it - not knowing anything of his oeuvre outside of Moby Dick - and that only in film - made absolutely no difference to my enjoyment of this novel - it's excellent. What a read!
The novel opens with Lizzie's account of the anger, drunkenness, and questionable sanity of Melville in the later years of their marriage. This leaves Melville's character more open to a reader's imagination when the next chapter begins with a young Melville looking for work on a whaler and embarking on his first sea voyage.
Lizzie's narrative deftly portrays an alternative view of Melville than the one we get from the third-person narration. From her point of view we can see how Melville's preoccupations and internal conflict become a detached husband and father and a difficult man to live with.
When the chapters move to that of the third-person narration, Parini's accounts of Melville's private life and his voyages are beautifully written, with lush descriptions and a skilful creation of Melville's inner turmoil and infrequent peace. Most of the characters he comes across are also well-written, with few short cuts or stock depictions.
One major problem with Parini's novel is the frequent anachronism present in the dialogue, vocabulary, and mindsets of the characters he is depicting. The characters, Lizzie in particular, could be lifted in parts from a novel set in contemporary America. Her view of her relationship with Herman, and her manner of conversing with him, are jarringly modern in places.
Another issue with Parini's prose lies in his propensity to tell a lot of detail, rather than show it. This is particularly notable at the beginning of the novel, as he tries to portray Melville initially through Lizzie's narrative. While this is perhaps an aspect of the genre of biography, in a fictional account I would have expected less exposition.
There is a similar lack of subtlety in the manner in which Parini highlights the relationship between Melville's works and their real-life inspiration. The incidences and characters which Parini's Melville encounters are sometimes little more than caricatures or vague reworkings of the fictional versions, designed to propel this Melville on his writing journey.
Parini's account of the life of Herman Melville is an unapologetically fictional one. He acknowledges his almost total creation of Lizzie, Melville's wife, and his chronological shifting of details to suit his own narrative. Parini, however, may take too much free rein with the subject of Melville's homosexuality. He takes various homosocial aspects of Melville's texts, and extrapolates from them a lifetime of supposed yearning for handsome young men. This facet of Melville's character nearly takes over the entire text.
In short, this novel is not perfect, neither as an account of Melville's life, nor as a novel in its own right. It is, however, an intriguing read and a good insight into Melville's life for those with no prior knowledge on the subject.
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