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Portrait of Another Artist: Jean Giono’s Melville

By Aidan Watson-Morris.

Review of Jean Giono's Melville

Jean Giono, Melville: A Novel, translated by Paul Eprile (NYRB Classics, 2017)

In a recent piece for the New York Review, Tim Parks writes at length about the minefield that is created when historical writers are portrayed in fiction. If the author veers too close to their subject’s style, they risk unfavourable comparison; if they write in a mode that is radically different from their subject’s work, the reader starts to wonder why they’re writing about their subject at all. Parks closes his review with a possible solution: “We should read our great authors, not mythologize them.”

It’s sound advice, but it comes 80 years too late for French writer Jean Giono, whose 1941 novel Melville has been translated into English for the first time by Paul Eprile and published by New York Review Books. Giono probably would’ve ignored Parks’s proscription anyway, as Melville is already the product of rule-breaking. While translating Moby-Dick into French with Lucien Jacques and Gaston Gallimard, Giono was approached by the publisher to write an introduction, and this brief novel, about Melville’s 1849 trip to London, is the result.

On the continuum of imitation versus divergence, Melville falls closer to the side of the latter, though Giono’s admiration for Melville’s writing is apparent on every page. In the preface to his preface-novel, Giono admires the “Melvillean sentence” for its forcefulness. “It transports you; it drowns you,” Giono writes. “It presents you with a beauty that resists analysis but strikes with violence.” The prose in Moby-Dick does indeed have a violence to it. Here’s a passage describing Captain Ahab wrestling with his own “insufferable anguish”:

Often, when forced from his hammock by exhausting and intolerably vivid dreams of the night, which, resuming his own intense thoughts through the day, carried them on amid a clashing of phrensies, and whirled them round and round in his blazing brain, till the very throbbing of his life-spot became insufferable anguish; and when, as was sometimes the case, these spiritual throes in him heaved his being up from its base, and a chasm seemed opening in him, from which forked flames and lightnings shot up, and accursed fiends beckoned him to leap down among them; when this hell in himself yawned beneath him, a wild cry would be heard through the ship; and with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state-room, as though escaping from a bed that was on fire.

The language here “rolls, lifts, and falls” (Giono) like choppy waters. There’s a similar scene in Melville, in which young Melville wrestles with his own artistic ambitions at sea. These inner demons take the form of an only semi-figurative angel, whom Melville refers to as his “prison guard.” The passage moves much more smoothly through its clauses:

If he’s leaping into the whaleboat; if he’s riding out an iron-grey tempest; if he’s staring into the sickening maw of one of the giant creatures of the abyss: At the very same time, he wrestles with the angel. If he’s on watch; if he’s trimming the sails; if he’s up in the rigging; if he’s rendering oil; if he’s stoking the fire; if he’s standing right inside the charnel house of the Leviathan’s entrails: He wrestles with the angel.

If Melville’s prose patterns itself on the stormy seas sailed by the Pequod, Giono’s prose flows smoothly like the waters that brought Melville to England. It is poetic in this manner throughout the novel (sometimes to its detriment, as in an otherwise pointless, lyrical scene where Melville buys clothes from a questionably characterised Jewish shopkeeper—Giono, lauded for his pacifism, once expressed concern about Jewish hostility toward Hitler). But the muscle of Melville’s prose is transposed to the character of Melville himself. In his introduction to the novel, Edmund White points out the discrepancy between the “touchy, taciturn, and shy” Melville of reality and the “big, manly Whitmanian figure” of the novel.

This change points to Giono’s clever answer to the perils of writing about another writer. Rather than aping Melville’s style, which could at best accomplish pleasant homage, or ignoring it, which would undermine the project, Giono translates style into story. Giono’s portrait idolises Melville not because the historical Melville was a god (another pitfall of the genre) but because Giono worships Melville’s writing:

His titles are, in reality, nothing but subtitles. The real title of each and every one of his books is Melville, Melville, Melville, again Melville, always Melville. I express myself; I’m incapable of expressing any being other than myself.

Fiction about a writer is always already fiction about their writing, though rarely as blatantly as Giono’s. A favourite convention of such stories, as observed by Parks, is reverse engineering writing into experience. It’s not hard to imagine, for instance, a scene in which Melville watches a ship overcome by a powerful whale at sea. The reader would understand this image to be the seed of Moby-Dick‘s powerful finale. It’s a device which misrepresents imaginative art in order to siphon grandeur from another writer’s accomplishments. Melville commits this sin in the brief appearance of a captain who is meant to presage Ahab:

Thousands of times, in a sort of perfect, gigantic, arithmetical progression, he’ll blaspheme the name of God with curses that become more and more outrageous and original. [. . .] He’s the sledgehammer, the truncheon, the war club, and the cesspool of the Lord.

But elsewhere, Giono offers a very different approach to tracing art back to its source. In the novel, Melville is inspired to write Moby-Dick by a brief romantic encounter with the Irish nationalist Adelina White. This is Giono’s invention, a way to talk about Melville’s writing without rendering it tediously literal (as he does with Ahab). As they ride together on horseback, in the novel’s bravura set piece, she listens to him talk about their surroundings:

He rolled up the sky, from one edge to the other, as though it were made of colored silk. And, for a brief moment, there was no more sky. Then, after an interval of four hoofbeats at a gallop, he rolled the sky open again, but now it had turned into a huge skin, tightly enclosing earth’s arteries and veins.

Adelina serves as analogue for Giono in this passage, an impressionistic portrait of what it’s like to read Melville. Just by speaking, Melville puts a gap in the clouds in her hand, moves trees and water into and out of the frame, and transforms the world so that it “isn’t the same anymore.” There’s an obvious echo here of Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of defamiliarization, which has itself become repeated to the point of numbness. Through Adelina’s eyes, we remember the exhilarating feeling of art that breaks through the opaque layers of habit to reveal the world anew.

It’s to Giono’s credit, though, that Adelina is not merely passive receptacle to Melville’s genius or his muse. They meet while she is smuggling food to Irish peasants, and her passion for her family and her country outweighs her (credible, earnest) affection for Melville. She’s a more interesting character than Melville himself, and the touching interaction between the two is the highlight of the novel. It’s another instance of Giono’s impressionistic criticism: the strong passion evident in the writing of Moby-Dick translated into the strong passion of an almost-romance.

Melville may contravene Parks’s dictum to “leave novelists out of fiction,” but Giono’s novel reveals similar anxieties over writing fiction about another writer. Giono’s inventive solution is to write about their writing incognito, distorting and inventing until biography is replaced by slant-allegory. The result is original and convincing. Melville can be understood as a subtitle to the real title of the work: Giono.


Aidan Watson-Morris is an admirer of both Melvilles.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 25th, 2018.