Following novels based on Tolstoy (The Last Station, 1990) and Walter Benjamin (Benjamin’s Crossing, 1997), Parini offers his seventh: a piquant exploration of the life of Herman Melville as sailor, writer and family man.
Why piquant? Because Parini places considerable emphasis on Melville’s homoerotic impulses. From the time of his first sea passage to England at 19 (recorded in Redfern), Melville’s journeys “had been strangely full of elusive young men.” These attractions were a natural outgrowth of men living in close quarters for long periods; beauty transcended gender. Sometimes these men were as well versed in literature as Melville. The friendships were never consummated, however, and are always treated with delicacy by Parini. They grew alongside Melville’s gifts as a storyteller under the mast, where he learned the power to transmute, the foundation of his writing. The stories became more extravagant after his time among the Polynesian natives of the Marquesas (see Typee). Their combination of prelapsarian innocence and (unsubstantiated) cannibalism proved irresistible. There were other stirring events: run-ins with inebriated captains, a mutiny. The passages, nautical and spiritual, would continue throughout Melville’s life; sailing to Bermuda as an old man, he would encounter a young waiter and feel inspired to write Billy Budd. Parini splices his third-person narrative of Melville’s adventures with a first-person account of Melville’s marriage by his wife, a sparsely documented figure. Parini’s voicing is impeccable; and with her disarming candor, Lizzie is a treasure. She often felt trapped in her marriage to this difficult man, who terrified his children (they adored him anyway). There is so much to cover, though, that the novel can feel crowded. The friendship with Hawthorne (ultimately as elusive as the young men) receives the requisite attention. And then there is God. Melville never stopped wrestling with the question of his existence, but knelt unhesitatingly before a vision God sent him in a cave in the Holy Land. It was a young man, as it happened.
An appealing portrait of a questing, turbulent spirit.