This lyrical novel reimagines Herman Melville’s life and adds a hauntingly atmospheric spin.
There are many novels that have fictionalized the lives of notable writers. In the case of this 1941 book—now appearing in English for the first time—the overlap between author and subject runs deeper than most. Giono is known for his French translation, with Lucien Jacques, of Moby-Dick. This novel was originally intended as the preface for that larger work but quickly became its own distinct entity. Edmund White's introduction helpfully contextualizes this novel within Giono’s larger body of work and also provides a useful guide to the areas in which Giono’s version of Melville veers away from the historical record. “Giono was the one with the big personality, and the character, 'Melville,' is his alter ego," White writes. The novel opens as Melville returns to the United States in 1849 after a trip to England; he has "a strange item in his baggage. It was an embalmed head…but it was his own.” This metaphorically rich image leads into the story of his time overseas, placing this most American of writers in a foreign land. While traveling, he meets a woman named Adelina White; their heated discussions of politics and philosophy leave him infatuated with her and inspired to write the book that would become his masterpiece. Giono juxtaposes lyrically written paragraphs about Melville’s travels with passages in which intense voices of various characters overwhelm the narrative—a sort of literary echo of the juxtapositions that abound in Moby-Dick. A different evocation of that novel comes in a scene where Adelina pragmatically lambasts those who avoid helping the hungry for “philosophizing about the doctrines of Adam Smith and Ricardo.”
This isn’t your typical fictionalized life of a writer—instead, it’s an unexpected meditation on the convergence of two literary lives.