- The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville by Jay Parini, and: Call Me Ahab: A Short Story Collection by Anne Finger
The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville
2010 . New York : Anchor Books , 2011 . 454 pp.
Call Me Ahab: A Short Story Collection
Lincoln, Nebraska : University of Nebraska Press , 2009 . xi + 192 pp.
Jay Parini’s The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville attempts to imagine, rather than record, Melville’s life. The structure of Parini’s “novel of” Herman Melville toggles between two kinds of chapters from distinct points of view. Chapters called “Lizzie,” in the voice of Herman’s wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, present her version of her history with Melville, from their courtship to his death. The “Lizzie” chapters alternate with sections from a third-person narrator who recounts the “passages” of Melville’s life. Parini’s multi-layered title term encompasses many of his primary themes, including “passages” as sea voyages, as life stages, as excerpts (Parini liberally borrows from Melville’s writing), and as secret corridors of emotion, desire, and behavior. Parini’s apparent goal is to achieve an imagined understanding of the well-springs of Melville’s great writing.
Alas, his book fails to hold interest, in part because of how he has conceived the relation between art and life. His primary formula—which, to its detriment, feels repetitive, then formulaic, then finally quite boring—is to write his “Melville” character into scenes closely based on (sometimes quoting) “passages” from Melville’s books, journals, and letters. For readers of Melville who know these texts, the technique is heavy-handed and delivers little insight. Page after page, Parini’s method is to invent “biographical” scenarios as if they were the sources of Melville’s later writings. For example, in a chapter about Melville at twenty-one, the narrator tells us, “Stories about the sea enchanted him. In a recent copy of the Knickerbocker, which he found in the library of the Young Men’s Association (to which Gansevoort belonged), he learned of Mocha Dick, a huge bull whale, white as a sail, who had smashed several ships in the course of an infamous life. The idea of chasing such a [End Page 70] legendary creature through grape-deep Pacific waters stirred a wild feeling of joy in him” (69). The sheer obviousness of his method is hard to enjoy. A few pages later, Parini writes that Melville’s shipmates included “a small band of ’Gees: snugly built, leather-skinned men from the Azores who spoke to each other in a dialect of Portuguese” (73). This detail is inessential to the plot and serves only to give Parini a chance to create an allusive wink to Melville’s later tale, “The ’Gees.’”
A particularly repetitive thread is Parini’s romantic chronicle of how Melville became a writer, leading to all-too-frequent commentaries like this one: “Now, for the first time, Herman began to think about the nature of fiction, and how it so often depended on, even hugged, reality, embracing true stories” (75). Or, when Parini’s “biographical” rendition of the Toby character from Typee comments, “I don’t think we listen enough to God,” the narrator adds: “Herman realized the truth of that remark, and he determined to remain open to such a voice and its redemptive possibilities” (89). A plodding effect dominates the book; Parini tells rather than shows. Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector: A Novel (1999) remains the far more deft, fresh, and accomplished historical fiction about Melville.
Parini tries to add new layers to our understanding of two topics in particular: Elizabeth Shaw Melville (typically known as “Lizzie,” a name I adopt in this review) and Melville’s homoerotic relationships. His attempt to take Lizzie seriously is welcome. Since the long history of Melville studies evinces many cases in which scholars have blamed Lizzie for failing to understand her brilliant husband, Parini’s push-back against this ideology is refreshing. His novelization incorporates elements of the troubling historical record about how hard Melville’s temperament and emotional problems were on her and their...