An Unusual Fecundity

Jean Giono, trans. Paul Eprile, Melville: A Novel

NYRB Classics, 128pp, $14.00, ISBN 9781681371375

reviewed by Jason DeYoung

Although Jean Giono’s short book (105 pages) begins in a biographical vein, it is not the historical Herman Melville that it depicts. Instead, the narrative soon drifts into the depths of the hypothetical and the fictional. Melville, in the process, becomes a kind of spirit-summoning: both a tribute to the American writer, and, as Edmund White puts in his introduction, the product of Giono ‘trying on’ Melville as an alter ego. The narrative itself describes only a brief episode. In a sense, not much happens, but the text is nevertheless lovely in its brevity and its thought. It marks a significant moment in Giono’s development as a novelist and, in a new translation by Paul Eprile, a welcome opportunity for the rediscovery of this singular writer by English-speaking readers.

It might be difficult to fully appreciate Melville, first published in 1941, without knowing something of Giono’s biography and bibliography. Born in 1895, he lived most of his life in the Provence region of France. During World War I he served in the battle of Verdun, the largest and longest battle of that war, fought between 21 February and 18 December 1916. He was one of only two survivors in his company. His experiences of the war – its horror, insanity, and inconceivable waste – led Giono to become an ardent pacifist, and when it finally finished he returned home to begin writing novels with a distinctive folkloric quality. As David Abrams puts it in his introduction to Giono’s first novel, 1929’s Hill – which has also received a new translation by Eprile – he began to use writing to explore

'the possibility of a other ways of living, other ways of feeling and thinking that might draw humankind in a different direction, that might induce a swerve in our collective trajectory, away from the growing mechanisation of life and the inevitability of further war. He began to write of the earth.'

Although these early novels deal with human characters – mostly peasant protagonists – and their attendant conflicts, it is the natural world and all that slithers and hums within it that has the most striking presence. Everything that rides the winds and warms the earth is brought to the foreground, invested with character: ‘in a single leap the sun clears the crest of the horizon. It enters the sky like a wrestler, atop it undulating arms of fire.’ Giono’s vision in Hill is intensely ecological. In fact, his first three novels make up what he called his Pan trilogy, named after the Greek god of the wild and invoking his revitalising properties, the regenerative spirit he could instil once aligned with the cycles of untamed nature.

I would caution you not to think of these novels as flaky, granola nonsense, however; they are complex inventions that reveal no easy answers, raising questions with which Giono continued to grapple in his next half-dozen works. By the end of 1930s, however, this mode of thought had become stale for Giono. He felt that it was time to stop doing ‘Giono’ type novels. Around this same time, he teamed up with the painter, poet and fellow pacifist Lucien Jacques, as well as an English antiques dealer named Joan Smith, to begin a French translation of Moby Dick. It took them three years and one month to complete, from 1936 to 1939, and remains the standard French translation. The publisher soon asked Giono to write a preface for it. The result was Melville.

Melville combines many modes: essay, fantasy, philosophy, romance, biography, and perhaps more. Its structure is largely lyrical, although it does contain recurrent crises and conflict. It opens with Melville traveling to London to deliver his newest novel, White-Jacket, to his publisher, a book written against corporal punishment in the United States Navy, and into which he has put all of his ‘manly rage’. Proud of this work, he is nevertheless growing disappointed with his craft. White-Jacket, another maritime adventure story, is the type of novel that Melville ‘knows’ how to write; he says he could turn them out like ‘hotcakes’ – a testament to his skill, but also a dispiritingly mechanical image that had come to represent how Giono was increasingly feeling about his own writing.

In Melville, the alter-ego protagonist Herman is tormented by an angel – in fact, they wrestle on several occasions. It is this unnamed angel (who smells of ‘vanilla and absinthe’) who tells Herman who he is. He is a poet. And it is the angel who tells him when to write his novels. Not long after Herman has had a successful meeting with his publisher, in which all his desires for the book and its printing are met with alacrity, the relentless angel returns.

'All of a sudden, he sees that the zinc shop signs aren’t swaying, that the bits of straw on the pavement aren’t flying about, that the laneway is quiet, that the fog isn't moving. It’s his own, personal wind. ‘So here you are, back again!’ he says. The battle with the angel has resumed. He’d always suspected it was only a truce.'

We are never party to what the angel actually says, but from the one-sided dialogue we can figure out that it has returned to tell Herman to write another book, this time to give the readers the ‘opposite’ of what they have come to expect from his novels. At first Herman balks at the angel’s request, but slowly he comes to terms with the fact that he ‘had no desire to write the kinds of insignificant books he knows how to write.’ In fact, he comes to the conclusion that,

'if there’s a consistency in his work, it can only be his distinctive style. His titles are, in reality, nothing but subtitles. The real title of each and every one of his books is MelvilleMelvilleMelville, again Melville, always Melville. I express myself; I’m incapable of expressing any being other than myself. I’m not obliged to create what other people want me to create. I don’t get caught up in the law of supply and demand. I create what I am.'

In the second half of the novel, Herman takes a ride into the English countryside. Having booked a stay in England for two weeks (expecting to have to grapple with his publishers about money and other matters), Herman has nothing to do, and he finds London too congested. Taking advice from a stable boy, he rides the mail car to Woodcut (a fictional locale in the English countryside). Along the way he meets Adelina White (whom Edmund White believes, creditably, is a stand-in for Blanche Meyer, a married woman with whom Giono had fallen in love). The two characters develop a non-sexual, yet erotic connection. Herman conjures a world for her while the two stroll on isolated and foggy heaths, and she takes fresh notice of nature and the earth around her. Adelina, on the other hand, confesses herself to be a smuggler, an Irish nationalist, who runs contraband wheat for the starving people of Ireland. Of the English government, she says: ‘Humans are the weakest creatures in the world because they're intelligent. Intelligence is, by definition, the art of turning a blind eye. If you want to remedy an ill, you can’t turn a blind eye.’

This episode leaves the impression that Herman is infatuated with Adelina’s spirit and strength and cunning. But the overall sense is one of oddness, even dissatisfaction. It is the kind of thing that might happen when travelling abroad, meeting a person with whom one feels an obscure connection – whether sexual or platonic – that cannot quite be fulfilled. Perhaps the connection is felt only because you are both travellers, and hence nothing more than some kinship-of-the-road. Nevertheless, the two characters part ways soon afterwards. Herman returns to America ready to fulfil the angel’s command, and writes Moby Dick for Adelina. Having now come to know these characters, it is a tantalising idea; in truth, Moby Dick is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novelist whom the historical Melville most admired. Giono’s novel concludes with the printing of Moby Dick and the years after its release.

Unlike Hill, which is also published by New York Review of Books, Melville isn’t overwhelmed with the majesty and mystery of ecology – although some of this is still present. The prose in Melville – at least in Paul Eprile’s careful and nuanced translation – instead seems to look toward the King James Bible robustness of its inspirer:

'For fifteen months, since he went to sea, he’s been wrestling with an angel. Like Jacob, he’s plunged in darkness, and no dawn comes. Wings – unbearably rigid – beat him, raise him up above the earth, hurl him back down, snatch him up again, and smother him…'

The rhythmic prose patterns call to mind Melville’s own Ishmael:

'Squeeze! squeeze! Squeeze all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.'

Jean Giono writes of his translation of Moby Dick: ‘Man always craves some monstrous object. And his life has no meaning unless he devotes himself entirely to its pursuit.’ The observation captures Giono’s thought and passionate effort both in translating Moby Dick and in his developing his own philosophy of writing. After he completed Melville, he went on to write many more novels and stories, including his most famous work, The Man Who Planted Trees. During his lifetime he was considered to be one of France’s greatest writers, with André Malraux ranking him ‘first or second’ in 20th-century French literature. As was the case with Melville, Giono has lost some favour in the decades following his death in 1970. With hope, Melville and forthcoming translations will correct this oversight.