When, back in the 1930s, novelist Jean Giono set about working on the first French translation of Moby-Dick, he and his collaborator Lucien Jacques were mulling over approaches to the project when their ideal methodology suddenly appeared before them like a revelation. “The matter was settled,” Giono explains, “when we realized that Melville himself was handing us the principles that would guide our work. ‘There are some enterprises,’ he says, ‘in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.’” This statement of purpose both matched their own sensibility and fit the character of Melville’s text; from there on out, the work was all smooth sailing. “Everything seemed to be settled in advance,” Giono recounts, “and there was nothing left to do but let things take their course.”
This careful disorderliness which Giono and Jacques found in Moby-Dick is, as has been often remarked, one of the book’s central features. In his 1947 study of Melville, Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson explains that Moby-Dick “was two books written between February, 1850 and August, 1851. The first book did not contain Ahab. It may not, except incidentally, have contained Moby-Dick.” Olson’s point is that between an early, nearly completed version of the book and the final volume, Melville, fueled by his intensive reading of Shakespeare, was given the tools to rewrite the work entirely, now replete with “madness, villainy, and evil.” But the multiplicity of Moby-Dick goes well beyond the initial voyage-of-a-whaler framework coupled with the Ahab story. What makes the book so perpetually thrilling is as much the hybrid nature of the work, a “disorderliness” that takes in disquisitions on the finer points of whaling, dramatic monologues, and polyphonic collages of voices, as it is the mad captain’s metaphysical quest.
This methodical messiness, though, is not only the guiding principle of Moby-Dick and of Giono and Jacques’s translation of that novel. It is also the springboard for any number of works that take Melville’s life and writing as their subject. In both critical studies like Olson’s and more imaginative works of fiction, writers who have made it their business to struggle with Melville’s legacy have often taken hybridity as their method. It’s as if the example of Moby-Dick has freed them from the constraints of a simple monolithic approach, whether that be a linear narrative or a straightforward work of criticism.
One of the first of these odd reckonings with Melville remains among the oddest. After Giono and Jacques completed their translation of Moby-Dick, their publisher asked Giono to contribute a preface. Instead, he ended up writing a new book altogether, Melville: A Novel, a fictional account of the author’s life which was issued as a separate volume (and is now being reprinted in a new English translation by New York Review Books). In this short work, originally published in 1941, Giono follows a largely ahistorical Melville as he takes a trip to London to deliver his latest book, White-Jacket, to his publisher. Left with two weeks to kill in the dreary English capital, Melville instead departs for the countryside, where he is constantly hounded by an angel that appears to him and goads him on to write a real book, which is to say Moby-Dick.
Melville is helped along in this goal by the appearance of a beautiful woman, the completely fabricated Adelina White, with whom he shares a mail-coach and carries on a chaste affair. As they ride through the countryside, Melville puts into words the landscapes they pass for Adelina’s benefit, and through his poetic voice, makes nature immediate for his companion in a way it hasn’t been before. This is some romantic stuff to be sure, and Giono goes all in on the power of the poet (Melville) to transform reality: “He made her come to life, no longer as a woman sitting beside a man on the top deck of the Bristol Mail, but as an absolute ruler of the weathers: he had made her come alive in her own domain.”
This exalted view of Melville’s poetic mission is one that Giono emphasizes throughout the work, both in lyrical narrative passages like the woodland jaunt and in more reflective moments in which Melville’s angel appears as a stand-in in for the author’s own conflicted feelings about his literary mission. But what makes Giono’s book such an enjoyable read is the wide range of other modes that he employs and which grant the work a richness and scope that pay ample tribute to the book it references. Among the memorable passages are humorous set pieces (as when Melville goes to a second-hand shop to outfit himself for his country outing), odd surreal details (a crown of thorns that the young writer puts on and that leaves a tiny part of his head perpetually soft and sticky), and interpolated bits of literary criticism. Giono adopts this last mode in particular to wax poetic on the American literary project. “[Melville is] an American democrat,” he writes. “He’s part of that democracy whose praises Whitman will sing later on, starting with the second poem in his Leaves of Grass.”
Easy enough for a French writer (especially one with a romantic turn of mind) to be enamored of American democracy and the literature it produces. Sometimes, though, it takes a native to bring a more critical eye to the proceedings. In Call Me Ishmael, his study, Olson takes up the challenge. Rather than conflating Melville and Whitman as Giono does, he pointedly differentiates the two. “Whitman we have called our greatest voice because he gave us hope,” he writes. “Melville is the truer man. He lived intensely his people’s wrong, their guilt.” In fact, Olson’s critical study is filled throughout with reflections on Melville’s conflicted take on the American project. Alongside the positive example of the Pequod, that democratic microcosm of the country, Olson shows us, sit the brute economic facts of the voyage as well as the understanding that the men’s mission is to overtake and destroy nature.
In presenting his reading of Melville’s life and work, Olson organizes his chapters into neat thematic sections, but he then complicates this orderliness by drawing on any number of outside texts and prose styles. Alternating intensive critical analysis with anecdote and interpolation, switching up academic prose with neat poetical formulation, Olson achieves a carefully controlled disorderliness that enriches our understanding of his subject. If part of Olson’s project is to analyze Ahab’s monomaniacal quest to conquer space, then Olson, like Melville before him, counters with a polyphonic range of voices and approaches that shows up that quest for the narrow gesture that it is.
For all their hybrid gestures, though, Giono’s book is essentially a novel, while Olson’s work is clearly a critical study. It took the work of another writer, the American Paul Metcalf, to strike a middle ground between the two genres. In his 1965 book, Genoa, Metcalf, who was Melville’s great grandson, makes his ancestor’s words the very engine of the narrative. Largely plotless, the book follows Michael Mills, non-practicing doctor, as he holes up in his attic while his wife is off at work, obsessively poring over the collected works of Melville, as well as writings about Christopher Columbus and anatomy textbooks. Ever since, as a child, he and his brother, Carl, discovered an old copy of Typee while playing in a haunted house, he’s been obsessed by the writer, and his mind is trained to dial up an appropriate quotation from Melville for every situation he encounters.
Michael’s mind, in fact, is where most of the action takes place in Genoa, and Metcalf makes us privy to the workings of that consciousness as we follow along with him in his attic. Michael’s critical musings, which often range intertextually between all his various sources, are both enlightening and dangerously obsessive. In one passage, Michael will expertly compare Columbus and Melville, outlining the ways in which both the explorer’s decision to go west instead of to Africa and Melville’s decision to send Ahab east instead of on the customary westward voyage “did more violence, perhaps, than all the wars that followed” simply by their geographic dislocations. But then the obsessiveness will take over and he’ll mash all his texts together in a way that seems more maddening than instructive, as when he compares Ahab’s quest for the whale with not only Columbus’s quest for land but with a sperm’s journey towards the egg.
Hovering over everything that Michael does is the memory of his brother. Carl, whose story takes over the narrative in the book’s second half, lived an adventurous life, which culminated first in his being the victim of war crimes in China and his kidnapping and murdering a child back stateside, a crime which led to his execution. By the time we learn the details of Carl’s life, though, Metcalf has fully instructed us in the bloody history of the United States, dating back to the introduction of Europeans to the western hemisphere and carrying on through America’s new manifest destiny of nautical imperialism. Thus, when Michael narrates his brother’s murderous pursuits, we’ve already been given a larger context in which to understand them. If at first the connection between all these threads is simply implied, Michael eventually makes them explicit. “Perhaps like Ishmael on board the Pequod,” he muses, “[Carl] was hunting back toward the beginnings of things; and, like the voyage of the Pequod—or of any of the various caravels of Columbus that stuck fierce weather returning from the Indies—perhaps Carl’s eastward voyage, his voyage ‘home’, was disastrous.”
Presiding over these musings, though, is a critical figure and authorial stand-in who cuts a more-or-less ridiculous figure. A doctor who refuses to practice, a man hobbled by a troublesome club-foot, Michael neglects his household duties to pore uselessly over his texts. He is powerless to maintain order in his own home as his kids run amok while he hides in the attic. If Olson represents the stable, authoritative critic, then Michael Mills is a far more doubtful one, highly intelligent and knowledgeable about his material, but cursed by an immoderate mind that makes his conclusions less than trustworthy. As do Giono and Olson, Metcalf allows his narrator’s fevered brain plenty of space in which to operate, but, by making him an essentially absurd individual, Metcalf pointedly undercuts his authority. If Michael’s occasionally stirring insights mark Genoa as a valuable work of criticism, then the framing of those insights as coming from a highly dubious character make it just as much an expert work of fiction. So too with Melville: A Novel, which combines a personalized reading of its subject’s oeuvre with an imaginative account of his life, even if here the author’s concerns tip far more towards the fanciful.