Three Authors in Search of Melville


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.

Image: Wikimedia

In Sickness and in Health: Mike Scalise and the Illness Narrative


Mike Scalise begins his illness memoir, The Brand New Catastrophe, by reflecting on the art of storytelling: “Telling a good catastrophe anecdote,” he writes, “means becoming a maestro of sympathy. People’s reactions to these kinds of stories usually involve some defense mechanism…As the teller of the anecdote…this is the wrong place to be.” Because the storyteller wants to avoid, above all else, appearing pitiable, he must find different ways to engage the listener. “The trick to keeping them engaged,” Scalise explains, “is to focus on the oddities and ironies that would seem incredible and ridiculous in any context, not just that of your disaster.”

Putting his cards on the table from the start, Scalise not only challenges us to judge his book according to his own criteria, but asks us to consider the conventions of the genre he is writing in and what purpose — both positive and negative — these serve. As Scalise realizes, it is almost impossible to write a contemporary illness memoir, a genre whose arc of sickness-to-health has been exhaustively traced in hundreds of books, without this kind of reflexivity. As such, he keeps these meta musings going throughout the narrative, questioning the way in which he tells his own story and why.

The first thing to note is that Scalise lives up wholly to his own criteria. In relating the story of his pituitary tumor — which stimulates an excessive degree of growth hormone and then bursts, leaving him unable to produce any — Scalise takes on a gently self-mocking tone coupled with a penchant for relating humorous incidents. His reaction to the possibility of part of his buttocks being inserted into his brain (“Take it from my ass. I want my ass in my head.”) or his dry telling of a disastrous interview he conducted with a rock singer are exactly the type of “oddities and ironies” that make his book both so engaging and free of the self-pitying tone he advised tellers of catastrophe anecdotes to avoid.

But beyond simply providing a rubric for how to read his novel, Scalise is obsessed with narrative. Part of the arc he traces in his book is the shift in the way he tells his story to the many curious people he meets. He first develops a taste for this kind of self-revelation when, after a high school swimming accident, a false rumor spreads that he has died. Because he is, in fact, very much alive, it seems to his classmates that he has come back from the dead and he is called on frequently to speak about his accident, an experience he comes to greatly enjoy. “I was just a conduit for an accident narrative,” he writes, “and filled a need for redemption that many in my high school longed to experience. What surprised me was how electric it felt to be that conduit.”

With that revelation, he is off and running and so, when he comes down with the pituitary tumor, he revels in his ability to one-up anyone else’s conversation with his own narrative. At a party shortly after his diagnosis, for example, he responds to a woman’s question about what he does by saying, “I walk into Brooklyn emergency rooms with super crazy brain tumors that explode in my head” before hijacking the party with his story. In this, he aligns himself with many other writers of illness narratives who understand that, although their disease may be horrible, it also confers a sense of uniqueness and individuality on the sufferer, at least temporarily.

In Lucy Grealy’s 1994 memoir Autobiography of a Face, the narrator comes down with a tumor in her jaw at the age of 9 which causes half of her face to become collapsed; leaving her with a striking facial difference for which her schoolmates mock her. Although the whole experience is traumatic for Lucy, she comes to take a defiant pride in her situation. Narrating a birthday party that she worked at as a teen, she writes “while the eyes of these perfectly formed children swiftly and deftly bored into the deepest part of me, the glances from their parents provided me with an exotic sense of power as I watched them inexpertly pretend not to notice me.” Later, when she starts reading Russian novels, she further embraces her outsider status, looking down on her classmates with a “perfectly calibrated air of disinterest.”

Similarly, Sarah Manguso, in her 2008 memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, experiences a sense of superiority because of her long bout with the autoimmune disease, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy. “When a friend or stranger mentioned anything about a difficult or noteworthy event,” she writes, “I chose one of the countless hospital visits from recent memory and told the little story in a way that prevented further conversation about it or any other subject.”

Scalise isn’t quite so brutal with himself, but he does come to realize the limits of the narrative impulse. As the disease goes on and he accustoms himself to living with it, it no longer seems so necessary to tell everyone about it. When, at a party many years after his diagnosis, a guest tells him about his sick cousin, Scalise begins to tell his own story and, ignoring his own prescriptions about the catastrophe anecdote, he tells it flatly, almost perfunctorily. Reflecting on his own lingering need to narrate, he writes “in my mind I was shoving forward the parts of my pituitary tumor’s tale that made me special…I wanted to replace whatever meaning I feared people projected onto me when they saw my face, my eyes, my hands.” After years of defining himself solely by his illness, however, the appeal wears off and he begins adjusting to his new life as a person who just happens to be ill.

If defining ourselves by our disease is one of the principal traps for the reflective sufferer, then a different narrative snare awaits the illness memoirist: tracing a too-neat trajectory that leads the narrator from sickness to health and a triumphant ending. One of the reasons why contemporary illness memoirs, with Scalise’s as a prominent example, take on a meta aspect, is because, at this late date, everyone is hyperaware of the dangers of an easy arc that gives false reassurance to the reader. Grealy touches on this need when she realizes that the simple narrative of her finding her true face after many surgeries is misleading, and she finds freedom in that revelation. But it is Manguso who most complicates this need for easy coherence.

Manguso is careful to insist upon her story’s adherence to convention. At the end of the book, she declares, “This is the usual sort of book about illness. Someone gets sick, someone gets well” before noting that “most people consider their suffering a widely applicable model, and I am not an exception.” But it is impossible to take her at her word. While the bare facts of her story do lead from sickness to a tentative health, Manguso is intimately concerned with the ways in which we disarrange our own narratives.

“How long was I sick?” she wonders late in the book. She responds by noting that her first symptoms appeared on March 26, 1995, but that, before that, she had had a head cold for weeks which had probably triggered her disease. She had refused to give in to that head cold, allowing it to linger, held slightly at bay, because her choir was giving a performance and she was supposed to be signing a Gregorio Allegri setting from 1630. “But that story,” she writes, “began in the seventeenth century, before Mozart was even born. So when did I first get sick?” As Manguso realizes, no narrative is self-contained because everything is related to everything else. Although she is forced to provide a shape to her story, she chooses a fragmented one, built on a series of a short chapters that are often little more than short anecdote.

Scalise gives his story a more traditional form, but he understands just as much as Manguso the importance of complicating his own narrative. “In the early days,” he writes late in the book, “I endured a disaster, then moved on to tell the tale of it. I made it mine, or at least appeared to. Now I was unmoored and tentative, divorced from that time, part of me glad and bidding it good riddance, but another, louder part of me wishing…that I could return to my lovely tenure under its full influence.” Here as elsewhere, Scalise suggests that the real illness narrative is not about overcoming the initial onslaught of the sickness, but about how to live on in its aftermath, having to define yourself as existing, at long last, apart from the mere fact of your disease.

Looking for Meaning in ‘Riverine’


Angela Palm is obsessed with metaphor. Or: Angela Palm is obsessed with finding meaning. In the end, do they amount to the same thing?

In Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, Palm’s memoir about her upbringing in rustic Indiana and her subsequent post-rural life, she deploys a veritable gallery of lyrical comparisons, probing every possible detail for some sort of larger significance. Here, for example, is the author reflecting on the destiny of a childhood friend:
Bifurcation comes to mind when I think of Corey. As in the division of the common carotid artery. As in the shape made by the branching of the Kankakee River and the Illinois River. As in me going one way and Corey going another. As in the way people lose themselves, splitting further and further from their origins. As in the roots of hosta shoots, separated by mutation or by force.
At work in this passage and in the book as a whole is a mind that can’t help but see everything as somehow connected, as intrinsically meaningful. And isn’t this, after all, what all writers — all humans — do? Is that not how we come to understand the unknown, grasping the unfathomable by comparison with what is familiar to us? If Riverine is, in this sense, mining the territory familiar to any coming-of-age narrative, then it stands out both by the relentlessness with which the comparative mind of the author works and by her willingness to question her own metaphor-making tendency.

From the start, Palm draws on a rich, imaginative vein to not only give a sense of the place in which she grew up, but of the ways that her childhood self viewed that place. She recalls staring at a map when she was a girl and seeing two pink dots representing the town in which she technically lived and the town whose name, by a quirk of the postal system, appeared on her mailing address. Obsessed by the yellow space on the map in between the two dots, the young Angela has her mom drive her out to the no-man’s land, only to find it is the familiar territory of her everyday life — that they have barely moved any distance from their house. From this, Palm conceives of herself as living in the “fringes”, not only not belonging to either town, but neither fully connected to nor fully distanced from the geography of her childhood. “Filled with this new view,” she writes, “I knew that I was neither sort, but instead some half-breed spawn of both worlds and alien to both.”

Where Palm lives in the first section of the book, comprising the earliest years of her life, is on the banks of the Kankakee River, in the middle of a floodplain. Vividly evoking this liminal space, subject to perennial overflow from the river and isolated from her more prosperous classmates who live properly in town, Palm suggests that geography may well be destiny. Like the Kankakee River returning to its plan from its pre-19th-century rerouting, only to flood Palm’s childhood home, the inhabitants of the author’s neighborhood seem unable to escape the circumstances of their land’s harsh geography. Generally poor and socially immobile, the community is fixed in its position both by the unfavorable land and the economic circumstances that keep it tied to that land.

Among those neighbors of the young Angela is Corey, a boy three years older than she who lives next door. Childhood playmates, the two skirt a romantic and sexual involvement as they grow into their teenage years, one that never quite manifests but remains as a tantalizing what-if. This what-if becomes the stuff of pained contemplation for Palm when Corey is sentenced to life in prison for killing an elderly couple. But as Palm is quick to point out, Corey was not wholly to blame for the murders, his path having been set by a life of poverty and a series of petty crimes for which his lowly social status had not allowed him to escape harsh justice. “If Corey hadn’t spent four of his formative years in juvenile detention centers for crimes that rich kids had been let off for,” Palm wonders, “would it have gone this far?”

How much of a person’s course in life is determined by their geography, by the circumstances of his or her upbringing, and how much is that person in charge of shaping his or her own destiny? This is where the stakes of Palm’s metaphor-making take on a more serious import. If we understand everything as metaphor, if everything can be slotted into a pre-ordained meaning, then we are left with very little freedom as individuals, entrusted with almost no responsibility for our actions. As such, Palm continually struggles against her natural comparative tendency and, in so doing, provides much of the tension of the book’s later sections. Talking about an old boyfriend, for example, she writes, “Greg worked as an excavator, rearranging the terrain. I liked his job as a metaphor” before quickly acknowledging that metaphor isn’t enough to sustain their relationship and that they were always completely incompatible.

The dangers of seeing everything as metaphor, of adhering to strict notions of geography, become much greater when Palm finally gets around to considering her own path in contrast with that of Corey. Although they grew up in the same environment, subject to the same flood patterns of the Kankakee, their lives took on very different trajectories. Palm moved to Vermont, married, had kids, and became a writer while Corey remained confined to an Indiana prison. While both these new environments had their effects on the two childhood friends, Angela’s semi-rural Vermont home opening up her world as Corey’s prison home constricted his, Palm ultimately recognizes that a person’s life is not simply a product of his or her environment, not understandable by simple recourse to metaphors of rivers and flat plains, but something autonomous and unpredictable.

“In some ways, he was made by where we were from and who he was from,” Palm concludes after visiting Corey in jail. “But he had also made bad choices. And by his word, he’d never valued his own future enough to make better ones.” But then after coming to this conclusion, she tracks backward, introducing yet another metaphor, one that seems to retip the balance toward environmental determinism: “People, especially young ones, are malleable. Like wet sediment. Guided by whatever kind of banks have lined their river, by what has held them.” Endlessly searching for ways to understand the world around her, Palm by turns reaches for and rejects her surest tool for bringing clarification to her life. By struggling against her own tendencies to impose arbitrary meaning while still searching for and locating that meaning, she does the hard work of essaying. As such Riverine stands as a bold reckoning with not only an individual’s past and present but with the very apparatus of truth-making itself.