When I first read about The Passages of H.M. (thanks to Mark Athitakis), Jay Parini’s recent novelization of the life of Herman Melville, I pretty much knew I was going to read it…and not like it. And so I have.
The novel begins from the point of view of Lizzie, Melville’s wife, and alternates between chapters told by her, focusing on her life before and with Melville, and chapters told by an omniscient third-person narrator that follows Melville as he travels around the globe and back. Lizzie is an unhappy wife, with an unhappy husband, frightened children, and a difficult mother-in-law always in her home. Melville is himself, pretty much what you would expect, with a heavy focus on the homoerotic.
Despite all my Melville reading and my own best intentions, I have not in fact read a traditional biography of the man. I do know an awful lot about his life, between all the essays I’ve read on his novels, the fact that so many of them are at least partially autobiographical, and what have you. So for me, The Passages of H.M. was a novelization of things I generally knew, though not so well I would be upset by details massaged into historical-fictional form. But perhaps too well to really appreciate a novelization.
The big question for me throughout my reading was who this book is for. What audience wants to read so much about Melville without knowing his work? But knowing it will make The Passages of H.M. pale. Parini’s narrator can tell us about Melville’s adventures with Toby Greene among the Typee, but please, go read Typee instead. Read Redburn instead of the chapter about Melville’s adolescent trip to Liverpool. Read Omoo instead of its mirror image here. These are unquestionably Melville’s lesser works, but why read what basically amount to condensed versions of them, without Melville’s voice, when the originals (in these cases especially) are so easily readable and accessible?
Parini’s narrator doesn’t really compare. He tries to impart facts that are somewhat ridiculous. When young Melville makes his return voyage from Liverpool, different from the outgoing journey due to the presence of passengers, “mostly Irish,” he explains: “For some years, they had suffered late blight on their potatoes—the primary food in their culture and one that kept them from starvation in better years.” It’s bad enough I need to be taught about the potato famine, but really, “the primary food in their culture”?
Bits of letters and journal entries and notices in periodicals are interspersed throughout, both real and imagined. While the letters and journal entries in particular work pretty well, quotations from criticism seem dry and out of place. Early on in the novel, Lizzie writes, somewhat sarcastically:
The critics had obviously failed to discover his genius. Even his early admirers had abandoned him in mid-flight after the disaster of Mardi—a novel which the New York Examiner had called “a tedious fantasy of travel by sea that fails on every count as a narrative. It begins well, but it ends in the mists of confusion and incoherent dreaming. Mr. Melville himself must wonder what he has wrought. Readers will not stay with him long enough to make an informed decision.”
Doesn’t that seem like kind of a long quotation for a woman to include in a book she’s writing about her life with her husband (not that the reason for her narrative is ever explained)? Lizzie actually quotes from reviews elsewhere as well, but it always seems out of character. Parini indicates in his acknowledgements that, because she is relatively unknown, she is mostly made up. This is fine. But her character seems muddled. One minute she is very literary, in love with Dickens and clearly impressed by the fact that her future husband is a fairly famous author. But she seems to do little other than roll her eyes at his “literary pretensions” while they are married—until he writes Billy Budd, which she considers his masterwork. I did not understand Lizzie.
Which turns me back to one of my other complaints. I suppose it’s because the novel is about Melville’s life, not his work, but there is a much heavier focus on his early work. It’s not really so much on his work—it’s that we’re hearing about his early life, which turned into so much of his early work. But no, it’s more than that: there is an undeniably outsized focus on the era of Typee and Omoo, and to a lesser extent Redburn, even to the expense of White-Jacket, which you would think would fit right in there. We hear hardly anything at all about Mardi other than the passage above. Moby-Dick gets better coverage since Hawthorne helped Melville work out that novel’s issues, and Hawthorne is central to The Passages of H.M. But then so, so little for Pierre and The Confidence-Man—and little evidence that Parini thinks they are very good books at all. It’s not that he has bad taste in Melville; Lizzie defends Clarel on the grounds that “[t]he restrictions of Herman’s chosen form—a halting but rhymed tetrameter—were awkward in the way life itself was awkward.” But I do get a little annoyed at my favorites so ignored.
There are more objective problems than that as well. For example, the incredibly-annoying-after-a-while convention of alternating between calling Melville “H.M.” and “Herman.” The triteness (though probably all too real) of Melville’s relationship with his mother. The way the narrator just. keeps. repeating half-baked ideas about “truth” in “fiction.” And again, the audience. I think it’s probably fans of historical fiction generally who would most enjoy this, and not necessarily anyone with any interest in Melville at all.
Or people with, you know, a smallish sort of interest. I haven’t complained at all about Parini’s treatment of Melville’s psychology. I don’t think it’s half bad; it’s closer to how I “feel” about it than lots of what I read. And maybe to some extent edifying. Though not, you know, as edifying as the man himself.