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
Continue reading The Passages of H.M. by Jay Parini