A great novelist interprets another great novelist


Melville: A Novel by Jean Giono, Paul Eprile (Translator), Edmund White (Introduction), New York Review Classics, US $14.00, Pp 128, September 2017, ISBN 978-1681371375

In late 1849, Herman Melville traveled to London, UK, to deliver the manuscript of his novel White Jacket to his British publisher. On his return to America, Melville wrote Moby-Dick. Eight years after its publication in English, French novelist Jean Giono and his friend Lucien Jacques translated Moby-Dick into French for the first time. Giono also wrote a preface. The result was this literary essay or essai (as they say in French), Melville, which is part biography, part philosophical rumination, part romance, part unfettered fantasy. Paul Eprile’s expressive translation of this intimate homage brings the exchange full circle. In Melville, Jean Giono imagines what must have happened on the sea in between London and America. In the intro to Melville, Edmund White says that Melville is a short, lyrical novel about Herman Melville, his trip to London in the autumn of 1849.

The story in Melville goes like this. Melville meets with an Irish nationalist called Adelina White (she is purely fictional) in London. Giono’s Melville is a womanizer, well-recognized, successful, a big, burly man who sleeps in the nude and has a hairy chest. He wears second-hand sailor’s clothes, which he much prefers to a top hat and cutaway, his London uniform. When he is back in America, he throws himself into the massive undertaking of Moby Dick. He writes for the beguiling Adelina but, she must have died before she could read it. Even on his deathbed, Melville is still hoping to hear from her. Melville is so depressed after Adelina fails to respond to him, he enters a thirty-year period of silence.

Edmund White says that there were some similarities between Melville and Giono. Melville was a fierce egalitarian. He was against the flogging and severe penalties so prevalent on the high seas. On the other hand, Giono who had served in the World War II was a pacifist. When he wrote Melville, he had just emerged from the prison for the crime of pacifism, which the French state condemned as “defeatism.” He was again briefly imprisoned during WWII for collaborating with the Fascists. White says that his biggest collaboration was the reprinting of an old photo, without his permission, in a collaborationist magazine.

Both Melville and Giono had overbearing mothers. Both were precocious boys. Both had to drop out of school when their fathers died and both, oddly enough, had to go to work to a bank. Giono had written several folkloric short novels, which he felt he could manufacture like little buns, just as Melville had written his maritime adventure stories, which seemed to him as formulaic (Mardi is an exception). Both Melville and Giono were pantheists, or animists if that means they intuited god in every tree and a goddess in every lake. Melville, like Dickinson, was discovered only in the mid-twentieth century. White says that Giono has yet to be fully appreciated in the English-speaking world.

Melville is an absorbing ‘lyrical’ novel that shows Giono’s greatness as a novelist and his power of imagination. It is a testament of Giono’s pleasant originality and one of the great novelists of the century. It is also a testimony of the English/American literature’s influence on the French literature and vice versa. Melville is the way how a great novelist interprets another great novelist. You will enjoy Melville if you love to read classic literature.

Jean Giono (1895–1970) was born and lived most of his life in Manosque, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Largely self-educated, he started working as a bank clerk at the age of sixteen and reported for military service when World War I broke out. After the war, he returned to his job and family in Manosque and became a vocal, lifelong pacifist. After the success of Hill, which won the Prix Brentano, he left the bank and devoted his whole time to writing. During World War II, Giono was accused of collaboration with the Nazis because of his outspoken pacifism. After France’s liberation in 1944, he was imprisoned and held without charges. Giono continued writing and was elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1954.

Paul Eprile is a longtime publisher (Between the Lines, Toronto), as well as a poet and translator. He is currently translating Jean Giono’s 1951 novel, The Open Road. He lives on the Niagara Escarpment in Ontario, Canada.

Edmund White is the author of twenty-five books. His forthcoming The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading will be published in the spring of 2018.