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Jean Giono: Pour saluer Melville (Melville: A Novel)

Jean Giono was a great lover of the work of Hermann Melville and, indeed, translated Moby Dick into French, taking three years over it. The translation is still in print, despite there having been other translations of the work since. This novel was intended as an introduction to the translation but it changed from being a simple introductory biographical/critical text to a story about a period in Melville’s life, and became a separate work.

The opening of the work describes his love of the book and gives us a brief biography of Melville – the death of his father when he was fifteen which meant he had to go out to work, his initial and unsuccessful career as a banker, his work on a farm and then his signing up on a whaler without telling his mother. He came back from the journey and became a teacher but read all he could about the sea before going back to whaling under Captain Pease, the model for Captain Ahab. This was a voyage that lasted fifteen months and ended (for Melville) with his desertion in Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas.

Giono then jumps to Melville’s literary success. He has also married. (Giono calls her Mistress Melville in the French text.) He has written White Jacket and is to travel to London to give it to his British publishers. He arrives in London and hands the manuscript over to his publishers. They seem only interested in getting their hands on the manuscript and, as soon as they have it, they dismiss him. He now has two weeks till his ship returns to the United States and is at something of a loss about what to do with his time.

He leaves his hotel and speaks to a young man, asking him what he would do with his time in similar circumstances. The young man says, if he had some money, he would go to Woodcut, near Berkeley, north of Bristol. (I can find no evidence for such a place. Did he perhaps mean Woodmancote which is near Berkeley? Given that the whole story seems to have been invented, Woodcut may simply be a fictitious place.) When the young man is asked why he would want to got to Woodcut, he explains because that is where his girlfriend, Jenny, lives. Melville then decides that he will go to Woodcut and even offers to pass on a message to Jenny. The young man declines.

Meanwhile, Melville has a long discussion with his angel. Yes, he has a sort of guardian angel. As we know, Melville had been thinking of writing a historical romance at this time. He tells the angel that he gives the public what they want. The angel tells him to do just the opposite. He will continue his discussions with the angel but we also know that the next book he wrote was not a historical romance, it was Moby Dick.

We follow Melville in his travels to the West of England. As we might expect from Giono, there is a vivid description of the countryside (Giono does not seem too impressed, commenting on its bleakness). There does not seem to be any other passenger – Melville is riding up top – so he is surprised when, as they are crossing Dartmoor, a woman calls on Jack, the driver, to stop. He does and two strange, bedraggled men appear and the owner of the voice, a woman, talks to them and seems to give them some money.

Melville is, not surprisingly, interested in meeting the owner of the voice. Indeed, he speculates a lot about her. When they stop for a meal, he thinks about joining her but is too shy. Inevitably he does speak to her and most of the rest of the book is about their relationship, her role in helping the victims of the Great Famine currently taking place in Ireland (and criticism of UK government policy on this issue) and her influence on his writing of Moby Dick. Indeed, he will continue to write to her and when she stops writing, he still waits for a letter from her, up to his dying day.

There is no evidence whatsoever for this story. Indeed, we know what he did in London when he took the manuscript of White Jacket over. He did not have a publisher and had to spend some time going round the London publishers, before Bentley agreed to publish it. He enjoyed himself immensely in London and was not at loose end. He bought a seventeenth-century folio of Fifty Comedies and Tragedies by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher and a Ben Jonson folio, enjoyed the taverns and streets of London and researched locations for his book Israel Potter. He did not set out for the fictitious Woodcut.

Giono’s novels generally take place in rural France and deal with ordinary people, so this is something different for him, to take a real person, from the United States, set him in England and have him meet an Irish nationalist. It is certainly an interesting speculation on how he came to write Moby Dick instead of his historical romance though I have to wonder what Melville would have thought had he been told that his inspiration was an angel and an Irish woman he met on Dartmoor. Of course, Giono was going through a difficult period. He had been arrested in 1939 for being pro-Nazi and, though he was released, it had an effect on him. Immersing himself in Melville was undoubtedly part of his escape from that. However, fancilful it may be, it is a certainly an interesting footnote to Giono’s oeuvre.

First published in French in 1941 by Gallimard
First English translation in 2017 by New York Review of Books