Parini sails through Melville's psyche in biographical novel
MIDDLEBURY — For the past three years, author Jay Parini has spent countless hours tracing the footsteps of Herman Melville through the streets of New York City and in the halls and bedroom chambers of Arrowhead, the 19th century author’s Berkshire estate.
“I would just sort of drift around the rooms of that house thinking about his life,” Parini said. “So, I know many of the scenes of his life pretty well.”
On Nov. 2, Doubleday released Parini’s 21st novel, “The Passages of H.M.” and next week Parini will perform a public reading at the Town Hall Theater. The book tells a fictional account of Melville’s life, based on Parini’s close reading of both Melville’s fictional works and historical documents relating to the eccentric author’s life.
“It’s kind of fun writing a biographical novel because you’ve got one foot in the realm of biography and one foot in the realm of fiction,” he said. “It’s a kind of a genre-bending type of book.”
He paints a striking image of the author who gave birth to the literary classic, “Moby Dick.” Like Ishmael or Starbuck, Melville — or H.M. as Parini refers to him — is described as a scraggly, yet handsome sailor — pirate-esque in appearance and manner. The novel follows H.M. throughout the course of his life and through many sea voyages, financial struggles and domestic disputes.
Though he never strayed too far from what scholars agree upon as fact, Parini found himself “filling in the blanks” of Melville’s life using his own imagination.
“I’m enough of a scholar-slash-biographer that I feel uncomfortable straying too far from the agreed-upon facts,” he said. “I rarely will move beyond what’s an agreed-upon fact. When there is a blank, I’ll try to fill it in. But I’m trying to really guess what the truth is. So I’m not just extemporizing, or making things up.”
Curiously, the beautifully languid and serene middle section of the novel adheres closely to accounts of Melville’s life among violent, bisexual cannibals that the author himself documented in his semi-fictional 1846 memoir, “Typee.” Melville was stranded on the island of Nuku Hiva, an island in the South Pacific, and held captive by natives for three weeks after jumping ship.
“Everything I suggest is based on real evidence, hard evidence,” Parini said.
In alternating chapters of the novel, Parini embodies the voice of Lizzie Melville, Herman’s rather unfortunate wife. She was the daughter of the prosperous and well-respected Lemuel Shaw, a Supreme Court judge for the state of Massachusetts, but found herself unhappily married to a writer that was “wildly reviled in his own time,” according to Parini.
“I had become, in middle age in the midst of marriage to Herman Melville, a captive. And I wanted my freedom.” Parini begins his novel with Lizzie’s voice, largely of Parini’s own invention.
“There are a handful of letters, and in a handful of comments by other people about her, they say she was wry and witty and smart,” he said. “And so I said, ok, I’ll go with that. And that’s how I did her.”
A letter from Sophia Hawthorne confirmed just how “wry Mrs. Melville was,” Parini said.
“You just need the tiniest bit to go on and you can imagine an entire character from that little bit,” he said.
Melville’s connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne, in particular, sparked Parini’s interest. Among scholars, Parini said, it is widely accepted that Melville “had a powerful homoerotic strain.”
His biographers touch on the subject lightly, but Parini decided to “just go with that a bit.”
“I don’t ever have him ever having homosexual, actual sex with men,” he said. “That’s not in the book. But he has some yearnings, which you have to say were ambivalent. He has sexual ambivalence.”
Melville’s relationship with Hawthorne, he said, seems to have been highly charged.
“If you read their letters, you’d have to be blind not to see what’s going on in those letters,” he said. “Especially from Melville’s side — I don’t think Hawthorne ever was interested in Melville in any erotic way. But he was drawn to him — drawn to his energy, and his craziness and his brilliance.”
Melville tended even to worship Hawthorne, Parini said.
“It was a very passionate relationship — not sexual, but emotional in a deep way,” he said. “I think I would say that Melville had deep, emotional connections with men. Not sexual, but emotional. But then you look at something like ‘Billy Budd,’ and it’s one of the great homoerotic texts of American literature. So, where’d that come from? I had to try to imagine.”
In writing the novel, Parini often played the role of investigator. He asked, “What might have happened on one of Melville’s earliest voyages, to Bermuda, to have inspired this novella?”
“I had to try to imagine my way backward,” he said. “I take the text, like ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Billy Budd,’ and I work my way backward and say, ‘How could he have got there? What might have been the life circumstances that might have led to those masterworks?’”
Melville, according to Parini, remains one of the greatest American writers of his time.
“Melville lived larger than life and also he wrote the greatest novel of the 19th century in America: ‘Moby Dick,’ and the greatest novella, possibly, in ‘Billy Budd,’” he said. “I mean these are absolutely classic works.”
For Parini, Melville’s accomplishments, when combined with his intensely bizarre personality, made for the perfect stuff of a novel.
“The more eccentric the better, because it gives you something to write about,” he said. “I love writing about a writer who’s twisted or difficult, conflicted. I mean Melville, basically, is just conflicted. Everything is conflicted about him. But you know, Tolstoy was a monster in his own way, a difficult man.”
Parini’s 1990 novel based on Leo Tolstoy, “The Last Station,” was released as a feature film last year. Just as with Melville in “The Passages of H.M.,” Parini took the basic outline of Tolstoy’s life and colored it in.
Currently, Parini is working to complete a screenplay of his novel, “Benjamin’s Crossing,” a biographical and historical novel about Walter Benjamin.
“If things work out well, we’ll be shooting this summer in Europe,” he said.
At the same time, Parini is juggling yet another novel, though this one will not feature a famous author.
“There’s no person next,” he said. “I have a ghost story set in Vermont that I’m working on now.”
Parini is taking a break from biographical novels — and a break from Melville.
“When I’m finished with a writer, I’m hugely finished with him,” he said. “I keep getting drawn into Robert Frost and Tolstoy over and over again, but I don’t think that that will happen with Melville. Usually, I like to put a thing like this behind me once it’s done because you put such an intense focus ... For two-and-a-half, three years, you know, I spent three years reading and thinking about Melville to write this book. That work is so intense that I’m quite eager to get it over with.”
But all is not said and done with Melville quite yet — on Nov. 16, Parini will be celebrating the release of his new novel at the Town Hall Theater as a part of the Vermont Bookshop Author Series. The event will begin with an on-stage interview of the author conducted by Becky Dayton, followed by a reading by Parini and a reception. The event is free and open to the public.
“The first thing I ever wrote for publication was a little article on Melville’s poetry for a Scottish literary journal,” Parini said. “And so, it’s kind of interesting that the very first thing I published was on Melville. It’s been kind of a lifelong interest.”
Tamara Hilmes is at firstname.lastname@example.org.