Books: Jay Parini's 'The Passages of H.M.,' reviewed by Ron Charles

The Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer tackles Jay Parini's novel that pulls from the life of Herman Melville, "The Passages of H.M."
By Ron Charles
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 11:28 PM


By Jay Parini


450 pp. $26.95

The Irish hold up "Ulysses," the Russians cherish "War and Peace," and we point to "Moby-Dick" - those national monuments we revere but seldom visit. Face it: Herman Melville, the man who wrote the most famous opening line in American literature, is now largely unread. Call me crazy, but that's a damnable fate, the literary equivalent of being lost at sea.

Luckily, I had a high school English teacher who sailed us through the pages of "Moby-Dick" with the unwavering determination of Captain Ahab. But in college and graduate school - focused on American literature! - we only pursued a few of Melville's shorter works, dark marvels like "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Billy Budd."

Size matters, but length isn't the only challenge posed by "Moby-Dick." It's a vortex that sucks up chunks of classical history and literature, theology and geography, nautical science and 19th-century industry. Melville's style is thick and demanding, too, even by the standards of his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Yes, it's a rip-roaring seafaring adventure, but it sails through rough waters of philosophy, and there's no escaping the howling wind of Melville's anguished mind.

But I feel a little closer to the surprising warmth of that mind after reading Jay Parini's new biographical novel, "The Passages of H.M." There are certainly fuller treatments of the author's life, starting with Hershel Parker's definitive biography - 2,000 pages in two volumes, completed in 2005 - but that's another leviathan more praised than read. Although Parini's story tacks close to the outline of Melville's experience, much has been artfully omitted, and what remains benefits from the novelist's ability to shape the story of a lonely man, a volcanic husband and an obsessed writer.

Parini has written such faction before. A longtime English professor at Middlebury College and a prolific literary critic, he's produced traditional biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner, but 20 years ago he wrote a novel about Tolstoy, "The Last Station," which was the basis for the recent film starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. I'm tempted to feel there's something vaguely cowardly about the biographical novel as a form, as though it's merely a preemptive defense against writing a dull novel (Remember, it's a biography) or an inaccurate biography (Please, it's a novel). And yet these hybrid books, with their crafted themes and dramatic arcs that no messy real life could follow, have given me an intimate sense of such figures as Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and Emily Dickinson.

That's certainly the case with "The Passages of H.M." In fact, Parini is more effective with the interior life of his hero than with the great author's famous adventures. He starts in 1839 when Melville is a restless 19-year-old, dreaming of serving on a whaler. We travel with him on his first voyage, a four-month round trip to Liverpool (total wage: $12), and then on to his next trip in 1841 to the South Seas in search of sperm whales. It was during that tumultuous voyage that Melville and a buddy deserted at Nuku Hiva. Melville went on to Tahiti and Hawaii and then returned home almost four years later with those tales of paradise, cannibals and sexual exploits that he published in "Typee" and "Omoo."

Parini is careful to highlight the biographical bases for Melville's stories, and the better you know his oeuvre, the more allusions you're likely to catch, as when a sick crewman refuses to work, "saying quite simply to his superiors, 'I prefer not to.' " And no one will miss young Melville's interest in the story of "Mocha Dick, a huge bull whale, white as a sail, who had smashed several ships in the course of an infamous life."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company