cover image Melville


Jean Giono, trans. from the French by Paul Eprile. New York Review Books, $14 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-68137-137-5

Giono’s experimental short work is not a full-length novel, nor does it have much to do with the real Herman Melville. It is a 20th-century French novelist’s fantasy of what it would be like to be a 19th-century genius inspired to write a masterpiece. According to Edmund White’s introduction, Giono (1895–1970), best known for fiction about his native Provençe, was writing a preface for his 1941 translation of Moby-Dick when his homage turned into a narrative, Giono’s self-portrait blending into and at times overtaking his portrait of Melville. Giono begins his fictional version of literary history with Melville’s return to America from England in 1849—carrying in his suitcase his own embalmed head. Like a Melvillean metaphor, the head symbolizes the American author’s newfound focus on writing Moby-Dick. Giono explains what led to this moment: Melville’s escape from an overbearing mother, his adventures at sea, his later literary success. In Giono’s account, Melville’s London publisher happily accedes to all Melville’s wishes; the writer’s only argument is with his guardian angel, who insists he quit writing entertainments and produce some serious art. Dramatic seascapes and gentle landscapes reveal Giono’s attraction to natural beauty. Evocations of exotic locales ring less true. White’s introduction enhances this slim volume, a literary curiosity with a few memorable passages. (Sept.)