In the fall of 1849, Herman Melville traveled to London to deliver his novel White-Jacket to his publisher. On his return to America, Melville would write Moby-Dick. Melville: A Novel imagines what happened in between: the adventurous writer fleeing London for the country, wrestling with an angel, falling in love with an Irish nationalist, and, finally, meeting the angel’s challenge—to express man’s fate by writing the novel that would become his masterpiece.
Eighty years after it appeared in English, Moby-Dick was translated into French for the first time by the Provençal novelist Jean Giono and his friend Lucien Jacques. The publisher persuaded Giono to write a preface, granting him unusual latitude. The result was this literary essai,
Melville: A Novel—part biography, part philosophical rumination, part romance, part unfettered fantasy. Paul Eprile’s expressive translation of this intimate homage brings the exchange full circle.
Paul Eprile was a co-winner of the French-American Foundation's 2018 Translation Prize for his translation of Melville.
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 Proven e, 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.