Canongate £17.99

The Passages of Herman Melville, By Jay Parini

The truth about Melville remains as elusive as that great white whale

In his exquisite short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener", Herman Melville writes of his protagonist that "no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man".

And so it is with Melville himself. Posterity lifted the author of Moby-Dick to the ranks of America's greatest writers, but he was overlooked in his own time, many of his letters and manuscripts are lost and there is much that remains open to conjecture.

Jay Parini's novel The Passages of Herman Melville aims to give us a clearer picture of the enigmatic "H M", recreating episodes from his early adventures at sea to his final years as a struggling poet. Parini's historical fiction – he has previously written novels about Tolstoy and Walter Benjamin – is based on his conviction that literary art can illuminate where conventional scholarship cannot: he has Melville observe that "only novels tell the unadorned truth". He explores aspects of Melville's life that remain beyond the reach of biographers: the subtleties of his relationship with his wife, Lizzie; the depth of his frustration at the commercial failure of his books; the homoerotic undercurrent to his friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The first half of the novel describes Melville's experiences as a young sailor. Parini recounts how, on a whaling voyage in the Pacific in 1842, Melville jumped ship and lived among a tribe of cannibals on the island of Nuku Hiva before escaping to Hawaii to join the crew of an American frigate bound for home. It is a thrilling tale, but Parini's account feels redundant; after all, Melville published two very readable books – Typee and Omoo – about his time in Polynesia, and one might as well consult the man himself.

Another problem with these chapters is Parini's tendency to speculate about where Melville picked up the ideas for the rich, philosophical fiction he penned in the 1850s. Bartleby's famous remark "I prefer not to" is spoken by a recalcitrant shipmate on an early cruise ("the phrase etched itself in H M's brain"), while Moby-Dick's Captain Ahab springs from the tale of a monomaniac whaling captain overheard one night on deck ("the narrative sunk deep in Herman's memory"). This crude approach gives the false impression that Melville – possessed of perhaps the most powerful imagination in American literature – was simply a talented magpie.

Parini is better when he turns to the later years. The account of Melville's all-too-brief career as a writer, before the steady decline into obscurity, is delicate and convincing. And when Parini appraises the work, he has the knack for finding just the right phrase, as when he refers to Melville's "iron whimsicality": a more precise description of his singular prose style you will not find. The image of Melville as an old man, after he had given up fiction and taken a job in a New York customs house, is beautifully drawn: "He had lived a thousand lives thus far ... in a way, he was already posthumous, ghosting the streets, watching and listening."

But while there is much to admire in this novel, it only deepens the mystery of Melville. The narrative is told partly in Lizzie's voice, partly in the third person, which means that we must rely on dialogue for glimpses of Melville's inner life. Unfortunately he is curiously reticent, offering only the odd gnomic utterance ("What lies beyond interests me"; "We can't see ourselves without stories"). As a result, Melville remains, like the white whale of his great novel, elusive to the last.

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvMartin Freeman’s casting is a stroke of genius

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players