What's eating Herman? Novel fails to tell us

Book review: "The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville," by Jay Parini. Doubleday, $26.95.

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The real legend of "Moby-Dick" isn't found in the annals of whaling ships, but in that Berkshires summer of 1850 when Herman Melville fell in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

So believes Jay Parini, a writer whose fiction and nonfiction are about famous authors, most recently Leo Tolstoy of the novel "The Last Station." (It made a fine movie, by the way.)

Melville and Hawthorne did form a friendship when they lived near one another in the Western Massachusetts woods. It's true that Melville found in the dark, metaphysical tales of Hawthorne, especially the stories in "Mosses From an Old Manse," the inspiration that created one of the most powerful of all American novels.

Whether they did more than talk through the night remains speculation, yet it's enough to lend Mr. Parini a certain frisson to his re-created life of the troubled writer.

He takes a curious approach to his H.M. novel: Two streams of description, one a neutral third-person narration of Melville's biography, the other, in the voice of Lizzie, his (to hear her tell it) long-suffering wife.

The book is less than a third of the way along when Melville encounters men who will clearly be the sources of Billy Budd and Bartleby the scrivener. The young H.M., self-taught through extensive reading, is a likable, curious guy open to experiences as he makes several sea "passages."

When it's Lizzie's turn, we meet another Melville -- a surly, embittered drunk, angry and abusive to her and their children. There's little sign of the enthusiastic seeker of truth and sensitive soul who believed in the power of his words.

In that way, then, Mr. Parini's novel is about Lizzie as well. She was the cultivated daughter of a Boston judge who admired Melville for his first books, "Typee" and "Omoo," and presented the uncouth ex-sailor as a good prospect.

As expected, Mr. Parini painstakingly leads us about halfway through the book to the "pivotal" moment for Melville when he altered course for "Moby-Dick" and steered his singular book toward a debate about good and evil or the void vs. God.

"It stays in my head -- the idea that evil is ordinary and all around us," says Melville while skinny-dipping with Hawthorne in a Berkshires stream, "and that we have to own it before it destroys us."

"Then I have succeeded, in a small way," Hawthorne replies. Then, in a tone-deaf moment, Mr. Parini would have us believe he called it "a whale of a book."

I wonder whether Melville used "own" in the 21st-century sense, but the phrase is a clever summation of "Moby-Dick's" theme.

"Moby-Dick" was published in 1851 and fell flat on its face. The novelists' friendship cooled as their careers went in opposite directions and Melville would live until 1891 when he died in obscurity.

Mr. Parini tells us that Melville believed that it "might take a hundred years for readers to find their way to ['Moby-Dick'], but they would arrive."

Again, I wonder about this modern version of a 19th-century man created by Mr. Parini. Melville was obviously appreciated more fully by later readers as more and more of his unpublished works surfaced, including "Billy Budd" in 1924.

Was it possible that the writer could imagine the emergence of existentialism and spiritual doubts of the Western world after World War I when the struggle of Captain Ahab and the white whale gained larger significance? I doubt it.

Novels are an endlessly elastic medium; facts are not. Mr. Parini has mastered the details of Herman Melville's life, but his knowledge pales in the face of his subject's ineffable and intuitive genius.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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