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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Jean Giono

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To purchase Melville

Title: Melville
Author: Jean Giono
Genre: Novel
Written: 1941 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 112 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Melville - US
Melville - UK
Melville - Canada
Pour saluer Melville - Canada
Pour saluer Melville - France
Melville zum Gruß - Deutschland
Homenaje a Melville - España
  • French title: Pour saluer Melville
  • Translated by Paul Eprile
  • With an Introduction by Edmund White

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing little oddity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 16/7/1999 Karl Marcus Michel
The Guardian . 20/10/2017 Peter Beech
TLS A 22/11/2017 Nicholas Hewitt

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nennen wir es eine Huldigung an den Bruder in der Liebe zum Element: Erde grüßt Wasser. (...) Das alles ist kunterbunt, ein bißchen Lexikon, ein bißchen Biographie, ein bißchen Roman, und paßt nicht so recht zusammen. Aber es gibt ein paar Seiten, die sich ins Gedächtnis einprägen wie die besten Passagen in Gionos Werk" - Karl Marcus Michel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Melville is a unique compliment from one great writer to another, and worth reading for its compass-spinning oddity alone." - Peter Beech, The Guardian

  • "(A) rich and haunting "voyage imaginaire", shedding light not just on its ostensible subject, but on its author, love and loss, and the process and calling of artistic creation. (...) (A)n extraordinary book which richly deserves this belated attention and fine translation." - Nicholas Hewitt, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In the late 1930s Jean Giono helped translate Herman Melville's Moby-Dick into French, and Melville was apparently originally intended to serve as the introduction to the translation, but the two books were published separately, Giono's novel coming out a few months after the translation of Melville's great work, in 1941. It is very much a work of fiction, re-imagining bits of Melville's life (and not paying particular heed to accuracy ...); it is certainly not a scholarly or even popular introduction to the author or Moby-Dick; instead, it is a very creative homage.
       Melville begins with the author's (real) 1849 trip to London, to drop off the manuscript of his new novel, White-Jacket:

The book is written. He's put all his manly rage into it. Now he wants to have it published with as much fanfare as possible.
       Giono's Melville had expected that there would be some discussion and possibly editorial debates with his publisher, scheduling two weeks before his return to America, but Melville's publishers disappoint with their uncharacteristic deference: they just want the manuscript, assure him everything is in order with it -- "We'll do everything you want" -- and send him on his way. Suddenly, Melville has a lot of free time on his hands -- and he's not thrilled about the idea of spending it in London: "dark, soulless, noisy -- he can't stand it". So he looks around for an escape, and heads into the countryside. He gets to know a woman on his excursion, but it is an all-too brief connection as they must go their separate ways (but not before exchanging addresses).
       Giono places Melville at career-crossroads, too, as: "he has no desire to go on writing the kinds of insignificant books he knew how to write". And, upon his return to America, he embarks on Moby-Dick, explaining:
I have a long-held dream. I was biding my time. Now I'm going to fulfill it.
       One person he wants to share it with is the woman he encountered on his brief British outing, Adelina White. As Edmund White explains in his Introduction, Giono had a longtime affair with a married woman, Blanche Meyer, and Adelina is her double -- truer to Giono's biography ("Giono apparently ascribed many passages from Blanche's letters to Adelina") than Melville's (as Melville's actual European visit in 1849 included neither this particular side trip nor such a dalliance).
       Only the last few pages of the short Melville have the author back in the United States -- where he hopes for a reaction from distant Adelina to Moby-Dick, and then, disappointed, moves on to Pierre and Israel Potter, neither of which he takes much pride in. Then -- so Giono -- "thirty-four years of total silence". For Giono, Moby-Dick is the towering masterwork, and for his Melville crushingly: "it came too late" -- because it came too late for Adelina to reflect on it. (Giono fudges biography considerably here: after Israel Potter (1855) Melville published the great The Confidence Man in 1857 (though admittedly that novel was very poorly received), as well as the enormous (18,000 line !) epic poem, Clarel in 1876. So it wasn't like Melville withdrew into the complete silence Giono claims.)
       Melville is a strange little homage to the author. In a revealing passage Giono switches from third to first person:
His titles are, in reality, nothing but subtitles. The real title of each and every one of his books is Melville, Melville, Melville, again Melville, always Melville. I express myself; I'm incapable of expressing any being other than myself. I'm not obliged to create what other people want me to create. I don't get caught up in the law of supply and demand. I create what I am. What I am is a poet.
       While it should be noted that the original French title of the work isn't 'Melville' (but rather Pour saluer Melville), Giono clearly closely identifies with his subject -- and, at points, becomes him. As translator, Giono had to try to re-write Melville's words, creating his sentences anew in a different language -- Melvillean sentence he described as:"simultaneously a torrent, a mountain, a sea [...] It transports you; it drowns you" -- and as author he can't help but slip into Melville's skin as well -- or wish it upon himself, as the transference of his own beloved, in the form of Melville's imagined one, suggests.
       Melville is to some extent an author's reading of another author -- oddly limited, in a way, because Giono is so fixated on Moby-Dick, and indifferent to much of Melville's actual biography -- and yet incredibly enthusiastic. Giono worships Melville -- but it is a particular, far from the whole, Melville that he sees in his mind's eye, and tries to convey. It is a challenging exercise, given that Giono believes Melville is already entirely revealed and contained in each of his books -- each work already a Melville !
       Insofar as Giono's own rendering is based on his reading of Melville -- on the language, on Melville-(solely-)as-writer (in a particular time of his life) -- it is quite successful. And insofar as he can't keep himself out of it, as he reflects himself in the Melville-image he creates, it is an intriguing double-portrait of the artist(s). And all in all, it is certainly a fascinating read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 April 2018

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Melville: Reviews: Books by Herman Melville under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jean Giono lived 1895 to 1970.

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© 2018 the complete review

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