There can’t be many references in French fiction to the 1848 Chartist gathering on Kennington Common, let alone the Irish MPs Feargus O’Connor and William Smith O’Brien, but they constitute one of the many enigmas of Jean Giono’s little-known Pour saluer Melville. The first complete French edition of Moby-Dick appeared in 1941, with Giono as one of the translators, and, despite his subordinate role, was the culmination of an obsession with the author he came to consider as an alter ego. It was accompanied by the short text which has just been published by New York Review Books in an intelligent and moving translation by Paul Eprile, prefaced by Edmund White. Originally viewed as a fictionalized biography, Giono’s book is, as Eprile maintains, “A Novel”, 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.
Melville takes place in England in 1849, when the author came to London to sign a contract for his novel White Jacket with Bentley’s. This much is fact. But then, with copious pseudo-documentation, the narrative lurches into an entirely imaginary and geographically dislocated landscape. Whereas the historic Melville travelled to Paris and Brussels, Giono’s hero, unexpectedly at a loose end, undertakes a journey on a mail coach to the Severn Estuary, during which he falls in love with the beautiful Irishwoman Adelina White, engaged in wheat-smuggling into famine-stricken Ireland – a brief encounter which spurs Melville to write Moby-Dick but leaves him inconsolable. Thus emerges a complex compressed narrative in which the destinies of Giono and Melville intertwine. Both share the same close awareness of nature: Giono’s wild Upper Provence has the same elemental properties as Melville’s ocean and the anachronistic mail coach becomes a vessel on an inland sea. Both are at turning points in their careers, share the same mystical, quasi-religious concept of artistic creation, embodied in Melville’s struggle with his personal angel, and the same veneration for the woman who acts as their muse: Giono’s relationship with the married Blanche Meyer is transmuted into Melville’s adoration for Adelina White.
Accompanying this elision from “Blanche” to “White”, there is, of course, the ever-present White Whale itself, telegraphed at the beginning by the stable boy Dick who points Melville towards the Gloucestershire inn The Sign of the Old Sea-Fish – only one of the many intriguing strands in an extraordinary book which richly deserves this belated attention and fine translation.
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