The Passages of Herman Melville

Jay Parini

The Passages of Herman Melville

Jay Parini recreates the adventure-filled life and ignominious death of Herman Melville. Partly told from the perspective of his wife, Lizzie, the story opens with an aging, angry and drunken Melville wreaking domestic havoc in his unhappy New York home. From there it takes in the full span of a life that produced Moby-Dick and Billy Budd: shipping off to sea on a merchant vessel as an impoverished young aristocrat, a fateful voyage on a whaling ship, desertion in the Marquesas Islands and a sojourn with cannibals, instant fame as a novelist and the disappointments of his twilight years trudging the docks as a Customs Inspector. Along the way Parini navigates the torrid personal relationships and barely suppressed desires that defined Melville's life. 3.3 out of 5 based on 11 reviews
The Passages of Herman Melville

Omniscore:

Classification Fiction
Genre General Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format Hardback
Pages 464
RRP £17.99
Date of Publication January 2011
ISBN 978-1847679796
Publisher Canongate Books
 

Jay Parini recreates the adventure-filled life and ignominious death of Herman Melville. Partly told from the perspective of his wife, Lizzie, the story opens with an aging, angry and drunken Melville wreaking domestic havoc in his unhappy New York home. From there it takes in the full span of a life that produced Moby-Dick and Billy Budd: shipping off to sea on a merchant vessel as an impoverished young aristocrat, a fateful voyage on a whaling ship, desertion in the Marquesas Islands and a sojourn with cannibals, instant fame as a novelist and the disappointments of his twilight years trudging the docks as a Customs Inspector. Along the way Parini navigates the torrid personal relationships and barely suppressed desires that defined Melville's life.

Reviews

The Financial Times

John Sutherland

What, then, does Jay Parini bring to this life that is not found in the biographies? His eminently readable narrative convincingly fills in hitherto dark places... Parini hypothesises, equally convincingly, about the nature of Melville’s passionate friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne (the dedicatee of Moby-Dick) about which biography knows tantalisingly little. Most effectively, he creates (out of pure speculation) Mrs Melville’s story.

24/01/2011

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The Guardian

Philip Hoare

Parini's novel is a bravura and often engrossing attempt to blend the disparate strands of Melville's art and life in two perspectives... Parini's own prose is wonderfully fluid and evocative. Yet somehow Melville eludes it – possibly because we know how carefully he covered his traces.

22/01/2011

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The Los Angeles Times

Heller McAlpin

Parini's biographical novel manages to both inform and transport.

07/11/2010

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The Sunday Times

Stephen Amidon

What is most rewarding about this richly detailed book is Parini’s ability to frame a story of heroic failure with the knowledge that its subject will one day triumph.

23/01/2011

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The Independent on Sunday

David Evans

It is a thrilling tale, but Parini's account feels redundant... 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... While there is much to admire in this novel, it only deepens the mystery of Melville.

16/01/2011

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The Scotsman

Megan Marshall

A novel must supply answers, and Parini's are all too often prosaic, tending to diminish rather than enhance our estimation of the man. A large part of the problem is the language itself, too modern for the context... By the end of the novel the parade of nearly interchangeable boys, many of them invented, has become tiresome.

15/01/2011

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The Literary Review

Jonathan Beckman

Parini recounts all of this with unfussy clarity. At times, his Melville... seems a little too transparent and reportorial. But he voices the long-suffering Lizzie with a vibrant astringency. One might argue that Jay Parini ought to have claimed more imaginative licence - he cavils and hypothesises like a biographer - but this is nonetheless an engaging and sympathetic introduction...

01/02/2011

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The Observer

Daisy Hay

The Melville of the novel's third-person "Passages" narrative is a distant figure, particularly when he meditates on his writing. This is despite the fact that in these sections Parini incorporates Melville's own words into his prose. Biographical events transmute into art so straightforwardly as to render the account of Melville's creativity strangely literal, even reductive... But there is much to admire. The novel powerfully conveys the allure of the sea...

13/02/2011

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The Times

Adam Nicolson

That sense of genius, of its half-anarchic truth, is what is missing here. It is a strangely polite book about a man whose life and mind stepped beyond politeness.

08/01/2011

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The New Statesman

Sarah Churchwell

If Parini thinks that Melville's problem was, in a word, sex, this is also a problem with The Passages of Herman Melville... But Melville's open-mindedness wasn't exclusively sexual - it was profoundly political and philosophical. And it is that political imagination and engagement that is most lacking here, replaced by a surprisingly literal-minded, anachronistic and somewhat reductive interpretation of his "problem" as repressed homosexuality.

27/01/2011

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The Spectator

Philip Hensher

The Passages of Herman Melville is really a much more conventional work of fiction than Bartleby the Scrivener, or anything else Melville wrote, and Parini a much less ambitious novelist. It is an entertaining enough read, but a writer like Parini... is clearly delivering a reheated and tamed account of the most savage and unpredictable of imaginations.

15/01/2011

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