three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
By: 
Jay Parini
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A Novel of Herman Melville

A-ThePassagesHMJay Parini, D. E. Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College, has published many collections of poetry, novels, and biographies. He is also a regular contributor to the Guardian and other publications. His 1990 novel The Last Station, based on the last year of the life of Leo Tolstoy, was recently adapted into film.

The Story: Lizzie, once a privileged daughter of a chief justice in Massachusetts, is now the frustrated wife of the aging Herman Melville, customs inspector, poet, and novelist. But Melville is not the successful writer that Lizzie imagined he would be; instead, he is moody, unpredictable, and disillusioned following the poor reception of his magnum opus, Moby-Dick. He is also attracted to younger men, especially his idol and friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Passages of H. M. moves back and forth between Lizzie's voice and a third-person narration that relates Melville's adventures as a merchant seaman in the South Seas, his romantic anguish, and his literary aspirations and challenges. Parini's imagination gives us both a glimpse into the soul of a literary genius and a fuller portrait of a lonely, disappointed man.
Doubleday. 454 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780385522779

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Parini balances plot and character with insights into not just the sources and evolution of Melville's specific works, but also the very nature and role of fiction. ... Parini's biographical novel manages to both inform and transport." Heller McAlpin

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Melville's life is such a gripping tale, it almost made me want to pick up my old copy of Moby-Dick and actually finish it this time. Almost." Benjamin Svetky

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Parini has dutifully covered a great deal of land and sea in an admirable attempt to map not only the wild sojourns but also the turbulent mind of his subject. ... The fabled events of Melville's life are faithfully but perhaps too ecstatically depicted in Parini's adoring re-creation." Anna Mundow

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Parini is more effective with the interior life of his hero than with the great author's famous adventures. ... But despite the dramatic potential of this material, there's a disappointing amount of shorthand storytelling here." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"There is simply no way to guess at the language of Melville's interior life, let alone its content. ... A novel must supply answers, and Parini's are all too often prosaic, tending to diminish rather than enhance our estimation of the man." Megan Marshall

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"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. ... 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

Critical Summary

Herman Melville's tormented soul comes to life through the prose of his wife, Lizzie, about whom very little is known in real life but who comes across as "a marvelous creation, a smoldering prisoner of bitterness and devotion, resentment and affection" (Washington Post). Any fictionalized biography of an elusive writer such as Herman Melville is certain to generate some controversy. Some critics found Parini's version of Melville's inner musings to be too much guesswork, although this may amount to a criticism of the genre as a whole. Most reviewers agreed, however, that Parini remains faithful to what facts we know of Melville and that Melville's life told through his wife's eyes renders the writer human and accessible, if sometimes robbed of drama. While some readers may prefer to intuit Melville's mind from the writer's own inspired works of fiction, others will find The Passages of H.M. to be a fine, insightful work of historical biography.