A Moustache Too Far

Danny Karlin

  • Herman Melville: A Biography. Vol. II: 1851-91 by Hershel Parker
    Johns Hopkins, 997 pp, £31.00, May 2002, ISBN 0 8018 6892 0

When the narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu at last meets his idol, the great writer Bergotte, he gets a terrible shock: instead of the ‘white-haired, sweet Singer’ of his imagination, he sees ‘a young man, uncouth, short, thickset and myopic, with a red nose shaped like a snail-shell and a black goatee’. The fantasy Bergotte vanishes, but the caricature that replaces him is not intrinsically more ‘real’. Time radiates in two directions, or dimensions, from this encounter: as a mirage belonging to the past dissolves, knowledge from the future comes into play. The narrator, who will become Bergotte’s close friend, now tells us things about him which he only gradually learned, but which in turn correct the disillusioning swerve of that first physical impression. Among these things are Bergotte’s family history, his milieu. When the narrator meets some of Bergotte’s siblings, he realises that there is a family ‘voice’ from which Bergotte’s style has developed: ‘something brusque and rough in the final words of a lighthearted sentence, something faint and languishing at the close of a sad one’. These traits of spoken language belong to a vulgar household, filled with the clamour of a large family fond of coarse jokes and prone to sentimental effusions. Other households might be more refined, more elegant, but not, the narrator realises, necessarily more suited to the formation of a great artist. Bergotte does not simply transmit his inherited voice, he transposes it. ‘To wander the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful automobile,’ Proust writes, ‘but an automobile which … is capable of converting its horizontal speed into the power of ascent.’ When Bergotte became a writer, the ‘simple machine’ bequeathed to him by his family acquired this power; wittier or more refined friends ‘might return home in their fine Rolls-Royces, showing a certain scorn for the vulgarity of the Bergottes; but he, in his simple machine which had at last “taken off”, he soared above them.’

Bergotte soars above not just family friends, but the family itself, whose conversation is transmuted into his style. It is easy to see how dangerous, how fallacious the practice of literary biography looks in this light. The significance of a writer’s background, his context, is that of a point of departure: art is an escape, a flight of speech to the printed page, where the reader’s imagination is free to encounter the writer’s; biography moves in the opposite direction, dissolving text back into conversation, returning the writer to his ‘household’, reincarnating his family, bringing him back to earth. The better the biography, the worse: the great smooth luxurious Rolls reconverts the energy of the writer’s ascent into mere horizontal force.

The publication of the second volume of Hershel Parker’s biography of Herman Melville brings to a close an enterprise of archival and critical scholarship that has lasted forty years – nearly as long as Melville’s writing career. The picture of Melville – its outlines were drawn in Volume I, which was published in 1996, and covered the years 1819 to 1851 – is enlarged, deepened, but substantially confirmed by Volume II. Volume I ends with what Parker suggests was ‘the happiest day of Melville’s life’: Friday, 14 November 1851, the day he presented Hawthorne with a copy of the novel dedicated to him, Moby-Dick, in the dining-room of Curtis’s Hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts. Volume II chronicles Melville’s long, painful decline, marked by misfortune and miscalculation: literary failure, marital conflict, the deaths of children (one of them almost certainly a suicide, though the family desperately tried to avoid the stigma), humiliating obscurity and drudgery; yet through it all the persistence of the toughest native wit America had ever produced, and the writing of ‘Bartleby’, and ‘Benito Cereno’, and Billy Budd. It is – it should be – a tremendous story, perhaps the greatest in American letters, but Parker has botched it.

Herman Melville is above all a family portrait. Melville is surrounded, at all times and in all places, by his relatives and relations; his co-ordinates are determined by genealogy, family history, social topography. Parker is fascinated by the ramifications of the Melvill(e) clan, by the places they lived in, the things they owned, their activities, journeys, opinions, feuds; his Melville is caught (revealed, trapped) in their mass. Parker knows perfectly well that Melville was not a mere product – however complex – of his milieu. He tells us again and again how exceptional, how peculiar Melville was, how stark a figure he cuts against the conventional backdrop of gender, class, family, nation; how radical were his renunciations (of piety, of success) and his desires (of friendship, and of freedom from tyranny – both the tyranny of the majority, which Tocqueville saw as the great danger of American democracy, and the tyranny of money). But Parker’s Melville is nonetheless helplessly, hopelessly entangled in his earthly travail, mired and clogged where he should be swift; our view of him is blurred just where it should be clearest and most vivid. Parker’s tremendous outlay on props, costumes and scenery very nearly results in distracting us altogether from the action of the drama.

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