If you haven’t read Moby-Dick ever in your life, then I suggest you read it at least once before you die. It is absolutely one of those books you must read. A slow read yes but something that you must experience for yourself. Moby-Dick is a vast read and full of adventure, pathos and life. The reason I mention it now is I have finished reading a wonderful book about Herman Melville (the author of Moby-Dick) and his life before he even wrote the classic.
“The Passages of Herman Melville” by Jay Parini is one of those literature historical fiction books that I would not have wanted to give a miss and thankfully did not. The year is 1841 and Herman Melville hasn’t written his masterpiece yet. He nonetheless sets out on a voyage aboard a whaling ship and what occurs on one trip will give him enough material to write his new book.
What Melville leaves out in the book are the darker incidents that took place while he was on ship and in port towns such as Calabooza Beretanee, one of the most idyllic prisons known to literature. The book also alternates between the chapters of Herman and his wife Lizzie – two different perspectives which make for a fantastic reading. I like how historical fiction can be made to seem real just by the writing style and strong research, which clearly has gone into this book.
There is depiction of Herman Melville being this egotistical character and quite believable too. He was like that to a very large extent and on the other hand there is Lizzie, who endures because that is what women did way back then. Lizzie comes off the page as I thought she would before reading the book, while remaining hidden in her husband’s famous shadow. The comparison of Melville’s youth and his unhappy old age is juxtaposed brilliantly in the book. For one, it doesn’t come across as being disjointed or disconnected and that is what makes the book what it is.
Parini’s writing is easy, though the book cannot be read in one sitting. Jay Parini brings every scene to life in his book and that is one of his accomplishments. One can almost taste the salty sea, social groups on-board, and the sexual frustration amongst men rising through the pages. There are a few literature historical fiction books that manage to keep you glued to them. Herman Melville’s life was not an easy one. One of the few American Literary Masters who was perceived as a drunk and a crumbling figure who was trying to come to terms with his existence. I love how Parini has brought about the inner conflict of writers and their loved ones’ emotions as well through this book. A must read. Also you don’t have to have read Moby-Dick to read this one.