Being a misunderstood genius can be rough. But it’s much, much rougher being married to one.
This is the inescapable conclusion of Jay Parini’s new novel The Passages of H.M., which ably continues the trend of giving famous 19th- century writers starring roles in biographical novels.
The H.M. of the title is Herman Melville, author of that sprawling American epic, “Moby-Dick,” a book which has struck despair into the hearts (and backs) of generations of high-schoolers. Melville's wife, Lizzie, as a pampered daughter of a Massachusetts Supreme Court justice, dreamed of marrying the American Charles Dickens. (Sadly, she neglected to compare notes with Mrs. Dickens before crafting a life plan).
She gets the brilliant writer and adventurer of her dreams, but this Melville also is a wife-beating manic-depressive who terrifies his children and spends more time longing for unattainable men, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, than for her.
Parini, whose “The Last Station,” about the tumultuous final years of the Tolstoys’ marriage, was turned into a movie starring Oscar-winner Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, is becoming a specialist in the fraught marital relations of 19th -century novelists.
He has plenty to work with in Melville, who was considerate enough toward future biographers to sign on board whaling ships bound for Cape Horn, journey around Polynesia and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), and be kidnapped by cannibals. But Parini has to invent Lizzie, about whom he says little was known, almost from scratch – creating an intelligent, bitter woman whose life is not at all what she expected but who is determined to endure.
Parini alternates Melville’s journeys with Lizzie’s depictions of Melville in middle age, stuck in a low-paying Customs House job and bewildered by the world’s failure to notice his brilliance. “In a way, he was already posthumous, ghosting the streets, watching and listening,” Lizzie says of her despondent husband.
It’s not necessary to have read any Melville to enjoy “The Passages of H.M.,” but Parini includes in-jokes for those who have, including a sailor who says, “I would prefer not to,” à la “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and chronicling Melville’s fascination with the real “Mocha Dick, a huge bull whale, white as a sail, who had smashed several ships in the course of an infamous life.”