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A daring, doomed quest to decode Herman Melville

"Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,/ Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,/ Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine --/ Unweave a rainbow," wrote John Keats in "Lamia." Keats famously accused Sir Isaac Newton of destroying the rainbow's beauty by explaining it via optics and physics. Certainly such a binary, either/or understanding, is limiting and debatable.

Nevertheless, there may be areas of human understanding where the rational and the irrational do establish antipodean poles. One such area might be the Hollywood bio-pic and other attempts to explain an artist's work by investigating her or his life with the assumption that art equals biography.

Certainly the understanding of art can be expanded by understanding the life. However, attempting to draw definitive cause-and-effect chains connecting person and product is kind of silly, depending on the claims made about the results and their definitiveness. This potential silliness can apply even when artists attempt to limn the processes and lives of other artists.

Although artists might be reasonably expected to possess more insight into the creative process, they can be as blind as anyone when it comes to spelunking in the weird cave of someone else's creativity. Ultimately, there is nothing more individual, and hermetic -- a trait that comes with potential pathological side-effects -- than the genes and events and information (defined in every way possible) that result in, say, "Moby Dick."

Even so, intrepid biographical travelers keep trekking into the heart of darkness. Maybe it's just the human drive to find patterns in the world and therefore to better understand what surrounds us.

"The Passages of H.M.," a novel by Jay Parini, is such a safari, in search of Herman Melville, who looms in American literature as hugely as his white whale. Many would argue that "Moby Dick" is still, after 159 years, the Great American Novel; further, unlike many other candidates for the title, because of its breathtaking vision and formal innovations, it is considered by some to be among the most influential texts, regardless of genre or language, in the history of document-making in the world.

Beyond "Moby Dick," Melville produced iconic proto-modernist stories such as "Bartleby the Scrivener," and novels from the early "bestseller" "Typee" to the final, unfinished "Billy Budd," (eventually made into both a major movie and a great 20th century opera).

Like Thomas Hardy, Melville largely abandoned prose writing for poetry in his later years (except in Melville's case, with sadder results).

Add to this a life mixing family turmoil and tragedy, social class and an artistic arc from early celebrity to critical bafflement to obscurity, and it's easy to see why a fellow writer would take on the quest to imagine Melville -- and why readers might be interested.

Parini gave this treatment to Leo Tolstoy in his novel "The Last Station," which became a critically acclaimed 2009 movie (with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife Sofya. Maybe the same thing will happen with "The Passages of H.M.": Jeff Bridges as H.M., Laura Linney as wife Lizzie?). Here, in a life less spectacular in its drama than Tolstoy's, the result is laudable but problematic, for complicated reasons.

Parini alternates between first-person versions of Lizzie's view of Melville, and third-person sections from his side of things. Almost nothing is known of Lizzie historically, so she is created from whole cloth. The third-person sections amalgamate Parini and biographical information about Melville. The totality is an imaginative, diligent and meticulous novel, but ultimately it has an impossible purpose, and that's the problem.

The H.M. of Parini's book is shaped by two strong currents, both oceanic in their lifelong hold over his imagination and emotional life. The first is H.M.'s time at sea as a young man, working his way around the world as a deckhand. The things he saw, the people he encountered, and the cultures he became immersed in -- especially those of the Pacific islands on which he sojourned in his early 20s -- infused everything that followed in his life.

The other major current is Parini's sensitive imagining of Melville's complex sexuality. There's a thread of homoeroticism running through Melville's work, and Parini posits in Melville a lifelong yearning for male relationships that would parallel the romantic depths of conventional heterosexual coupling, but allow a bonding and understanding only possible between men (an idea as old as Classical era Greece and Rome). Parini's H.M. has a handful of powerful -- but frustrating -- encounters over the course of his life with male friends and acquaintances, from shipmates to literary peers such as Walt Whitman and, especially, Nathaniel Hawthorne. These relations become material and find their way into the books, including H.M.'s final work, "Billy Budd," (not published until 33 years after his death) about a "shimmering object a handsome sailor."

One of the issues raised by "The Passages of H.M." is that the creative process is self-reflexive. Once begun, it is no longer a natural progression, but is instead one of the most self-conscious and "unnatural" and illogical processes possible, a constant feedback loop coiling in on itself and responding to itself, and changing with every change, often for reasons unknowable even to the artist, dictated from the subconscious. How can that be conventionally presented to a novel reader (or a movie viewer, or the reader of a scholarly journal or biography)? It can't, really. The effort is akin to paleontology, creating based on a stone footprint the living, breathing creature that made it. (Maybe for an artist the life is the fossil, and the work is the living thing?)

"The Passages of H.M." sensitively, insightfully presents a complex life, but "H.M.," even in this careful book a man of darkness and deep paradox and physicality and abyssal, irrational passions, rightfully sails beyond us.

Ed Taylor is a local writing teacher and freelance critic.

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The Passages of H.M.

By Jay Parini

Doubleday

454 pages, $26.95

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