Call him Rodrigo. Rodrigo Fresán takes a seat at a table on the terrace of the Central bookstore in Barcelona and it is impossible not to think of Ismael. Not only because we are here to talk about his latest novel, Melville (Penguin Random House), a literary lucubration full of nooks and crannies that takes as its pretext the figure of Allan Melvill, the father of Herman Melville (the mother, Maria Gansevoort, added the final “e”, to give the surname a package and to escape creditors), but because Fresán himself reminds today in his appearance of a sailor from the Pequod. He wears a wool hat and a sweatshirt/long coat combination that suggests that flamboyant overall, the grandissimusmade with the foreskin of a whale and with which the carving machine is covered for its cutting task in chapter XCV of Moby-Dick. There is also in the eyes of the novelist when he speaks of his novel a feverish look (although it is not the best word these days) of salt and hemp, of a whaler hooked to his prey by ropes and harpoons, jumping with the boat between the waves, the famous nantucket sled (“Wet the rope, wet the rope!”).
Melville is a fascinating artifact full of emotion and devotion to literature in which the biography of the father of the American author (of which hardly exists) is fantasized to build a great story about, among many other things, the father-son relationship , obsession (be it with whales, ice or books), the mystery of vocation and the complex paths of creation. Those who snort over there are the father of Melville and literature. At the heart of the novel is a true episode, Allan Melvill’s crossing of the frozen Hudson River on foot on December 10, 1831. That fact is the leitmotiv of the book and a fixed idea that vehemently drives Fresán (Buenos Aires, 58 years old) like the character of Ahab hunting his white whale.
“That is one of the real moments of the novel”, points out the writer of the crossing of the ice, who has begun speaking ―to get into the subject matter― of the homoerotic aspects in Moby-Dick (and in Melville, with his Hawthorne fixation), like Ismael’s quasi-marital relationship with Queequeg or the real spermaceti binge. And he has remembered that sexual life on board a whaler must be complex, at the very least, and that Patricio Pron told him that in the caravans of the Far West there was a trade that was that of the boys-women, young people who during the long voyage they dressed and acted as members of the other sex.
Fresán’s conversation, like his novel, is a passage from one idea to another, in an overflowing mosaic of issues, references and resonances. “Writing the real life of Allan Melvill is impossible, because we only have a few biographical glimpses,” says Fresán. “The existence of the father normally occupies barely a paragraph in the usual biographies of Herman Melville, a little more in the monumental one of Hershel Parker. Melvill is a blank page, and so I have been able to give him what I wanted. Fresán points out that in a certain way he has acted like his admired Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient, that the life of a real character, Count Lászlo Almásy, was invented, filling it with “glorious betrayals”. Or “David Lean with Lawrence of Arabia.”
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The idea of writing about Melville’s father, “beautiful loser”, is, recalls the novelist, from the protagonist of his previous book, the remembered partwho fantasized about writing a nouvelle about the character. Somehow, Fresán redeems him now in that frustrated longing.
The book Melville It is divided into three parts in which different narrative voices appear that sometimes overlap. In the first, there are long notes on the father’s life that are attributed to Herman Melville himself. In the second, Allan Melvill himself speaks, sick and tied to his bed, who develops an obsessive theory about ice (glaciology) and who evokes in his “white delirium” a third phantasmagorical character whom he met on his Grand Tour through Europa, an individual with vampiric attributes. It is not for nothing that Fresán is a lover of the fantastic, a reader of Stephen King, of draculaof Lovecraft, of the vampire tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas, and she’s carrying a Tim Powers novel under her arm today. In the third part of the novel, the author of Moby-Dick to talk about his life, his work and his father, with a necromantic fixation on the dead.
The text is full of real information and quotes from the Melvillian corpus (which the fan of the works of Melville and of Moby-Dick will identify with pleasure, as the list of the names of the ships with which the small). Also historical references to the writer’s family, such as those related to the two hero grandparents of the US War of Independence, and interesting speculations such as that billy budd it is rooted in Melville’s grief over the death of two of his sons, or the relationship of Bartleby and Kafka, or the fate of the lost manuscript. But in general, Fresán invents Melvill’s life and even makes jokes with some phrases from some of the character’s school notebooks that are fragments of the I wish you were here by Pink Floyd. In the novel, Herman talks about books that had not yet been published in his time. “I liked using chronologically impossible data, which alludes to the fact that Melville was ahead of his time, why not imagine fantastic visions for him?”
For Fresán, Melville’s own way of creating, mystifier of cannibals and thief of whales (the sperm whale of the Essex of Pollard), justifies doing whatever you want with it, though he disagrees with the view that Moby-Dick it got out of hand and that the mixture of genres and records is due to the fact that he wanted to do something else. “Although it looks like the Maelström, in Moby-Dick it’s all under control. Controlled in excess. A book like this has the obligation to be excessive”. Fresán himself is —he proves it Melville— for the challenges: “I prefer there to be a desire for style, even if you fail, than something well narrated without further ado. I am a great defender of literary complexity.”
The ice crossing
The cold ordeal of crossing the Melvill ice refers to that of George Washington’s Delaware. “Yes, and Julius Caesar’s Rubicon, but it’s not that epic, it’s only a 580-meter route; however, I was very influenced by that image of the man marching on the frozen crust, returning to his family to die delirious while his little son sees everything and thinks of the whiteness of the snow and ice that his father evokes.” There on the ice there is another unavoidable shadow: Frankenstein. Of the profusion of footnotes, Fresán says that it comes from his fondness for pale firefrom Nabokov.
It may be surprising that there are not more direct references in Melville to the white whale. Is it a premeditated emptiness? “Well, he already has a whole book for her,” jokes the novelist. “And the whale is the father, of course.” Fresán adds that he did not want the river crossing “to be suffocated by the whale.”
For the novelist residing in Barcelona, Moby-Dick, “The Multi-Symbolic Novel” is one of the four seminal works of American literature with the scarlet letterby Nathaniel Hawthorne; portrait of a lady; by Henry James, and Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twains. Although, he clarifies, “so much searching for the great American novel and it turns out, however, that it was written by a Russian, and it is Lolita”.