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Review | A novel written by husband and wife illuminates Melville and marriage


“Bon voyage,” says the narrator’s husband as he turns out the light to go to sleep. So begins “Dayswork,” a brief, illuminating book about Melville and marriage. One could trim the nibs of a great number of Herman Melville’s famous quill pens analyzing the question of genre in “Dayswork.” It calls itself a novel, but it is also a biography, a work of literary criticism, a poem and a pandemic diary. Most unusually, it is co-authored by a married couple — Jennifer Habel, a poet, and Chris Bachelder, a novelist.

Perhaps only a married couple could capture the daily rhythms of marriage so well. “Dayswork” stitches together the facts of Melville’s life and work by a logic of association and conversation, as the narrator tells us, and her husband, about her ever-sprawling inquiry. Written in fragments of (mostly) a few lines, so the words seem to bob on a sea of blank white pages, the ideas come together elegantly and with deadpan timing. In a riff on “the nearly illegible manuscripts of male geniuses” — Melville’s handwriting has bedeviled copyists from his wife to his biographers, who have had to decipher whether a given scribble is “peroration” or “promotion,” “scared” or “sacred” — the narrator informs her husband that Tolstoy’s wife used a candle and a magnifying glass to interpret the messy drafts of “War and Peace.”

She copied War and Peace seven times, I told my husband while he read online reviews of propane heaters.

That’s a lot, he said.

We’re well past the point in our marriage when we might fight about the Tolstoys’ division of labor.

The “story” of “Dayswork” is nothing other than the act of research, set against the surreal domesticity of the recent past. Some characters are living (a wife in the grip of an intellectual passion; a husband who is game, dry and distant; two daughters on Zoom school), while others are dead (Melville and his family; Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell; a host of other scholars, critics and devotees). Habel and Bachelder’s form works beautifully to at once evoke and hold back the tide of information. Just as a line drawing can bring more to life than a thickly impastoed canvas, I came to know Melville — his work, his house, his debts and his silences — in a deeper and more profound way by reading this book.

“Dayswork” pays special attention to the Melvilles’ union, which is counterpoised with Hardwick and Lowell’s. Writing with one’s spouse is an interesting endeavor, but Habel and Bachelder are so deeply immersed in the wealth of writing around and about Melville that their book has the feeling of a choral work. It is not two that made this project but many more. We meet Darcey Steinke, the author of a book about menopause who became obsessed with “Moby-Dick and “grandmother” whales; Hershel Parker, the crusty and dogged author of a 2,000-page tome on Melville’s life, here referred to only as The Biographer; and a psychologist named Henry A. Murray, who labored for years on a Melville biography (never finished), as well as a book (also never finished) that he intended to co-author with his lover. (Murray and partner did finish a tower, which they built on the Parker River in Massachusetts, where they performed “ceremonies and rituals — erotic, culinary, intellectual, spiritual.” Nathaniel Hawthorne built a tower, the narrator tells us; Melville wanted to, but didn’t.)

One must feel awe, and a little bit of terror, at how Melville crashed his life on the shore of language — and how many Melvilleans have gone down with him. “Only small endeavors may be completed by those who begin them, says Melville (or Ishmael),” the authors write, “and so: God keep me from ever completing anything.” One scholar who captures their imagination is Harrison Hayford, who made it his life’s work to root out textual inconsistencies and produce the definitive Melville corpus, anticipating that the labor would take four years. It took 52; the final volume was published 15 years after he died. Another interesting digression concerns the adventurers George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, two oystermen who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1896 and who inspired The Biographer. Harbo and Samuelsen’s voyage log is quoted:

“Days rowing 62 miles,” “Days rowing 90 miles,” “Days work 65 miles,” “Days work 45 miles,” “Days work 135 miles,” “Day’s work 100 miles,” “50 miles dayswork,” “Drifted back about 20 miles during the day (guesswork).”

An analogy is clearly being suggested between Melville’s ambition, these rowers and the text we are reading. Literary projects often feel long and hopeless, and require dedication and stamina. But there is a loveliness to “Dayswork,” a spareness, that is in productive tension with the idea of dangerous waters and lunatic missions. “Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for a time it did me,” warns Ishmael. “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.” Yes, the narrator wakes her husband in the night to tell him a fact she has dredged from the archive. Her library books are overdue, and she finds sticky notes in the bedsheets. But her sanity is not really in doubt.

“Dayswork” is the record of an obsession that is also a ballast. The “Melville vortex,” where others have lost their minds, appears for this couple to serve as protection against the more damned manias that so many of us fell into at the height of the pandemic. When the husband tests positive and has to isolate in the half-finished basement, the narrator does not stay up all night Googling symptoms; she reads to him, over the phone, a letter that Melville sent to Hawthorne. This seems an entirely sensible — and romantic — thing to do. Like a good marriage, “Dayswork” doesn’t crowd its subjects and unearths hidden connections; it is faithful to its task, and contains madness without being deranged by it.

Christine Smallwood is the author of the novel “The Life of the Mind.”

By Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel

W.W. Norton. 230 pp. $26.95

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POST AUTHOR: Christine Smallwood

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