Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Penguins on Parade: RLS in the South Seas!

Some Penguin Classics stand as reminders of what might have been. Necessarily, the entire shelf of Penguin Classics from ancient Greece and Rome serve this melancholy purpose – imagining the lost works of Sophocles, Euripides, Asinius Pollio, Livy, and the rest all here with us, neatly persevered inside those so-familiar black-spined paperbacks, knowing with that sweet assurance that they’d all have first-rate critical introductions and helpful notes and dorky cover-designs  – it’s almost as pleasant, in its way, as actually having the books would be (and there’s no final curtain here! If truck-sized statues can be unearthed in Egypt in 2010, so can meticulously-preserved Egyptian libraries – plenty of reedy, well-read Romans went there for the salubrious climate, and the Egyptians themselves were quite fond of literature, so you never know what might turn up).

That sweet, sad imagining can happen a lot closer to our own day, of course. Think of reedy, well-read Robert Louis Stevenson, who repaired in 1888 to the South Seas for their salubrious climate (and because the editor of McClure’s – a first-rate literary magazine at the time, run with easy generosity and unquenchable bonhomie by Sam McClure – offered to pay for the trip if he could have the literary gleanings that came from it) and there began to dream about writing not just an account of his travels – a type of literature at which he excelled and in which he’d already written one very good example and one immortal classic – but the book on the South Seas, a massive compendium of the languages, the topographies, the nature, the peoples, the customs, of course the superstitions, of that entire swath of the globe.

It’s the oddest thing about Stevenson as a writer, and it stands eternally to his credit: despite the fact that he had mastered the fine art of capturing the public taste with light, deceptive adventure stories, he was always yearning for new literary forms, for fresh and dangerous challenges. The books he dreamt of writing but never did form one of the most intriguing ghost-canons in all of literature, and in the South Seas, he dreamt big. Probably some of this ambition came from the fact that on some level he knew how sick he was (a frail constitution racked by consumption and tortured almost every hour of every day by tobacco – it’s highly doubtful that any single human being ever smoked more than Robert Louis Stevenson, and certainly no author ever did, even the ones who were famous for it)(although Scott Fitzgerald came close).

Somewhere along the course of the island-hopping that he did with his family – he traveled with his long-suffering mother and his drill sergeant wife, plus a ragged little entourage of servants and cooks – going from the Marquesas to Hiva Oa to Borabora, meeting priestesses and missionaries and drunken, comic kings, the decision sort of crept upon him that he would not, after all, be returning to wet and chilly London. He knew the decision would upset his friends back home – friends like Sidney Colvin at the British Museum , a devoted first-reader and confidante – but he could confess it readily enough to his more literary acquaintances. He wrote to Henry James:
I must tell you plainly – I can't tell Colvin – I do not think I shall come to England more than once, and then it’ll be to die. Health I enjoy in the tropics; even here [Sydney Australia], which they call sub or semi-tropical, I come only to catch cold.

This wasn’t quite true – Stevenson could always be the most maddening combination of gloomy and optimistic – he never ‘enjoyed’ much health in the tropics, despite intervals of activity and naked sea-bathing. He was almost always sick, sometimes incapacitated, and more than one doctor along the way warned him that his condition was precarious – he could develop a fatal hemorrhage at any moment. He grew more relaxed in the islands, not that precise and proper dress had ever been his forte. No less fastidious a South Seas visitor than Henry Adams could only remark in horror:
Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless. He was costumed in very dirty striped cotton pyjamas, the baggy legs tucked into coarse knit woolen stockings, one of which was bright brown in color, the other a purplish dark tone.

But sick or no, distracted or no (his wife Fanny could be a handful, to put it mildly), he kept writing. His readers and financial sponsors back home expected it, and he was on fire to do it anyway. He wanted to capture the essence of the South Seas, to write a huge miscellany that would stand as a worthy substitute for actually being there – he wanted to cover every aspect of this hot, beautiful new world he was seeing and bring it all home to readers who would never see it:
No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor, and the task before me is to communicate to fireside travellers some sense of its seduction, and to describe the life, at sea and ashore, of many hundred thousand persons, some of our own blood and language, all our contemporaries, and yet as remote in thought and habit as Rob Roy or Barbarossa, the Apostles or the Caesars.

So he investigated every local custom, talked with every Western visitor and every native storyteller. We want our great writers to be more omnivorously curious than we are, we hope they will be – and Stevenson was. He always had been (the one thing his heterogeneous mass of books share in common is their underlying wide-eyed wonder at being in a world of infinite stories), but something about being in the South Seas, perhaps some presentiment that he really never would see England again, only increased his hunger – hence his dreams for the book he wanted to call simply, all-inclusively The South Seas, and hence, too, his frequent pauses to note mortuary rituals:
So in Samoa only the spirits of the unburied awake fear. During the late war many fell in the bush; their bodies, sometimes headless, were brought back by native pastors and interred; but this (I know not why)was insufficient, and the spirit still lingered on the theatre of death. When peace returned a singular scene was enacted in many places, and chiefly round the high gorges of Lotoannu, where the struggle was long centered and the loss had been severe. Kinswomen of the dead came carrying a mat or sheet and guided by survivors of the fight. The place of death was earnestly sought out; the sheet was spread upon the ground and the women, moved with pious anxiety, sat about and watched it. If any living thing alighted it was twice brushed away; upon the third coming it was known to be the spirit of the dead, was folded in, carried home and buried beside the body and the aitu rested.

As Stevenson writes at the beginning of In the South Seas (the truncated, domesticated, and not entirely successful version of the book that was eventually created by Fanny and Colvin), “for some while before I set forth upon my voyage, I believed I was come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and the undertaker to expect.” His time-table was premature, but only a little: he had time for this one last adventure, and time enough to write a bit about it. It wasn’t the book he hoped for, but those of us who wish he’d written a thousand books will take this one as it is and count ourselves lucky.

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