Posts Tagged ‘robert louis stevenson’

“Catriona” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m really not sure why it has taken me so long to get round to Catriona. Kidnapped I have loved since I was about ten or so, and have revisited it often enough since: its characters, its setting, its plot, have all entered by consciousness the way a book can only when first encountered at so impressionable a stage; and one would have thought that seeking out is sequel would be an obvious next step. But there you go – there’s no explanation for some things.

I found reading this a rather poignant experience. Meeting up with very old friends is always a bit poignant, and that is what David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart are like for me. But equally, I could not help but picture Stevenson, in the South Seas, far from his native Scotland, writing nostalgically about the land he had left behind. Although many of his stories written in these years were indeed set in the South Sea Islands, equally, many others indicated a mind turned nostalgically homewards: these were the years that produced The Master of Ballantrae, Catriona, and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston, and, while it is not really advisable to try to guess at the author’s frame of mind from the works, it is not hard to imagine Stevenson longing for the home he had left behind. But perhaps he could see also the absurdity of such longing, such nostalgia – literally, the “ache for home”: in Catriona, Stevenson allows the rascally James More, exiled from his native Scotland, shed drunken, maudlin tears for the Land of the Heather and the Deer. I wonder how much conscious self-parody there is in this: quite a bit, I’d guess.

Catriona does not enjoy a reputation anything like that of Kidnapped, and it’s not hard to see why. Kidnapped is essentially a boys’ own adventure story, with the tense political situation – that of Jacobite Scotland in the immediate aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion – forming little more than a background. But in Catriona, the politics are very much in the forefront. Those seeking the thrills of an adventure story are bound to be a bit disappointed; and those who are prepared to forgo the adventure may well find it hard to follow the plot if they haven’t read the earlier novel.

It picks up where Kidnapped had left off. David, now a respectable laird, honest Whig and supporter of King George, wishes nonetheless to prevent what he knows will be a miscarriage of justice: James of the Glens, chieftain of the Stewart clan, will soon be on trial for the murder of Colin Campbell, the “Red Fox”, and David knows James to be innocent. So David, throwing all caution to the wind, and not even realising just how much there is to be cautious about, walks straight into the house of the Lord Advocate (Lord Prestongrange, a historic figure) to tell him what he knows.

Lord Prestongrange is presented in a very sympathetic light. He takes a liking to David, and admires his zeal for justice, his determination not to let an innocent man hang. But the country is still unstable in the wake of the failed rebellion; many clan chieftains have switched allegiances, but the Campbells must still be appeased; the danger of the country being plunged into another bloody civil war is still a very real one. Lord Prestongrange protects David from those many who feel it convenient simply to have him killed, or have him framed and hanged; and he goes so far as endangering his own self in order to ensure David’s safety. But he also ensures David is not present to testify at the trial. He allows James of the Glens, whom he knows to be innocent, to hang. The political ins and outs are very intricate, and Stevenson negotiates it all beautifully – telling us enough to let us know just how very complex and dangerous it all is, but never allowing the narrative to become bogged down with all the various details of the politics. This is a novel, after all, not a history lesson.

As drama, it is quite splendid. But Stevenson was a bit hamstrung, it seemed to me, by history itself: James of the Glens was indeed hanged – that is a known historic fact – and Stevenson couldn’t change that. So the end of this part of the novel proves slightly anti-climactic. David fails in his mission, as we all knew he would; but he finds himself grateful to the very man who has helped foil him, for, without this man’s interventions, David too would have been dead.

There are a couple of splendid chapters of adventure in the midst of all this when David briefly meets up with Alan Breck again, but this episode really doesn’t last long enough: soon, Alan is safely off to France, and we fall back again on all the political shenanigans. All very finely done, but that little taste of adventure did leave me wishing for a bit more.

The second of the novel’s two parts takes us in a very different direction. Here, we see David with Catriona, daughter of the clansman James MacGregor Drummond, also known as James More. (James More was Rob Roy’s son, and a historic figure; Catriona was Stevenson’s invention.) It’s essentially a love story, always a dangerous area for a writer of adventure stories to venture into: the brave and honest hero and the fair and spotless maid are all too often recipes for insipidity and blandness. But Stevenson manages surprisingly well, endowing both figures with character, and with minds of their own, and resisting all temptation to present Catriona merely as a helpless damsel in distress – even when she clearly is a helpless damsel in distress. There is a fire in her, and a corresponding gentleness in David, that move both the young lovers far from traditional stereotypes. I found this part of the novel rather charming, I must admit, but it is nonetheless a bit of a comedown from the high tension and drama of the earlier part of the novel. However, the temperature goes up again for the finale with the welcome reappearance of Alan Breck Stewart, and with a bit more of the kind of adventure story that we all know and love. (Well, that I, at least, know and love: I don’t mean to speak for everyone.)

I don’t think I’d recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet read Kidnapped; or to those who have read it, but didn’t care for it. But those who love Kidnapped really shouldn’t hesitate. No, it’s not really an adventure story; and yes, it’s really two very different novels spliced together rather uncomfortably. But it’s such a joy for fans of Kidnapped to return to this environment, and meet up again with David and Alan. I felt like a ten-year-old all over again!

[EDIT: I should have mentioned that <em>Catriona</em> was, and still is, published under the title <em>David Balfour</em> in US.]

Advertisements

Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Christmas reading

I’ve been reading Stevenson’s short stories lately – many for the first time – and I can’t help wondering why it has taken me so long to get to them. After all, not only has Stevenson meant much to me over the years, I find his works, when I do read them, most congenial to my temperament. As I never tire of mentioning here, Treasure Island and Kidnapped were huge childhood favourites, and I revisit them whenever I want to bask in nostalgia for my childhood years (which, in my case, is often). And there’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of course: Nabokov’s inclusion of this work in his critical collection Lectures on Literature, alongside such acknowledged masterpieces as Madame Bovary or Metamorphosis, still raises some peoples’ eyebrows, but not mine: Jekyll and Hyde is as great a masterpiece as any Nabokov places it alongside. And those charming children’s poems in the collection A Child’s Garden of Verses I have known since my primary school years, when, in my Scottish primary school, we were required to commit many of them to memory. (And, contrary to modern wisdom on these matters, this did not put us off: we loved these poems, and I, for one, still do.) But, really, for a long time, that was about as far as it went. Even Weir of Hermiston, his late, unfinished masterpiece, I came to know only quite recently.

However, better late than never, I suppose. I have recently been catching up on some of his short stories. A couple I did know from before: “The Body Snatcher”, for instance. Although often included in anthologies of ghost stories (which is how I got to know it in the first place), it is only in the final pages that the supernatural makes its mark: till then, it had been a splendid thriller, evoking the dark gloomy lanes and wynds of old Edinburgh in the days when grave-robbers used regularly to dig up freshly made graves to sell the fresh corpses to medical research. (There was a fine film based on this story, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, and featuring at its centre a superbly sinister performance by Boris Karloff: well worth catching up on, if you don’t know it already.) And “Thrawn Janet” I also knew – amongst the most terrifying of all ghost stories, but less frequently anthologised, possibly because it is written in what to many is an indecipherable Scots dialect.

Earlier this year, I read, and was much impressed by, the stories published early in Stevenson’s career under the title New Arabian Nights. Looking back on what I had written, I found myself much impressed by the clarity and expressive eloquence of Stevenson’s prose; and I also noted, I see, a delight in devising intriguing situations, but a certain impatience when it came to developing them. However, Stevenson presents us with so rich a panoply of scenes that delight and fascinate, and presents them with such panache, that we find ourselves happy simply to be swept along by it all, and find ourselves not minding too much the demotion to mere background details of the narrative resolutions. Stevenson does not repeat that kind of thing in his later stories – not the ones I have read so far, that is – but he did retain that wonderful gift of setting up intriguing situations. And as a writer of adventure stories, he really was second to none: so great is his skill in creating and sustaining narrative tension that I have even found myself wishing my commuter journeys were longer.

There’s the wonderfully creepy “Olalla”, for instance. It’s not a tale of the supernatural, but it should be: it certainly has the atmosphere of one. Its themes are surprisingly Poe-like – familial decline, hereditary madness, Gothic gloom – all familiar elements in, say, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. But where Poe, to my mind at least, starts at so high a pitch of feverishness that at the climax there is nowhere further to go, Stevenson’s prose is clear and measured throughout, so that when the climax comes, it is genuinely shocking. “Olalla” is fairly long for a short story, and its pacing is immaculate. I have tried to rile some of my Poe-loving fiends by telling them that this was the kind of story Poe would have written had he been as good a writer as Stevenson, but I’ll refrain from saying that here: in the first place, I really would not wish to unleash a torrent of indignant protests in the comments section; and in the second place, it is, to be honest, an inaccurate and frankly unfair assertion. That Stevenson is more to my taste than Poe does not make Poe a lesser writer; but the fact nonetheless remains that Stevenson is, indeed, very much more to my taste.

And there’s “Markheim”, which seems to be Stevenson’s response to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (And no doubt those as allergic to Dostoyevsky as I am to Poe will tell me how far superior Stevenson’s treatment is of the theme.)

And there are three stories making up the late collection Island Nights Entertainment. As with New Arabian Nights, Stevenson is clearly evoking A Thousand and One Nights in the title, but even had he not done so, it would have been difficult keeping A Thousand and One Nights out of even the briefest of discussions of these tales. Although set in the South Sea Islands (where Stevenson spent the last few years of his life) rather than in the Middle East, they are saturated with a sense of magic and wonder that permeate A Thousand and One Nights. The first of the three stories, “The Bottle Imp”, borrows the idea of the genie of the lamp (with the lamp replaced by a magic bottle). This genie, or “imp”, as Stevenson calls him, will grant its owner any wish; but the owner must sell the bottle on at a lower price than he had paid for it; for if he dies with the bottle still in his possession, his soul will go to Hell.

So naturally, over time, the price of this bottle spirals lower and lower, and becomes ever more difficult to get rid of: for, eventually, a state will inevitably be reached where its price is the lowest denomination available in any monetary system, and selling it at a lower price will become impossible. It’s an intriguing set-up. The resolution this time is not shirked, nor demoted to a mere incidental detail, but nonetheless, it’s the situation one remembers more than how it all works out at the end.

Then there’s “The Isle of Voices”, which, if one had to pitch it, could be described as “Arabian Nights meets Joseph Conrad”. (Although, of course, this predates, if only by a few years, the works of Conrad.) There is much here for the students of post-colonial studies to sink their teeth into. The premise is, once again, magical in nature – a sorcerer obtains his wealth by spiriting himself, invisible, to another island, where, by burning certain leaves, he can transform shells to coins, and transport them back home.  But human greed knows no limits: by the end, there’s a sickening bloodbath, in which the native inhabitants of this island are slaughtered for the sake of further gain. It isn’t, perhaps, easy for this story to fit into any simple pattern: the sorcerer, in the first place, is not white, but is native Hawaiian; and the people so horribly massacred by the end, far from being innocent victims, are themselves cannibals. But the themes of exploitation, greed, and imperialist violence are all there.

The longest and most substantial story of the three is “The Beach of Falesa”, and, once again, we seem to be very much in Conradian territory. The narrator is a white trader in the South Seas, and, while he is hardly free from racism himself, finds himself genuinely loving the native girl he has so cynically been hitched up with in “marriage”. Prominent in this story is the theme of sexual exploitation of native girls: the girls and women are treated as so much property, to be enjoyed as objects, then ill-treated, and abandoned as and when her “husband” tires of her. At one point, the narrator speaks casually, as if in passing, of one of the traders “thrashing” his “wife”, as if it were the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world. And while the narrator, in this case, does indeed find himself loving the girl who has, effectively, been allotted to him, by the end of the story he worries about returning to Britain with his mixed-race children: he knows there is no place for them there.

But powerful though all this is, it is still, essentially, an adventure story. (As, indeed, are many of Conrad’s works.) The narrator, Wiltshire, finds himself pitted against a fellow trader, Case, who has his own very dubious set-up, and who doesn’t tolerate competition: Wiltshire realises that he must either kill Case, or be killed by him. The story takes a long time to build: Stevenson’s pacing is deliberate, but when the tension starts to grip, it doesn’t let up. And the passage where Wiltshire delves deeper and deeper into Case’s mysterious domain has about it a sense of almost hallucinatory terror: it’s hard not to feel that one is being drawn into some sort of Conradian Heart of Darkness.

I haven’t read them all Stevenson’s stories yet: there are still a few more to go, but it’s always good to have something to look forward to. I haven’t been disappointed by any of the ones I have read so far. But over the Christmas holidays, I think I’ll turn to Stevenson’s fellow Scotsman – born about a generation after Stevenson, and just a mile or so away from Stevenson’s birthplace in Central Edinburgh – Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the Sherlock Holmes stories: there’s far more to Conan Doyle than those Sherlock Holmes stories, which I keep re-reading them all the time anyway. No – this Christmas, I am planning to read through the Brigadier Gerard stories. All of them. It has been far too long since I last read them, and I am pretty sure I have not read them all.

It is incredible to think that storytellers of such brilliance were born in such close proximity to each other: I certainly cannot think of anyone – not even Dumas – who surpassed these two in terms of plotting. And I suppose that to Stevenson and Conan Doyle, one could add a third Scots writer – George Macdonald Fraser, whose Flashman novels are surely up there with the best when it comes to holding the reader’s attention purely with the plot.

Well, not purely, perhaps, with the plot: even the best of plots require immense writing skills if they are to hold the reader’s attention so fixedly. Over the last century or so, plot seems to have slipped down the list of priorities in what is loosely termed “literary fiction”, and maybe, one day, it would be interesting to analyse the skills required to hold the reader’s attention in this manner, and have them turning the pages purely to find out what happens next.

But for the moment, I am having far too much fun enjoying them to be worried about all that. Christmas holidays are approaching: it’s time to choose one’s Christmas reading – nothing too heavy, nothing to unduly tax one’s alcohol-sodden mind – but nothing to insult the reader’s intelligence either. Those wonderfully witty and exciting Brigadier Gerard stories seem to fit the bill perfectly!

“New Arabian Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson

O wad some Power the giftie gie us…

If I were to be given the ability to write prose like any writer of my choosing, past or present, I think I’d choose to write prose like Robert Louis Stevenson. There’d be no point picking someone like Dickens, say, whose prose is so idiosyncratic that anything written in that manner would seem merely like imitation. Stevenson’s prose is also very individual – as, indeed, is the prose of any major stylist – but it is not eccentric, as Dickens’ is. It is supple, rhythmical, and eloquent; and it is marvellously expressive. And it is all of these things without the slightest hint of exhibitionism, of drawing attention to itself. Take, for instance, this passage from the story “A Lodging For the Night”, describing snow falling at night on the streets of Paris:

The snow fell over Paris with rigorous, relentless persistence; sometimes the wind made a sally and scattered it in flying vortices; sometimes there was a lull, and flake after flake descended out of a black night air, silent, circuitous, interminable. To poor people, looking up under moist eyebrows, it seemed a wonder where it all came from.

There is nothing gaudy about this: it is far from purple prose. It flows naturally, its rhythms perfectly in place, creating successive waves and troughs, neither pulling the reader up short with quickfire staccato, nor tiring the reader with long unpunctuated phrases in which, by the time the end is reached, the beginning is all but forgotten. It is almost like the conversation of a highly articulate person, its rises and falls and its pauses imitating the natural patterns of speech. And each word seems so perfectly chosen, and so perfectly in place, that neither the choice of words nor the order in which they are put seems capable of improvement. And as an evocation of the scene, as a picture in words of snow falling from a night sky, can this really be improved upon? I could turn to any page at random in this collection, and I would find the same thing – prose that is eloquent, words that are perfectly chosen, phrasing that is immaculate; and, without drawing attention to itself, writing expresses perfectly whatever the author wants to express.

This collection of stories was first published in 1882, when Stevenson was in his early thirties, but the stories had all been appearing individually in literary magazines and journals for a few years before then. The title Stevenson chose for this collection is an interesting one: The Arabian Nights stood, and still stands, for pure storytelling – storytelling of tremendous exuberance and vitality, unencumbered with anything to furrow the thoughtful brow, innocent of insights or thoughts regarding the human condition, but holding the reader’s attention purely by the question: “What happens next?”

But curiously, Stevenson does not often seem very interested in the question “What happens next?” His interest seems to lie, rather, in creating intriguing situations; and it’s these situations that stay in the reader’s mind rather than how they are eventually resolved. Two of the entries in this collection are actually sequences of linked stories – “The Suicide Club” (what a title!) and “The Rajah’s Diamond”. These stories often end without resolution: it is almost as if, having presented us with intriguing situations, Stevenson doesn’t really care too much about “what happens next”, and is moving on quickly to introduce a new thread, with new situations that are every bit as intriguing as the previous ones. This new story will contain, somewhere along the line, some detail that resolves the previous story, but these details are dropped as if in passing: it is the situations that are important to Stevenson, and the rest merely mechanics of the plot, and, hence, of relatively little interest. The resolutions are dropped almost casually, if they were but trifles. And indeed, when these resolutions are eventually presented, we find ourselves already so wrapped up in the new story, that we don’t care too much about how the previous one had worked out. I don’t think I have ever encountered anything of this nature before.

It is all carried off with a tremendous panache. And what situations they are! A quiet, retiring man receives a letter from a mysterious woman, proposing they meet; he is stood up, but he returns to his room to find there a corpse. Or there’s the Suicide Club, a secret organization where men meet who are either suicidal, or are seeking excitement; there, cards are drawn, and the he who draws the ace of spades is to be killed, and he who draws the ace of clubs must do the killing. And so on. The stories may end without resolution (although that will be dropped in later) , but no matter: within a few paragraphs of the next story, we are hooked all over again.

Apart from these linked stories, there are four others, of varying character. In “A Lodging for the Night”, Stevenson recreates medieval Paris on a winter’s night, and presents to us the great poet François Villon, who was also a cut-throat brigand. That one could be both intrigued Stevenson, and what emerges is masterly both in terms of evoking time and place, and of evoking also a character of endless fascination. We are in medieval France again for “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door”, where, once again we are presented with an intriguing situation: it eventually resolves itself into a rather charming love story, but I can’t help feeling that it’s the intriguing nature of the set-up that most attracted Stevenson’s imagination. “Providence and the Guitar” is a rather whimsical tale pitting the improvident artistic temperament against more stolid and more dependable – but also more boring – approaches to life; there is, once again, much charm here, and also a vein of the comic that I don’t always find in Stevenson’s writing.

But the masterpiece of this collection is, I think, “The Pavilion on the Links”. It was a great favourite of Conan Doyle’s (another great storyteller, who was born only a mile or so from Stevenson’s birthplace). And no wonder! Adventure stories really don’t come any better than this! The prose, as ever, is tremendously accomplished, but what impresses most is the pacing, and the creation of tension. It is set on a remote stretch of the Scottish coast, and the heroes (as they turn out to be) find themselves protecting a man from bloodthirsty killers besieging them. We have had elements of this in Treasure Island, of course: there, the besiegers had been pirates; here, they are Carbonari. The basic situation later found its way into Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Marvellous though both those films are, they are not, I think, superior to this story, which, though much shorter, I found every bit as thrilling as Treasure Island. No wonder Conan Doyle thought so highly of this!

New Arabian Nights was Stevenson’s first collection of short stores. He wrote more, of course, but I have only read a small handful of them so far, and can’t imagine why I have left it so long to read the others. In the meantime, if adventure stories are your thing – and even if they aren’t, and you simply enjoy fine writing – this collection can be recommended with the warmest enthusiasm. What a writer Stevenson was!

The relevance of “relevance”

David Balfour, a well-educated young man living in 18th century Scottish Lowlands, and with connections to landowning gentry, finds himself, after a series of unexpected adventures, in the Highlands. He finds himself in the company of fellow countrymen who are somehow not his fellow countrymen, so alien are they to his own cultural values. And he finds himself a bosom friend of a man whom, in the normal course of events, he would have regarded as a traitor. And with this unlikely friend, he tries to evade the soldiers of the British Army, the redcoats, whom, again in the normal course of events, he would have regarded as being on his side. In the face of all this, the very idea of taking sides, of choosing one’s side on the basis of one’s cultural background, seems to dissolve.

To compound this cultural confusion, in the latter half of the twentieth century, a young lad of Indian background, living in the Scottish Lowlands, nine years of age, and whose awareness of the English language did not extend beyond half these nine years, was thrilling to this tale. Indeed, this Indian lad was David Balfour. His imagination excited, he scoured the local children’s library for books about the Jacobite Rebellion, about the Highland clans, and greedily absorbed what he could. And his primary school teacher, on observing his interest, tried to encourage it, and, indeed, to tell the rest of the class – indigenous Scottish children all – something of what many would term their history. In his mind’s eye, this Indian lad saw himself hiding from the redcoats in the heather with Alan Breck Stewart; he found himself witnessing the assassination of Red Fox, and coming under suspicion as an accessory; he re-lived in his mind meeting with James of the Glens, and felt something of his terror. He was so thoroughly immersed in it all, that the curtain separating reality and fiction seemed unimportant – as unimportant as it can only be in the mind of a child whose imagination has been stirred into action. The fiction seemed more real than reality itself, and, as with David Balfour, cultural affiliations based on the mere accident of birth seemed to dissolve.

I wonder how this child would have felt had he been told that none of this was actually “relevant” to his own life – that he wasn’t a Scottish Lowlander with connections to the gentry, and that he couldn’t really be David Balfour, as David had a white face and he had a brown. That the Highland clans and the Jacobite rebellion should mean little to him as these weren’t part of his history, and that, indeed, for that very reason, these topics should put him off history altogether. That the books that he should relate to most strongly were dreary books about race which would tell him what the various taunts and abuse he and his family experienced regularly had already told him – that racism exists, and is a Bad Thing.

Sadly, this appears to be what new newly crowned Children’s Laureate does appear to be saying, to much approbation, it appears, from newspapers from across the political spectrum. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson? “I can’t be doing with this stuffiness about only reading classics,” says the Children’s Laureate with all the eloquence and insight of a petulant and none-too-articulate teenager.

(I am not sure, incidentally, who it is who recommends that children only read classics, but an enemy is an enemy, imagined or otherwise.)

I suppose there is no point feeling angry about any of this. One can’t hold back the tide, after all. But perhaps I am entitled to be just a bit sad, as I immerse myself again into Kidnapped, and once again flee the redcoats in the company of Highlander Alan Breck Stewart.