Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges (1935, revd. 1954)

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable.
(Borges’s 1954 preface to A Universal History of Infamy)

Long ago

One thinks of Borges as a modern classic so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn just how long ago he was writing. Born in 1899, Borges published his first book in 1923 and wrote steadily for the next 60 years (he died in 1986). In his long life he published an enormous number of volumes (‘In addition to short stories for which he is most noted, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, literary criticism, and edited numerous anthologies’) and the Wikipedia bibliography lists 66 volumes of prose, poetry and essays, in total.

Which makes it all the more odd or unfair that he is still best known in the English-speaking world for more or less one volume, Labyrinths, and a handful of lesser works. Borges had published the following before we get to the book under review:

  • Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) poetry
  • Inquisiciones (1925) essays
  • Luna de Enfrente (1925) poetry
  • El tamaño de mi esperanza (1925) essays
  • El idioma de los argentinos (1928) essays
  • Cuaderno San Martín (1929) poetry
  • Evaristo Carriego (1930) essays
  • Discusión (1932) essays

You’d expect poetry from a starter author, but it’s notable that so many of these early volumes contain essays, in other words short prose explorations of ideas – about other authors, historical events or topics etc. It was for his short essays on imaginary or fantastical subjects that he was to become famous and A Universal History of Infamy, more or less the earliest work by Borges you can read in English translation, gives an indication why.

A Universal History of Infamy

A Universal History of Infamy is not, in fact, a universal history of infamy or anything like that ambitious. In reality it is much smaller in scope, and consists of:

  • seven ‘biographical essays’ – witty, ironic accounts of legendary bad guys and women from history who Borges ha cherry picked from his highly eclectic reading
  • one relatively straightforward short piece of fiction
  • eight summaries of stories or anecdotes he had come across in arcane sources and which attracted Borges for their fantastical or humorous aspects

Most of the essays had been published individually in the Argentine newspaper Crítica between 1933 and 1934. The 1934 collection was revised and three new stories added in the 1954 edition. There are two English translations of the book. The one I own dates from 1972 and was translated by Borges’s long-standing English translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The 2004 English edition gives the stories slightly different titles.

The title A Universal History of Infamy derives from the fact that the seven biographical essays are fictionalised accounts of real-life criminals. The textual sources for each biography are listed at the end of the book: for example, the essay about the Widow Ching cites a 1932 History of Piracy as its source,  the essay on Monk Eastman cites Herbert Asbury’s 1928 history of The Gangs of New York, the essay about Lazarus Morell cites Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the one about Tom Castro cites the Encyclopedia Britannica as its source, and so on.

So the sources are a) not particularly recondite and b) they were often fairly recent to Borges’s time of writing, in some cases published only a year or so before Borges wrote his potted summaries.

That said, Borges treats his sources very freely, changing dates, incidents and even names as he fancied to make his fantasy biographies deliberately fanciful and untrustworthy.

Part 1. Seven infamy stories

So these are stories Borges found in other books during his wide and eclectic reading and which attracted him for their elements of the macabre or gruesome, and which he chose to retell, dropping or adding details as he saw fit.

The Dread Redeemer

Lazarus Morell is poor white trash who grew up on the banks of the Mississippi and as an adult comes to be a leader of crooks who devise the following scam: they persuade gullible black slaves to run away from their owners and allow themselves to be sold on by the Morell gang who promise to liberate them and share the proceeds of this sale. But they don’t. They have ‘liberated’ some 70 slaves in this manner until the gang is joined by Virgil Stewart, famous for his cruelty, who promptly betrays them to the authorities. Morell goes into hiding in a boarding house, then, after 5 days, shaves off his beard and makes an escape to round up what remains of his gang and try to create a mass uprising of the southern slaves and lead a takeover of the city of New Orleans. Instead he dies of a lung ailment in Natchez hospital in January 1835 under an assumed name.

This story is quite florid enough to satisfy anyone’s taste for the lurid and melodramatic. What tames and raises it from being a shilling shocker is Borges’s dry wit and irony.

Morell leading rebellions of blacks who dreamed of lynching him; Morell lynched by armies of blacks he dreamed of leading – it hurts me to confess that Mississippi history took advantage of neither of these splendid opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (or poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his grave.

We expected a grand finale? Sorry folks.

If Borges’s narrative ends playfully, it opens even more so, with Borges referencing Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas. Why? Because it was de las Casas who (apparently) had the bright idea of importing African slaves to work the silver mines of the newly discovered New World. Borges phrases this with characteristic irony (or is it facetiousness?)

In 1517, the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, taking great pity on the Indians who were languishing in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines, suggested to Charles V, king of Spain, a scheme for importing blacks, so that they might languish in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines.

That is an example of what you could call literal facetiousness, the repetition of the initial heartless description being so unexpected as to be funny. But it expands into a more grandiose type of joke as Borges does on to deliver an unexpected perspective on the results of de las Casas’ brainwave i.e. the vast and numerous consequences of the invention of African slavery, and proceeds to a mock encyclopedic list of some of its untold consequences, namely:

W. C. Handy’s blues; the Parisian success of the Uruguayan lawyer and painter of Negro genre, don Pedro Figari; the solid native prose of another Uruguayan, don Vicente Rossi, who traced the origin of the tango to Negroes; the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the five hundred thousand dead of the Civil War and its three thousand three hundred millions spent in military pensions; the entrance of the verb ‘to lynch’ into the thirteenth edition of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy; King Vidor’s impetuous film Hallelujah; the lusty bayonet charge led by the Argentine captain Miguel Soler, at the head of his famous regiment of ‘Mulattoes and Blacks’, in the Uruguayan battle of Cerrito; the Negro killed by Martín Fierro; the deplorable Cuban rumba ‘The Peanut Vender’; the arrested, dungeon-ridden Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the snake of Haitian voodoo rites and the blood of goats whose throats were slit by the papaloi’s machete; the habanera, mother of the tango; another old Negro dance, of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the candombe.

The intellectual pleasure derives from the combination of mock scholarliness with the pleasing randomness of the examples selected. And not only surreal but – and this is an important part of Borges’s appeal – conveying an enormous sense of spaciousness; the sense of an enormously well-read mind, overflowing with wonderful facts and references, from the obvious to the fantastically recondite and abstruse. And that by reading along with Borges, we too, become as fantastically learned and knowledgeable as him.

If you like this kind of subject matter, and the dry ironical tone, then the world of unexpected and outré references is like a door opening in your mind, hundreds of doors, revealing all kinds of wonderful, mind and spirit enhancing vistas and possibilities.

Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter

Arthur Orton was born in Wapping in 1834. He ran away to sea and resurfaced decades later in Sydney Australia where he had taken the name Tom Castro. Here he became friendly with a stately, clever black man, Ebenezer Bogle and the two set up as con-men. In 1854 a British steamer sank in the Atlantic and one of the passengers lost was slender, elegant Roger Charles Tichborne, heir to one of the greatest Roman Catholic families in England. His mother, Lady Tichborne, refused to believe he was dead and advertised widely throughout the colonies for his return. With wild and hilarious improbability Orton and Bogle decide to reply to her and claim that obese illiterate Tom Castro is in fact her slender, elegant aristocratic son…after some years of living in Australia!

Most of this is comic but Borges milks it for further comic ideas, such as the notion that it was the very outrageousness of the entire idea which gave Bogle and Orton confidence; the more ridiculous it seemed, the more emboldened they were to tough it out in the light of lawyers and Lady Tichborne’s heirs who violently rejected their claim. Very funny is the notion that so mad is Lady Tichborne to have her son restored that she will accept anything Orton says and so when he completely invents some tender childhood memories, Lady T immediately accepts them and makes them her own.

Finally, the relatives bring a trial where all is going well until Bogle meets his death at the hands of a passing hansom cab and Orton loses all his confidence. He is sentenced to 14 years in prison but, here again Borges emphasises the humour, pointing out that Orton so charmed his imprisoners that he was let off for good behaviour and then took to touring theatres giving a one-man show retelling his story.

It is typically Borgesian that, at each venue, Orton is described as starting out maintaining his innocence but often ends up pleading guilty depending on the mood of the audience.

A story, any story, about anything, is infinitely malleable.

The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate

China at the turn of the 18th century and the story of a redoubtable woman pirate who, when her husband Ching is killed in battle, takes over his pirate crew and leads them in 13 years of ‘systematic adventure’. The emperor sends one admiral against her, Admiral Kwo-lang, who she comprehensively defeats, and then leads her ‘six hundred war junks and forty thousand victorious pirates’ on devastating attacks on China’s seaboards. A second expedition is sent under one Ting-kwei. This one defeats Madame Ching who, on the night after a huge and bloody battle, has herself rowed over to the admiral’s ship, boards it and presents herself with the appropriately flowery oriental rhetoric: ‘the fox seeks the dragon’s wing.’ She was allowed to live and devoted her later years to the opium trade.

There is something immensely satisfying in the way Borges creates a scene, a historical period, its key characters and conveys a series of big events in just nine pages. More than that, the first page is devoted to two women pirates of the Western tradition, Mary Read and Anne Bonney, before we even get round to China.

Their speed and brevity, their exotic setting and subject matter, the tremendous confidence with which Borges cuts from scene to scene, zeroing in on key moments and one line of dialogue, and all told in a wonderfully humorous, often tongue-in-cheek style, make these bonne bouches immensely appetising and pleasurable.

Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities

Borges freely acknowledges his source for this narrative as Herbert Asbury’s 1928 volume The Gangs of New York, and gives a 2-page summary of some of the most notable hoodlums from New York’s Victorian underworld described in that book, before arriving at his potted biography of ‘Monk’ Eastman who is the subject of this narrative..

Born Edward Osterman, he was Jewish but grew into a ‘colossal’ and violent killer who lorded it over the goy underworld. He hired himself out as a hitman and led a violent gang. They were involved in a shootout so epic it became known as The Battle of Rivington Street, then a two-hour fistfight with the leader of the main rival gang, Paul Kelly, watched by a shouting crowd. He was repeatedly arrested and, after the final time, in 1917, decided to enlist in the US Army which had joined the war in Europe. This, like everything else in the story, is told with detached facetiousness:

We know that he violently disapproved of taking prisoners and that he once (with just his rifle butt) interfered with that deplorable practice…

On his return Monk quipped that ‘a number of little dance halls around the Bowery were a lot tougher than the war in Europe.’ He was found dead in an alley with five bullets in him. These throwaway endings, without any Victorian moralising, give them a Modernist, ‘so what’ aspect, a throwaway bluntness which contrasts vividly with the extreme scholarly punctiliousness about the sources.

The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan

Scenes from the life of William Harrigan aka Billy the Kid. For a start, it’s factually interesting to learn that Billy was a street hoodlum born in the very tough slums of New York before he headed out West. Borges amuses himself by assigning Billy’s life to different stages, namely:

  • The larval stage
  • Go West!
  • The Demolition of a Mexican
  • Deaths for Deaths’ Sake

He killed his first man aged 14. There’s a running joke that whenever Billy boasted about the number of men he killed he always added ‘not counting Mexicans’ who he held in utter contempt.

Borges’s wonderful fantasy-mindedness, the way he can introduce a mind-teasing idea into even the most obviously material occurs when he casually mentions that, despite his best efforts to turn himself into a hard-riding cowboy, Billy:

never completely matched his legend, but he kept getting closer and closer to it.

This implication that the legend of Billy the Kid existed before he began enacting it, and that he was fated to aspire to match his own legend… there is something wonderfully dizzying about this metaphysical-magical perspective, a dizzying magic metaphysical worldview which was to emerge more powerfully in his famous mid-career stories and excerpts.

The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké

To be honest I didn’t understand this one, even after reading it twice. It’s set in Japan in 1702. An imperial envoy comes to stay with Asano Takumi no Kami who has been ‘trained’ by a rude and dismissive master of etiquette, Kira Kôtsuké no Suké. Asano was rude to the imperial envoy who, as a result, had him executed. Asano’s other retainers came to Kira Kôtsuké no Suké and told him, that since the error stemmed from his poor training of Asano, he should commit hara-kiri, but he refused and ran away and barricaded himself into a palace. Asano’s 47 retainers laid siege to the palace, broke in, discovered he had hidden, found him and killed him. That is why the story is sometimes called ‘The Learned History of the Forty-seven Retainers.

The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv

The story of Hakim, born in 736, who grows up to assume the identity of the Prophet of the Veil and establish a religion to rival Mohammed’s, by telling the impressionable that a messenger from God had come down from heaven, cut off his head and carried it up to heaven to receive a divine mission from Allah. He crystallises his position when, amid a crowded caravan, someone releases a leopard which Hakim appears to quell with the power of his eyes alone. He becomes the Veiled Prophet or Masked One and leads his followers to military victory, taking cities. He keeps a harem of one hundred and fourteen blind women.

He promulgated a belief system derived from the Christian Gnostics, namely that the world is a parody of Divine Reality, created by nine emanations from the original.

The world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are abominations.

Five years into his rule, Hakim and his followers are besieged by the army of the Caliph when a rumour goes round from one of the women of his harem that his body has various imperfections. He is praying at a high altar when two of his captains tear away his permanent veil to reveal that Hakim bears the revolting disfigurements of the leper, and they promptly run him through with spears.

Part 2. A short story

Man on Pink Corner

This is a surprisingly poor short story and a good explanation of why Borges focused on writing his metaphysical-brainteasing essays rather than trying any attempt at conventional fiction. It’s the account of a street hoodlum, a junior member of a gang in the unfashionable poor north side of Buenos Aires, and a supposedly fateful night when he and his gang are at a dance hall when in crashes a massive hard man, Francisco Real, who muscles his way through the crowd to confront the head of the local gang, Rosendo Juárez, at which point, inexplicably, Rosendo backs down and Real takes his place as head honcho and steals his woman, La Lujanera.

I found a lot of this inconsequential, silly and hard to follow because nobody seemed to be obeying any rules of human nature I’m familiar with, Rosendo disappears, and Real takes La Lujanera outside, presumably to copulate with her in a ‘ditch’:

By then they were probably going at it in some ditch.

Our narrator wanders out to take the air then returns to the dance where old gang members and new gang members seem to be dancing happily. Then there’s a banging on the door, and in stumbles the huge bruiser Real with a big gash in his chest, collapses on the floor and bleeds to death. The hoodlums of both gangs strip him of his clothes, possibly rip open his guts and put out his intestines, cut off his finger to steal his ring, then chuck him out the window into the river Maldonado which flowed just outside.

In the final paragraph, the narrator mentions Borges’s own name as if he is recounting this story directly to him:

Then, Borges, I put my hand inside my vest – here by the left armpit, where I always carry it – and took my knife out again…

And in the last sentence implies that it was he, the narrator who, when he slipped out, managed to fatally stab Real – in which case why wasn’t there a description of this presumably fairly melodramatic scene, how did he manage to do it if Real was shagging La Lujanera in a ditch? How come La Lunajera didn’t point out our narrator to everyone in the hall as the murderer?

It seemed to me a collection of 1930s noir crime, lowlife clichés thrown together with no plausibility and no account of human psychology. Borges himself seemed bemused by the story’s popularity. Thank God he abandoned this mode of writing altogether in favour of his ‘baroque’ and mind-bending essays.

Part 3. Etcetera Etcetera

Being short 2 or 3-page excerpts from scholarly books which presumably struck Borges because of the surrealism or bizarreness or humour of their content. The excerpts are interesting or amusing or ghoulish in their own right, but what really impresses is the arcane nature of their sources, and the range of reading and learning they imply.

A Theologian in Death

From the Arcana Coelestis by Emanuel Swedenborg (1749 to 1756).

The Protestant theologian Philip Melancthon (1497 to 1560) dies and goes to heaven but doesn’t realise it because the angels recreate his worldly house and study, but pester him to write about charity. But Melancthon obstinately persists in writing that charity is unnecessary because, like a zealous Protestant, he believes we are justified by faith alone, with the result that the angels slowly degrade his house and even his own body, day by day he awakes in a further degenerated condition, till the last that’s heard of him he is ‘a kind of servant to demons.’

The Chamber of Statues

From The Thousand and One Nights numbers 271 and 272.

In the Andalucian city of Ceuta was a citadel with a door to which each successive king by tradition added a lock until a wicked man usurped the throne and, against the advice of holy men, insisted on ripping out the locks and opening the door to find what was inside and discovered a series of rooms containing wonders, the last of which contained an inscription saying whoever opened the door would be overthrown and, indeed, within a twelvemonth, the Arab leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad overthrew the usurper and sold his women and children into slavery.

Tale of the Two Dreamers

From The Thousand and One Nights number 351.

A merchant in Cairo falls asleep in his garden with a fountain and a fig tree and has a dream in which angels tell him to seek his fortune in Isfahan in Persia, so he sets off and after a gruelling journey facing numerous threats and natural disasters, finally arrives and falls asleep by a mosque, but that night a house next to the mosque is robbed, the owners raise the alarm, the stranger is apprehended thrown into prison and tortured before being brought before the captain who asks who he is and why he’s here. The merchant tells the story of his dream, and the captain laughs and says he also has a dream of a garden of a house in Cairo with a fig tree and treasure under the fountain but he knows it’s just a dream and has never acted on it. He lets the whipped merchant go, who returns to his house, digs under the fountain, and discovers a vast treasure.

The Wizard Postponed

From the Libro delos enxiemplos del Conde Lucanor at de Patronio (1335) by Juan Manuel.

A beguiling story in which a dean from Santiago, wanting to learn about magic, visits the noted magician Don Illán of Toledo and promises him anything if he will teach him magic so the Don takes him down into a cellar deep underground and submits him to a test, namely telescoping the next thirty years of their lives together, in which the Dean is blessed with a series of promotions within the Catholic church, ending up being elected Pope, and at each step of the way the newly promoted Dean puts him off until he tells the Don to stop bothering him or he’ll have him thrown in prison. At which point the entire future they’ve lived through disappears in a puff of smoke and the Dean finds himself standing in the deep cellar with Don Illán who says ‘told you so’, escorts him to the door and wishes him a pleasant journey home.

The Mirror of Ink

From The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) by Richard Burton.

How the wizard Abd-er-Rahman al-Masmudi threw himself on the mercy of the tyrant of Sudan Yaqub the Ailing, who orders him every morning to show him visions and wonders, until one day al-Masmudi shows him a figure being dragged for execution. When Yaqub demands that the figure’s veil be taken off, it reveals his own face and he watches the executioner raise his great sword and, when it falls and severs the neck of the man in the vision, Yaqub the Ailing himself falls dead.

A Double for Mohammed

From Vera Cristiana Religio (1771) by Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Since the idea of Mohammed is so closely linked to religion in the minds of Muslims, Allah ensures that heaven is overseen by a kind of deputy or second Mohammed, whose identity actually varies. A community of Muslims was once incited by evil spirits to acclaim Mohammed as their God, so Allah brought the spirit of the actual Mohammed up from under the earth to instruct them.

The Generous Enemy

From the Anhang zur Heimskringla (1893) by H. Gering

In 1102 Magnus Barfod undertook to conquer Ireland. Muirchertach, King of Dublin, sends him a nine-line curse which, by roundabout means, ends up coming true.

On Exactitude in Science

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J.A. Suárez Miranda.

A fragment which tells of a magical empire where the geographers at first essayed maps so huge that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the Empire itself an entire Province. These were eventually replaced by the ultimate map of the empire which was the same size as the Empire itself, and coincided with it point for point. Over the years it fell into neglect and now only a few tattered fragments survive in the Western Deserts, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar.


Borges’ approach

Bookish

The content of the seven infamy tales is lurid and melodramatic, with plenty of murders, assassinations, beheadings, shootouts and suicides. But they are all refracted through a highly bookish, ironic sensibility which does at least two things: 1. is careful to cite the sources of the story, in a parody of a learned or scholarly article, and 2. mocks the content of his own story with irony and knowing humour.

The first quality (showy concern with indicating sources) is most evident in the opening of The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv:

If I am not mistaken the chief sources of information concerning Mokanna, the Veiled (or, literally, Masked) Prophet of Khurasan, are only four in number: a) those passages from The History of the Caliphs culled by Baladhuri; b) The Giant’s Handbook, or Book of Precision and Revision, by the official historian of the Abbasids, Ibn abi Tahir Taifur; c) the Arabic codex entitled The Annihilation of the Rose, wherein we find a refutation of the abominable heresies of the Dark Rose, or Hidden Rose, which was the Prophet’s Holy Book; and d) some barely legible coins unearthed by the engineer Andrusov during excavations for the Trans-Caspian railway. (p.77)

‘If I am not mistaken’, that’s a nice touch. The effect of these kinds of learnèd references is to give the very pleasurable sense that you are entering the magical realm of books and stories. Not the everyday books we encounter in our lives or local bookshops, glossy gardening books or biographies of celebrity chefs or tedious accounts of adulteries in North London – but that we have been transported to the realm of old-fashioned stories, stories of extreme actions and derring-do and marvellous deeds in exotic settings.

Stories from our remembered childhood which fired our imaginations before we were forced to grow up and become sensible. It is a very old-fashioned tone and it’s no surprise that Borges, throughout his career, said he was early on inspired by the yarns of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Exotic

This old-fashioned, bookish tone overlaps with the wonderfully exotic settings of many of the narratives: slave plantations of the Deep South; Australia; the China seas; 18th century Japan; the Wild West; 12th century Ireland; medieval Spain; medieval Persia.

In the first preface he mentions Robert Louis Stevenson as a source and you can feel Stevenson’s restless quest for exotic locations shared by Borges.

Intellectual themes

I hate to say it but probably one of the recurring tropes of the stories is (the currently modish theme of) ‘identity’. The seven historical characters freely change their names or have names assigned them by contemporaries or historians. Writing of Monk Eastman, he says:

These shifts of identity (as distressing as a masquerade, in which one is not quite certain who is who) omit his real name – presuming there is such a thing as a real name.

Aha. The most flagrant example is Tom Castro who has already changed his name once before he embarks on the criminal project of impersonating Roger Charles Tichborne, which leads to the sensational trial in which the nature of ‘identity’ is central.

Two prefaces

After the fact, Borges commented on his own stories in two prefaces, one written for the 1934 edition, one for 1954.

1934 preface

It’s only one page long and Borges admits that the stories stem, in part, from:

my rereadings of Stevenson and Chesterton, and also from Sternberg’s early films, and perhaps from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego

combined with the over-use certain tricks:

random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes

I found it very interesting indeed that he casually says:

They are not, they do not try to be, psychological.

Traditional literature, and many short stories, focus on a psychological crux, a decisive moment in someone’s life, and investigate the ‘moral’ and psychological aspects of it. Borges consciously turns his back on that tradition and exploits his sources to create pen portraits which are not at all concerned with anyone’s inner life, but use the content as 1. entertainment, creating striking scenarios and tableaux, as if in paintings or – as he frequently remarks – like scenes from movies. In the 1954 preface he elaborates that:

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable

They are intended to be all surface. That partly explains why they end so abruptly and with no moralising whatsoever: to emphasise their shiny metallic surfaceness.

2. What Borges doesn’t mention is that the stories are also quite clearly used as starting points for ironic and amused meditations on ideas, the more metaphysical and paradoxical the better. And that this was a harbinger of the work which was to come later.

1954 preface

The 1954 preface is twice as long as the 1934 one, being an extravagant 2 pages in length. Borges immediately launches into a consideration of ‘the baroque’, claiming it is a style:

which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody… [that] only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.

He goes on to link this to a fundamentally comic worldview:

The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has stated that all intellectual labour is essentially humorous.

I disagree. Having attended a big London exhibition about The Baroque I took away the strong conviction that the Baroque is about Power, the Complete Power of supreme monarchs and/or the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church in Italy. Apart from anything else, Baroque works of art and churches are massive and imposing whereas, if Borges is anything, he is a precise miniaturist. He is more like a Swiss watchmaker than a Baroque architect.

But we are not reading Borges for accurate scholarship, in fact the precise opposite, we are reading him for his whimsical playing fast and loose with facts and figures and ideas for our amusement, an attitude he makes explicit when he writes that the stories are:

the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of others.

He may be accurate in invoking the idea of the Baroque to indicate an interest in following every detail or narrative possibility to its logical conclusion, in the compulsive inclusion of every finial and architectural flourish possible. But his work is at the opposite end of the scale from the Baroque. And the Baroque is deadly serious, whereas Borges’s work is informed above all by a dry, metaphysical humour, that comes from somewhere else. That is Borges’s invention, filtered through the gentlemanly, bookish, ironic tone of the late Victorian British authors he loved.

Literary influence

Apparently (or, as Borges might write, ‘If I am not mistaken’) the Puerto Rican critic Angel Flores (1900 to 1994) was the first person to use the term ‘magical realism’ and dated the start of the Magical Realist movement from this book.

This is echoed by the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition which claims that Borges intended the stories simply to be light entertainments, newspaper squibs:

‘yet after its appearance in 1935 its influence on the fiction of Latin America was so profound that its publication date became a landmark in the history of Latin American literature.’


Related links

Borges reviews

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner’s confession? Every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is; I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels. (Preface)

This book contains seven essays on the art of the novel. First, a few observations.

Kundera is an academic Remember Kundera was a lecturer in ‘World Literature’ at Charles University in Prague for some 20 years (1952-75). This is a grand title and obviously encouraged a panoramic overview of the subject. Then he emigrated to France, where he continued to teach at university. He is, in other words, an academic, an expounder, a simplifier and teacher of other people’s views and theories, and that is probably the most dominant characteristic of his fiction – the wish to lecture and explicate.

He discusses a narrow academic canon You quickly realise he isn’t talking about the hundreds of thousands of novels which have been published over the past 400 years – he is talking about The Novel, the ‘serious novel’, ‘real novels’ – an entirely academic construct, which consists of a handful, well at most 50 novelists, across that entire period and all of Europe, whose concerns are ‘serious’ enough to be included in ‘serious’ academic study.

Non-British And he is very consciously European. This means many of his references are alien or exotic to us. Or just incomprehensible. When he says that The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the last popular novel, he might as well be living on Mars. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe, of Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, or anyone from the British ‘Great Tradition’ except the dry and dusty Samuel Richardson, in some histories, the founder of the English novel. He mentions Orwell’s ‘1984’ to dismiss it as a form of journalism. All Orwell’s fiction, he thinks, would have been better conveyed in pamphlets.

There is no mention of American fiction: from Melville through Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner (OK, Faulkner is mentioned right towards the end as one of the several authors who want nothing written about their lives, only their works), Updike or Roth or Bellow. No reference to science fiction or historical fiction or thrillers or detective fiction. Or children’s fiction. There is no mention of South American fiction (actually, he does mention a novel by Carlos Fuentes), or anything from Africa or Asia.

Some exceptions, but by and large, it is a very very very narrow definition of the Novel. Kundera can only talk as sweepingly as he does because he has disqualified 99.9% of the world from consideration before he begins.

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

In 1935 Edmund Husserl gave a lecture titled ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’. He identifies the Modern Era as starting with Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) and Descartes (Discourse on the Method, 1637) and complains that Europe (by which he includes America and the other colonies) has become obsessed with science and the external world at the expense of spirit and psychology, at the expense of Lebenswelt.

Kundera says that Husserl neglected the novel, which was also born at the start of the modern era, specifically in the Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (1605). It is in the novel that Europeans have, for 400 years, been investigating the interior life of humanity. The novel discovers those elements of life which only it can discover. Therefore the sequence of great novelists amounts to a sequence of discoveries about human nature:

  • Cervantes – explores the nature of adventure
  • Richardson – the secret life of feelings
  • Balzac – man’s rootedness in history
  • Flaubert – details of the everyday
  • Tolstoy – the intrusion of the irrational into decision making
  • Proust – the elusiveness of time past
  • Joyce – the elusiveness of time present
  • Mann – the role of ancient myth in modern life

At the start of the Modern Era God began to disappear, and with him the idea of one truth. Instead the world disintegrated into multiple truths. In the novel these multiple truths are dramatised as characters.

The whole point of the novel is it does not rush to judgement, to praise or condemn. Religion and ideologies (and political correctness) does that. The whole point of the novel is to suspend humanity’s Gadarene rush to judge and condemn before understanding: to ‘tolerate the essential relativity of things human’ (p.7).

He describes how there is a straight decline in the European spirit, from Cervantes – whose heroes live on the open road with an infinite horizon and never-ending supply of adventures – through Balzac whose characters are bounded by the city, via Emma Bovary who is driven mad by boredom, down to Kafka, whose characters have no agency of their own, but exist solely as the function of bureaucratic mistakes. It’s a neat diagram, but to draw it you have to leave out of account most of the novels ever written – for example all the novels of adventure written in the later 19th century, all of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example.

As in all his Western books, Kundera laments the spirit of the age, how the mass media are making everything look and sound the same, reducing everything to stereotypes and soundbites, simplifying the world, creating ‘the endless babble of the graphomanics’ –  whereas the novel’s task is to revel in its oddity and complexity.

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

In a written dialogue with an interviewer, Kundera moves the same brightly coloured counters around – Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce. The novel was about adventure, then about society, then about psychology.

He states his novels are outside the novel of psychology. There’s psychology in them but that’s not their primary interest.

Being a central European he sees the 1914-18 war as a catastrophe which plunged art and literature into the grip of a merciless History. The essential dreaminess of a Proust or Joyce became impossible. Kafka opened the door to a new way of being, as prostrate victim of an all-powerful bureaucracy.

He clarifies that a key concern is the instability of the self: which is why characters often play games, pose and dramatise themselves; it is to find out where their limits are.

He clarifies his approach as against Joyce’s. Joyce uses internal monologue. There is no internal monologue at all in Kundera. In fact, as he explains it, you realise that the monologue is his, the author’s as the author tries different approaches in order to analyse his own characters. His books are philosophical analyses of fictional characters. And the characters are conceived as ‘experimental selfs’ (p.31), fully in line with his core idea that the history of the novel is a sequence of discoveries.

If the novel is a method for grasping the self, first there was grasping through adventure and action (from Cervantes to Tolstoy). Then grasping the self through the interior life (Joyce, Proust). Kundera is about grasping the self though examining existential situations. He always begins with existential plights. A woman who has vertigo. A man who suffers because he feels his existence is too light, and so on. Then he creates characters around these fundamentals. Then he puts them into situations which he, the author, can analyse, analyse repeatedly and from different angles, in order to investigate the mystery of the self.

Thus a character is ‘not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.’ (p.34) Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of their existential problem’ (p.35).

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. (p.42)

The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence. (p.44)

The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters. (p.83)

A theme is an existential enquiry. (p.84)

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

The Sleepwalkers is the name given to a trilogy of novels by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951). The three novels were published between 1928 and 1932. They focus on three protagonists and are set 15 years apart:

  1. Joachim von Pasenow set in 1888
  2. August Esch set in 1903
  3. Wilhelm Huguenau set in 1918

In their different ways they address on core them: man confronting the disintegration of his values.

According to Kundera, before one writes one must have an ontological hypothesis, a theory about what kind of world we live in. For example The Good Soldier Švejk finds everything about the world absurd. At the opposite pole, Kafka’s protagonists find everything about the world so oppressive that they lose their identities to it.

After all, What is action? How do we decide to do what we do? That is, according to Kundera, the eternal question of the novel. (p.58)

Through an analysis of the plots of the three novels, Kundera concludes that what Broch discovered was the system of symbolic thought which underlies all decisions, public or private.

He closes with some waspish criticism of ‘Establishment Modernism’, i.e. the modernism of academics, which requires an absolute break at the time of the Great War, and the notion that Joyce et al. definitively abolished the old-fashioned novel of character. Obviously Kundera disagrees. For him Broch (whose most famous masterpiece, The Death of Virgil didn’t come out till the end of World War Two) was still opening up new possibilities in the novel form, was still asking the same questions the novel has asked ever since Cervantes.

It is a little odd that Kundera takes this 2-page swipe at ‘Establishment Modernism’, given that a) he is an academic himself, and his own approach is open to all sorts of objections (mainly around its ferocious exclusivity), and b) as he was writing these essays, Modernism was being replaced, in literature and the academy, by Post-Modernism, with its much greater openness to all kinds of literary forms and genres.

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

Second part of the extended ‘dialogue’ whose first part was section two, above. Starts by examining three principles found in Kundera’s work:

1. Divestment, or ellipsis. He means getting straight to the heart of the matter, without the traditional fol-de-rol of setting scenes or background to cities or towns or locations.

2. Counterpoint or polyphony. Conventional novels have several storylines. Kundera is interested in the way completely distinct themes or ideas can be woven next to each other, setting each other off. For the early composers a principle of polyphony was that all the lines are clear and distinct and of equal value.

Interestingly, he chooses as fine examples of his attempts to apply this technique to his novels, the Angels section in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which I found scrappy and unconvincing – and Part Six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is by far the worst thing he’s ever written, embarrassingly bad.

There’s some chat about Kundera’s own personal interventions in his novels. He emphasises that anything said within a novel is provisional hypothetical and playful. Sure, he intervenes sometimes to push the analysis of a character’s situation deeper than the character themselves could do it. But emphasises that even the most serious-sounding interventions are always playful. They can never be ‘philosophy’ because they don’t occur in a philosophical text.

From the very first word, my thoughts have a tone which is playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or enquiring. (p.80)

This is what he means by ‘a specifically novelistic essay’ i.e. you can write digressions and essays within novels but, by coming within its force field, they become playful and ironic.

The final part is an analysis of his novels in terms of their structure, their architecture i.e. the number of parts, the way the sub-sections are so distinct. And then a really intense comparison with works of classical music, in the sense that the varying length and tempo of the parts of his novels are directly compared with classical music, particularly to Beethoven quartets. Until the age of 25 he thought he was going to be a composer rather than a writer and he is formidably learned about classical music.

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

A short essay about Kafka. He uses the adjective Kafkan, which I don’t like; I prefer Kafkaesque. What does it consist of?

  1. boundless labyrinth
  2. a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy), which tends to make his life’s meaning theological. Or pseudo-theological
  3. the punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done
  4. when Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but…

Fundamentally his stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers.

What strikes Kundera is that accurately predicted an entire aspect of man in the 20th century without trying to. All his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, communist etc, thought endlessly about the future society. But all of their works are lost. Kafka, in complete contrast, was a very private man, obsessed above all with his own personal life, with the domineering presence of his father and his tricky love life. With no thought of the future or society at large, he created works which turned out to be prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

This Kundera takes to be a prime example of the radical autonomy of the novel, whose practitioners are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity, which no other science or discipline can.

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

As Kundera became famous, and his books published in foreign languages, he became appalled by the quality of the translations. (The English version of The Joke particularly traumatised him; the English publisher cut all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, and changed the order of the parts! In the 1980s he decided to take some time out from writing and undertake a comprehensive review of all translations of his books with a view to producing definitive versions.

Specific words are more important to Kundera than other novelists because his novels are often highly philosophical. In fact, he boils it down: a novel is a meditation on certain themes; and these themes are expressed in words. Change the words, you screw up the meditations, you wreck the novel.

A friendly publisher, watching him slog away at this work for years, said, ‘Since you’re going over all your works with a fine toothcomb, why don’t you make a personal list of the words and ideas which mean most to you?’

And so he produced this very entertaining and easy-to-read collection of short articles, reflections and quotes relating to Milan Kundera’s keywords:

  • aphorism
  • beauty
  • being – friends advised him to remove ‘being’ from the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: but it is designed to be a meditation on the existential quality of being. What if Shakespeare had written: To live or not to live… Too superficial. He was trying to get at the absolute root of our existence.
  • betrayal
  • border
  • Central Europe – the Counter-Reformation baroque dominated the area ensuring no Enlightenment, but on the other hand it was the epicentre of European classical music. Throughout the book he is struck by the way the great modern central European novelists – Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz – were anti-Romantic and modern just not in the way of the flashy avant-gardes of Rome or Paris. Then after 1945 central Europe was extinguished and – as he was writing this list – was a prophetic type of the extinguishment of all Europe. Now we know this didn’t happen.
  • collaborator – he says the word ‘collaborator’ was only coined in 1944, and immediately defined an entire attitude towards modernity. Nowadays he reviles collaborators with the mass media and advertising who he thinks are crushing humanity. (Looking it up I see the word ‘collaborator’ was first recorded in English in 1802. This is one of the many examples where Kundera pays great attention to a word and everything he says about it turns out to be untrue for English. It makes reading these essays, and his ovels, a sometimes slippery business.)
  • comic
  • Czechoslovakia – he never uses the word in his fiction, it is too young (the word and country were, after all, only created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed). He always uses ‘Bohemia’ or ‘Moravia’.
  • definition
  • elitism – the Western world is being handed over to the control of a mass media elite. Every time I read his diatribes against the media, paparazzi and the intrusion into people’s private lives, I wonder what he makes of the Facebook and twitter age.
  • Europe – his books are streaked with cultural pessimism. Here is another example. He thinks Europe is over and European culture already lost. Well, that’s what every generation of intellectuals thinks. 40 years later Europe is still here.
  • excitement
  • fate
  • flow
  • forgetting – In my review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I pointed out that Mirek rails against forgetting as deployed by the state (sacking historians) but is himself actively engaged in trying to erase his past (claiming back his love letters to an old flame). Kundera confirms my perception. Totalitarian regimes want to control the past (‘Orwell’s famous theme’), but what his story shows is that so do people. It is a profound part of human nature.
  • graphomania – he rails against the way everyone is a writer nowadays, and says it has nothing to do with writing (i.e. the very careful consideration of form which he has shown us in the other essays in this book) but a primitive and crude will to impose your views on everyone else.
  • hat
  • hatstand
  • ideas – his despair at those who reduce works to ideas alone. No, it is how they are treated, and his sense of the complexity of treatment is brought out in the extended comparison of his novels to complicated late Beethoven string quartets in 4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition
  • idyll
  • imagination
  • inexperience – a working title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being was The Planet of Inexperience. Why? Because none of us have done this before. We’re all making it up as we go along. That’s what’s so terrifying, so vertiginous.
  • infantocracy
  • interview – as comes over in a scene in Immortality, he hates press interviews because the interviewer is only interested in their own agenda and in twisting and distorting the interviewees’ responses. Thus in 1985 he made a decision to give no more interviews and only allow his views to be published as dialogues which he had carefully gone over, refined and copyrighted. Hence parts two and four of this book, although they have a third party asking questions, are in the form of a dialogue and were carefully polished.
  • irony
  • kitsch – he’s obsessed with this idea which forms the core – is the theme being meditated on – in part six of the Unbearable Lightness of Being. It consists of two parts: step one is eliminating ‘shit’ from the world (he uses the word ‘shit’) in order to make it perfect and wonderful, as in Communist leaders taking a May Day parade or TV adverts. Step two is looking at this shallow, lying version of the world and bursting into tears at its beauty. Kitsch is ‘the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.’ (p.135)
  • laughter – For Rabelais, the comic and the merry were one. Slowly literature became more serious, the eighteenth century preferring wit, the Romantics preferring passion, the nineteenth century preferring realism. Now ‘the European history of laughter is coming to an end’. (p.136) That is so preposterous a thought I laughed out loud.
  • letters
  • lightness
  • lyric
  • lyricism
  • macho
  • meditation – his cultural pessimism is revealed again when he claims that ‘to base a novel on sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all. (p.139)
  • message
  • misogynist – gynophobia (hatred of women) is a potential of human nature as is androphobia (hatred of men), but feminists have reduced misogyny to the status of an insult and thus closed off exploration of a part of human nature.
  • misomusist – someone who has no feel for art or literature or music and so wants to take their revenge on it
  • modern
  • nonbeing
  • nonthought – the media’s nonthought
  • novel and poetry – the greatest of the nivelists -become-poets are violently anti-lyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka (don’t think that’s true of Joyce whose prose is trmeendously lyrical)
  • novel – the European novel
  • novelist and writer
  • novelist and his life – quotes from a series of novelists all wishing their lives to remain secret and obscure: all attention should be on the works. Despite this, the army of biographers swells daily. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that Josef K, cultural death begins.
  • obscenity
  • Octavio – the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz
  • old age – frees you to do and say what you want.
  • opus
  • repetitions
  • rewriting – for the mass media, is desecration. ‘Death to all those who dare rewrite what has been written!’ Jacques and His Master
  • rhythm – the amazing subtlety of rhythm in classical music compared to the tedious primitivism of rock music. Tut tut.
  • Soviet – the Germans and Poles have produced writers who lament the German and Polish spirit. The Russians will never do that. They can’t. Every single one of them is a Russian chauvinist.
  • Temps Modernes – his cultural pessimism blooms: ‘we are living at the end of the Modern Era; the end of art as conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity’ (p.150)
  • transparency – the word and concept in whose name the mass media are destroying privacy
  • ugly
  • uniform
  • value – ‘To examine a value means: to try to demaracte and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world.’ (p.152)
  • vulgarity
  • work
  • youth

7. Jerusalem Address: the Novel and Europe (1985)

In the Spring of 1985 Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He went to Jerusalem to deliver this thank you address. It is a short, extremely punch defense of the novel as a form devoted to saving the human spirit of enquiry in dark times.

In a whistlestop overview of European history, he asserts that the novel was born at the birth of the modern era when, with religious belief receding, man for the first time grasped his plight as a being abandoned on earth: the novel was an investigation of this plight and has remained so ever since.

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood. (p.159)

Every novel, like it or not, offers some answer to the question: What is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? (p.161)

But the novel, like the life of the mind, has its enemies. Namely the producers of kitsch and what Rabelais called the agélastes, people who have no sense of humour and do not laugh. He doesn’t say it but I interpret this to mean those who espouse identity politics and political correctness. Thou Must Not Laugh At These Serious Subjects, say the politically correct, and then reel off a list which suits themselves. And kitsch:

Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for the banality of what we think and feel. (p.163)

The greatest promoter of kitsch is the mass media which turns the huge human variety into half a dozen set narratives designed to make us burst into tears. We are confronted by a three-headed monster: the agélastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch.

Kundera sees European culture as being under threat from these three forces, and identifies what is most precious about it (European culture), namely:

  • its respect for the individual
  • for the individual’s original thought
  • for the right of the individual to a private life

Against the three-headed monster, and defending these precious freedoms, is set the Novel, a sustained investigation by some of the greatest minds, into all aspects of human existence, the human predicament, into human life and interactions, into human culture.


Central ideas

The novel is an investigation into man’s Lebenwelt – his life-being.

Novelists are discoverers and explorer of the capabilities, the potentialities, of human existence.

Conclusions

1. Fascinating conception of the novel as a sustained investigation into the nature of the self, conducted through a series of historical eras each with a corresponding focus and interest.

2. Fascinating trot through the history of the European novel, specially the way it mentions novelists we in England are not so familiar with, such as Hermann Broch or Diderot or Novalis, or gives a mid-European interpretation to those we have heard of like Kafka or Joyce.

3. Fascinating insight into not only his own working practice, but what he thinks he’s doing; how he sees his novels continuing and furthering the never-ending quest of discovery which he sees as the novel’s historic mission.

But what none of this fancy talk brings out at all, is the way Milan Kundera’s novels are obsessed with sex. It is extraordinary that neither Sex nor Eroticism appear in his list of 63 words since his powerfully erotic (and shameful and traumatic and mysterious and ironic) explorations of human sexuality are what many people associate Kundera’s novels with.

Last thoughts

Changes your perspective It’s a short book, only 165 pages with big gaps between the sections, but it does a very good job of explaining how Kundera sees the history and function of the novel, as an investigation into the existential plight of humanity. It changed my mental image of Kundera from being an erotic novelist to being more like an existentialist thinker-cum-writer in the tradition of Sartre.

The gap between Britain and Europe There is a subtler takeaway, which is to bring out how very different we, the British, are from the Europeans. True, he mentions a few of our authors – the eighteenth century trio of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne – but no Defoe, Austen, Scott or Dickens.

The real point is that he assumes all European intellectuals will have read widely in European literature – from Dante and Boccaccio through Cervantes and into the eighteenth century of Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade. And when you read the French founders of critical theory, Barthes or Derrida, or the influential historian Foucault, they obviously refer to this tradition.

But it remains completely alien to us in Britain. Not many of us read Diderot or Novalis or Lermontov or even Goethe. We’ve all heard of Flaubert and Baudelaire because, in fact, they’re relatively easy to read – but not many of us have read Broch or Musil, and certainly not Gombrowicz. Though all literature students should have heard of Thomas Mann I wonder how many have read any of his novels.

My point being that, as you read on into the book, you become aware of the gulf between this huge reservoir of writers, novels and texts in the European languages – French, German and Russian – and the almost oppressively Anglo-Saxon cultural world we inhabit, not only packed with Shakespeare and Dickens, but also drenched in American writers, not least the shibboleths of modern American identity politics such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou.

Reading this book fills your mind with ideas about the European tradition. But at the same time it makes you aware of how very different and apart we, in Britain, are, from that tradition. Some of us may have read some of it; but none of us, I think, can claim to be of it.

Credit

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera was first published in French in 1986. The English translation was published by Grove Press in the USA and Faber and Faber in the UK in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896)

‘These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted.’
(The Island of Dr Moreau, chapter 14)

The main text is a ‘lost narrative’, in this case a written account of the adventures of Edward Prendick, which is found among his papers after his death by his nephew, Charles Edward Prendick, and is now being given to the public ‘for the first time’.

This is a time-honoured old literary convention but it always makes me perk up, as it promises a certain kind of text, an old-fashioned adventure narrative, much as Conan Doyle’s story The Horror of the Heights transcribes the ‘blood-stained notebook’ belonging to a Mr. Joyce-Armstrong, or the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is told through letters and diaries, the kind of textual fragments which also throng the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Shipwrecked

The story is simple enough in outline. Prendick describes how the schooner he’s a passenger on in the South Seas (The Lady Vain) hits a wreck and sinks. He scrambles into a dinghy with two others. After days without food or water, the two sailors he’s with attack each other and fall overboard. It is in this state, alone, half delirious and drifting in an open boat, that he is picked up by another schooner, the Ipecacuanha, and nursed back to health by a passenger on this boat, Montgomery, a former medical student.

The captain of the second boat is a disreputable drunk (John Davis) who argues incessantly with Montgomery and his strange, malformed manservant, not least about Montgomery’s cargo of wild animals – a pack of savage hounds, a caged puma and loads of rabbits.

When they reach their destination, a remote island, the drunken captain unloads Montgomery’s animals into a waiting launch steered by an aloof man who is obviously Montgomery’s boss – but then drunkenly insists that Prendick leave the ship, too. Montgomery refuses to take him, and so the drunk captain gets his men to manhandle Prendick into the boat’s dinghy which he sets adrift. Seeing all this, Montgomery and his boss reluctantly turn around their launch and come back for him.

The captain of the launch now introduces himself as Doctor Moreau. He is a big strong, grey-haired man who makes it quite plain to Prendick that he is an unintended and unwelcome guest, but that they couldn’t leave him to drift and die. Now he accompanies them in the boat which docks at a primitive quayside, where the animals are unloaded by yet more men who are strange and almost animal-like in appearance.

The island

And thus Prendick arrives on the island of Dr Moreau, and slowly realises that the good doctor is practicing vivisection – ‘performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research’ – before going on to make the horrific discovery – that he is operating on men, too.

I picked myself up and stood trembling, my mind a chaos of the most horrible misgivings. Could it be possible, I thought, that such a thing as the vivisection of men was carried on here? The question shot like lightning across a tumultuous sky; and suddenly the clouded horror of my mind condensed into a vivid realisation of my own danger. (Chapter 10)

Thus there is a secret at the heart of the island, which involves physical danger, and is potentially horrific – and Wells’s task as storyteller is to share Prendick’s slow unravelling of the secret, and to punctuate the narrative with scenes of jeopardy and horror.

Terror

For example, the day after he’s taken in and given a spare room in the ‘compound’, Prendick finds himself deeply disturbed by the sound of the screams of the puma. Moreau is clearly operating on it, with no anaesthetic, all day long. So Prendick goes for a wander around the island which, of course, is a bad idea, because, once he is in the forest, he becomes alert to strange sounds and snufflings, and realises that any number of horrible, misshapen half-men, are loping around it. In one shocking scene he glimpses one of these half-men go down on all fours to slurp water from a stream – just like an animal!

I read this scene late at night and, as I followed Prendick’s realisation that he is lost at night in a tropical jungle filled with half-human beasts – the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck. I read on in genuine fear as Prendick blunders through the darkness, realising he is being followed by something he can’t see, but whose inhuman gruntings and snufflings he can hear getting closer and closer.

A twig snapped behind me, and there was a rustle. I turned, and stood facing the dark trees. I could see nothing – or else I could see too much. Every dark form in the dimness had its ominous quality, its peculiar suggestion of alert watchfulness. So I stood for perhaps a minute, and then, with an eye to the trees still, turned westward to cross the headland; and as I moved, one among the lurking shadows moved to follow me.

My heart beat quickly. Presently the broad sweep of a bay to the westward became visible, and I halted again. The noiseless shadow halted a dozen yards from me. A little point of light shone on the further bend of the curve, and the grey sweep of the sandy beach lay faint under the starlight. Perhaps two miles away was that little point of light. To get to the beach I should have to go through the trees where the shadows lurked, and down a bushy slope.

I could see the Thing rather more distinctly now. It was no animal, for it stood erect. At that I opened my mouth to speak, and found a hoarse phlegm choked my voice. I tried again, and shouted, ‘Who is there?’ There was no answer. I advanced a step. The Thing did not move, only gathered itself together…

It was some time before I could summon resolution to go down through the trees and bushes upon the flank of the headland to the beach. At last I did it at a run; and as I emerged from the thicket upon the sand, I heard some other body come crashing after me. At that I completely lost my head with fear, and began running along the sand. Forthwith there came the swift patter of soft feet in pursuit. I gave a wild cry, and redoubled my pace. Some dim, black things about three or four times the size of rabbits went running or hopping up from the beach towards the bushes as I passed.

So long as I live, I shall remember the terror of that chase. I ran near the water’s edge, and heard every now and then the splash of the feet that gained upon me. Far away, hopelessly far, was the yellow light. All the night about us was black and still. Splash, splash, came the pursuing feet, nearer and nearer. I felt my breath going, for I was quite out of training; it whooped as I drew it, and I felt a pain like a knife at my side… (Chapter 9)

Exciting, eh? Note the (generally) short sentences. Aspects of Wells’s prose occasionally betray his Victorian background (‘forthwith’ and other such ornate phraseology) but for the most part you can see how the need to convey heightened sensations and terror force the prose into shorter, pithy sentences, like outbursts of panting.

Chapter titles

Even the titles of each chapter are designed – with their insistent use of ‘the’ to start each one – to convey a sense of primitive and elemental experience.

The Man Who Was Going Nowhere
The Strange Face
The Evil-Looking Boatmen
The Locked Door
The Crying Of The Puma
The Thing In The Forest
The Crying Of The Man
The Hunting Of The Man
The Sayers Of The Law

The wrecking outsider

There must be a generic name for the kind of story in which a stranger, an outsider, blunders into a fairly stable situation or society, misunderstands and disrupts it, and sets off a train of events which lead to its destruction. Happens in loads of science fiction and adventure stories.

This is a classic example. In chapter 10 of this 22-chapter text, Prendick, overcome with panic that Moreau and Montgomery might be about to experiment on him, breaks free of the compound, running away from Montgomery, and finds himself being befriended by the strange – the really strange – motley of vivisected half-humans and hybrids which Moreau has let run loose on the island.

Prendick discovers that there are far more of these mutants, these ‘beast men’, than he’d imagined, maybe hundreds (Moreau later tells him there are some 67, plus a fleet of 60 or so smaller half-animals). And is inducted into their strange religion, led by a deranged Beast-Man prophet, and reinforced by rhythmic chanting and swaying:

Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Moreau and Montgomery track him down to the village of the beast-men, in order to rescue him but Prendick, in his ignorance and panic – still convinced that they mean to operate on him – yells out to the Beast Men that Moreau and Montgomery are just men like them, that they can be easily overcome and defeated, that they are not gods.

In other words – he plants the seeds of The Revolt of the Beast-Men.

Moreau’s justification

Moreau and Montgomery finally persuade Prendick they mean him no harm by handing over their revolvers to him and saying he can keep them. Reluctantly, he agrees to go back to the compound with them. It is here that Moreau makes his Big Statement, justifying  his work to Predick, mixing together contemporary knowledge about vivisection and evolution, into a horrifically amoral quest to mould and create new species.

‘I wanted – it was the one thing I wanted – to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape.’

He explains that none of the things Prendick saw in the village of the Beast-Men was human. All of them were animals who Moreau had extensively experimented on to give new craniums, larger brains and, above all, larynxes with which to utter sounds. His amorality, his unflinching heartless willingness to inflict unspeakable pain are meant to horrify us.

And Wells sense the mythic necessity for the story of describing Moreau’s anger and frustration at continually failing to create a man from a beast. No matter how subtle his knife and his anatomical knowledge, something is always lacking. The creatures always relapse, the bestial part reawakens.

Neither Moreau nor Wells names it, but Wells is gesturing towards the idea of a soul, as somehow separating man from the beasts, and therefore incapable of any surgical intervention.

This notion that the beast in the vivisected animals rises especially at nightfall, when they dare to do things they would never do during the day, reminded me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a full-length novel devoted to describing creatures which can only live at night, which was published the year after Moreau, in 1897.

(Interestingly, Wells had already published the factual core of Moreau’s speech as a scientific article about the limits and possibilities of vivisection in the Saturday Review in January, 1895. An example of the close linkage between current scientific debate, and Wells’s scientific ‘fantasies’.)

Blood is spilt

The catastrophe is slow but remorseless in building up. A rabbit-like creature is discovered which has been killed and eaten. Now, eating meat and tasting blood are against ‘the Law’ which Moreau has been at such pains to instil into his monstrous creations.

He, Montgomery and Prendick go armed with revolvers, whip and a big hunting horn to the Valley of the Beast Men, where Moreau blows the horn and assembles the mutants. The Beast-Men listen while Moreau repeats the law about not tasting flesh, and then repeat it like surly retards. But as Moreau pushes his questioning about who has broken the Law and tasted blood, the Leopard-Man betrays his guilt by suddenly bounding at Moreau, pushing him over and fleeing.

This gives rise to a mass hunt, with the howling yowling beast-people chasing alongside the three men, until they corner the Leopard-Man in a thicket. Here Prendick is overcome by the horrible futility and pointlessness of all of it. If Moreau had some noble purpose in mind, was curing some disease, the pain he inflicts might be acceptable. Instead he creates one botched hybrid after another, releasing them onto the island to live lives of pain and fear, plagued by human thoughts, but without human traditions or feelings to contain them.

Prendick shoots the Leopard-Man to put it out of its misery, but this is just the latest in a long line of his mistakes, which are giving the Beast-Men ideas that the men are no the strong gods they have been whipped into believing.

Many had noticed that when Prendick had sought refuge in their camp, he was bleeding, he was hungry, he was weak. Then, when Moreau and Montgomery had him at bay in the sea, he deliberately shouted to the Beast Men that the white men were just men after all, vulnerable and exposed.

All these seeds which the outsider Prendick has sown now finally bear fruit in a Revolt of the Beast-Men.

The crisis

The actual spark is struck when the puma which Moreau has been operating on for six weeks suddenly breaks free. By now it is half-monster enough to be able to tear its fetters out of the wall, fling Prendick aside (breaking his left arm) and rush for the jungle.

Moreau pursues with a revolver. Montgomery and Prendick follow with Montgomery’s loyal servant, M’ling tagging along. They hear shots and crash through the jungle to find the puma shot dead – and Moreau’s dead body next to it!

Devastated, Montgomery lets slip the words, ‘He’s dead’, but the Beast-Men – who have quickly gathered round – ominously begin to repeat this. Prendick, seeing the danger, steps forward and says in his loudest voice that Moreau is not dead, he has merely cast off this body and gone to heaven to watch over them.

Still, the Beast Men fall to muttering among themselves. Only mindless repetition of the Law, combined with terror of ‘the House of Pain’ (Moreau’s laboratory) have kept them in line. With Moreau dead – what next?

Montgomery, Prendick, M’ling and some of the Beasts carry Moreau’s body back to the compound. The beasts leave. The white men burn Moreau’s corpse, and then lock themselves in.

The next thing is that Montgomery gets drunk and tells Prendick the story of his life. Because of some obscure scandal at medical school he was forced to pack in his career and leave London. He drifted around the South Seas. He was taken in by Moreau and has been living on the island for ten years. His only friend is the mutant M’ling.

Montgomery now gets really drunk, pushes Prendick out of the way and staggers across the beach to find M’ling to persuade him to join him in a drink. Prendick watches figures of some Beast-Men emerge from the forest around the stumbling man, apparently joining in with him, and they all go off together, Montgomery singing.

Prendick realises he has to escape the island. He goes back into the compound to search for things he can pack into the launch, planning to set sail the next day. But then he hears shouting. Looking out the windows he sees that someone has built a fire on the beach and the drinking has turned to violence.

Then he hears shots. He runs towards the fire only to discover that a hairy-grey Beast-Man has mortally wounded Montgomery. M’ling has been savaged and killed. Three of the beasts are dead. Montgomery just has time to say ‘Sorry’, before he dies. And, as the sun rises, Prendick looks round the beach and realises that Montgomery and M’ling, in their nihilistic drunkenness, had chopped up the dinghies and set them on fire. The stupid fool must have drunkenly thought that, if he couldn’t go back to ‘civilisation’, then no-one could.

Still dazed by this realisation, Prendick hears bangs and flares. Looking round, he sees the compound alight, flames climbing higher into the dawn sky. All his plans to flee are crushed.

Among the Beast-Men

There follows what is, in a way, the most enthralling part of the story. Prendick decides to take his courage in his hands and marches to the village of the remaining Beast People. With some of their more rebellious members hot dead, the remnant are, initially, cowed by Prendick. But it soon becomes clear that he is hungry, tired and thirsty. By slow degrees, over the course of days and weeks, he loses his rank as Ruling White Man and, step by step, declines until he is little better than one of them.

So in solitude I came round by the ravine of the Beast People, and hiding among the weeds and reeds that separated this crevice from the sea I watched such of them as appeared, trying to judge from their gestures and appearance how the death of Moreau and Montgomery and the destruction of the House of Pain had affected them. I know now the folly of my cowardice. Had I kept my courage up to the level of the dawn, had I not allowed it to ebb away in solitary thought, I might have grasped the vacant sceptre of Moreau and ruled over the Beast People. As it was I lost the opportunity, and sank to the position of a mere leader among my fellows. (Chapter 20)

Prendick is forced to spend the next ten months among the beasts and during this period, something awful and awe-inspiring happens. Slowly, one by one, he watches as they degrade and decay, reverting to their bestial origins. One by one they forget how to speak, forget how to walk upright, forget about fire, and revert to all the behaviour banned by Moreau’s ‘Laws’ – such as going on all fours and slurping water from streams.

None of them threaten him, but Prendick nonetheless lives in mounting terror.

He keeps a lookout on the horizon. A couple of times he sees what he thinks are sails and lights fires to attract their attention but nobody comes. He makes a series of half-cocked attempts to build a raft, but he is no engineer or handiman.

Finally, one day Prendick sees a dinghy drifting slowly towards the reef. When he swims out to inspect it he finds two well-rotten corpses in it. He tips them out and moors it, fills the empty kegs with fresh water, collects sacksful of fruit – and then pushes off, drifting with the waves, eating and drinking sparingly – in such an abandoned state of mind that he doesn’t really care whether he’s rescued or not. Just to be away from the Island of Beasts is enough.


Degeneration theory

To quote Wikipedia:

Towards the close of the 19th century, in the fin-de-siècle period, something of an obsession with decline, descent and degeneration invaded the European creative imagination, partly fuelled by widespread misconceptions of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Only a few years before Moreau, in 1892, the German physician and social critic Max Nordau had written a sociological study, Degeneration, arguing the case that Western civilisation was in irreversible. It struck a nerve and become a surprise bestseller.

This cultural trend sprang to mind, particularly as I read the penultimate chapter of The Island of Dr Moreau – the description of Prendick’s ten months among the Beast-Men which is, in effect, an extended fantasia describing the decline and degeneration of Moreau’s half-men back into a state of complete bestiality.

It is horrible to read Prendick’s vivid descriptions of their slow loss of all mental powers and reversion to crude animal behaviour. It is Nordau’s notion of degeneration given fictional flesh.

But the point is really rammed home when Prendick finds himself eventually rescued by a passing ship, and then returned, eventually, back to England, and back to London.

Here he experiences a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder for, as he walks the streets, he cannot see the passersby as people, but only as beasts-in-waiting, each on the verge of that horrible degeneration, such as he saw on the island.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel – and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered ‘Big Thinks’, even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone… (Chapter 22)

Politics

Wells was left-wing from the start, joining the Fabian Society in 1903 and going on to write numerous works promoting socialism.

As early as The Time Machine he gave his fable of the future a political slant by speculating that the two races of sylph-like Eloi and underground ape-like Morlocks might be the remote descendants of the increasingly differentiated classes of his day – a terrifying but logical extrapolation of England 1895, when the nation’s cities seemed to be ever-more starkly divided between a luxury-enjoying bourgeoisie and a degraded, half-bestial proletariat.

The same issue winks out at us from Dr Moreau, though not so centrally as in Time Machine. The first time he discovers the Beast Village, a crevice in volcanic rock into which the pitiful results of Moreau’s vivisection experiments have excavated sordid little alcoves, Predick finds himself comparing the skulking creatures who turn from his gaze, to inhabitants of the worst slums of London.

I say I became habituated to the Beast People, that a thousand things which had seemed unnatural and repulsive speedily became natural and ordinary to me. I suppose everything in existence takes its colour from the average hue of our surroundings. Montgomery and Moreau were too peculiar and individual to keep my general impressions of humanity well defined. I would see one of the clumsy bovine-creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself asking, trying hard to recall, how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labours; or I would meet the Fox-bear woman’s vulpine, shifty face, strangely human in its speculative cunning, and even imagine I had met it before in some city byway.

Yet every now and then the beast would flash out upon me beyond doubt or denial. An ugly-looking man, a hunch-backed human savage to all appearance, squatting in the aperture of one of the dens, would stretch his arms and yawn, showing with startling suddenness scissor-edged incisors and sabre-like canines, keen and brilliant as knives. Or in some narrow pathway, glancing with a transitory daring into the eyes of some lithe, white-swathed female figure, I would suddenly see (with a spasmodic revulsion) that she had slit-like pupils… (Chapter 15)

Predominantly The Island of Dr Moreau is a horror story. But it also invokes the great political issue of the day. By the 1890s the appalling state of the working classes was on everyone’s lips, in the form of ‘the labour problem’, ‘the employment problem’ or ‘the population problem’, which dominated the newspapers a bit like Brexit does today.

Either side of The Island of Dr Moreau were published countless novels, newspaper articles and factual studies exposing the poverty and squalor at the heart of Britain’s large cities and especially London. The Sherlock Holmes novels revel in it. An entire new genre of lowlife novels, by authors like George Gissing and Arthur Morrison, described it with bitter anger.

Underlying the political issues, though, is the deeper anxiety about individual and cultural degeneration. What if the wealthy, educated élite will, in time, be swamped by the wretched poor? What if we are all just animals lifted beyond out natural sphere and the entire race will, eventually, revert to bestial incomprehension and violence?

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is all about the moral degeneration of the privileged central character, a narrative which takes the hero to squalid opium dens in the East End and unmentionable depravities. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is a really obvious expression of the theme, with the cultivated Dr Jeckyll reverting to the ape-like brute, Hyde. Charles Marlow, narrator of The Heart of Darkness, points out that London, too, was once one of the dark places of the world. And, by implication, it could become so, again.

The final chapter of the Island of Dr Moreau, describing Prendick alone among the decaying Beast-Men, really taps into this anxiety with a biting sense of horror and premonition.

Futility

When you’re a teenager, it’s a common temptation to feel that everything is pointless, futile and stupid. Much science fiction gives that feeling point and definition. If you adopt the Wellsian, materialist perspective, then human beings are just one among millions of life forms currently inhabiting the planet, themselves descended from countless billions of ancestor species, and our planet is itself one among unknown billions filling an infinitely large universe which is an inconceivable 15 billion years old.

The incorporation of these vast and thrilling perspectives into his stories gives Wells ample opportunity to have his narrators or protagonists reflect, at some point, on the pitiful triviality of their own – and by extension – all human lives.

Thus, at the height of the chase of the Leopard-Man, Prendick – watching Montgomery and Moreau lead their pack of mutants across the rocks towards the poor victim – is suddenly overwhelmed by the horrible arbitrary futility of it all.

The Beast People manifested a quite human curiosity about the dead body, and followed it in a thick knot, sniffing and growling at it as the Bull-men dragged it down the beach. I went to the headland and watched the bull-men, black against the evening sky as they carried the weighted dead body out to sea; and like a wave across my mind came the realisation of the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island. Upon the beach among the rocks beneath me were the Ape-man, the Hyena-swine, and several other of the Beast People, standing about Montgomery and Moreau. They were all still intensely excited, and all overflowing with noisy expressions of their loyalty to the Law; yet I felt an absolute assurance in my own mind that the Hyena-swine was implicated in the rabbit-killing. A strange persuasion came upon me, that, save for the grossness of the line, the grotesqueness of the forms, I had here before me the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate in its simplest form. The Leopard-man had happened to go under: that was all the difference. Poor brute!

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau’s cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau’s hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed to me the lesser part. Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau – and for what? It was the wantonness of it that stirred me.

Had Moreau had any intelligible object, I could have sympathised at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even, had his motive been only hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless! His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on; and the Things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer, and at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves; the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another; the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.

In those days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear for Moreau. I fell indeed into a morbid state, deep and enduring, and alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind Fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

To a certain kind of mind, or to the mind in a certain mood, these ideas are really powerful, and Wells’ nihilism takes its place in a long line which stretches from Gulliver, revolted by humans at the very end of  his travels, through to the oppressive misanthropy of Wells’s contemporary, Joseph Conrad.

The way the tale ends with Prendick incapacitated by revulsion on the streets of London, really rams home the horror of what he has witnessed, and imprints his haunted vision of a universal human degeneration into bestial animality.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

‘If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilisation as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.’
(Dr Leete in Looking Backward. Chapter 12)

It is 1887. The narrator, Julius West, is full of plans to get a new house built in a stylish part of Boston – a project which is delayed because of almost daily strikes by the workmen – and worrying about his impending marriage to his fiancée.

All this stress exacerbates his insomnia so that, at the end of another trying day, when he retires to the sound-proof, purpose-built, cement-lined cellar he’s had built in his current house to insulate him from all distractions, he sends for the local mesmerist (Dr Pillsbury) who he’s been relying on for some time to help him get off to sleep.

When he wakes up it is to find himself in a strange room. The kindly people around him tell him it is the year 2000 and he has slept in that underground bunker for 113 years, three months and eleven days.

Bellamy spends a little effort conveying West’s disbelief, and then a page or so on his sense of horror and disorientation, but these are mostly gestures. The effort and bulk of the text goes towards the political theory, for the book quickly becomes an immensely thorough vision of The Perfect Society of the Future..

In the few pages devoted to describing life in 1887 the narrator had spent most of his time lamenting ‘the labour problem’. By that he meant that since (what turned out to be) a prolonged economic depression had begun in 1873, the working classes had woken up to their plight, organised unions across all industries, and been striking for better pay, better conditions, shorter working hours and so on, creating a permanent sense of crisis.

Society as giant coach

In an extended metaphor West compares the society of his time to an enormous coach which is being pulled along by thousands of wretched workers, whipped on by those who’ve managed to clamber up into the driving seat at the head of its thousands of companies and corporations.

Right on top of the coach, not doing any work and enjoying the sunshine, are those who’ve acquired or inherited the money to live off the labour of everyone beneath them. As the coach blunders along its muddy track some people fall lower down the coach, ending up pulling on the reins or fall right into the mud and are crushed, while others manage to escape the slavery of pulling, and clamber up the coachwork a bit. But even those at the top live in anxiety lest they fall off. No-one is secure or happy.

Society 2000

As you might expect, society in 2000 appears to have solved these and all the other problems facing society in 1887. The people who’ve revived him – Dr Leete, his wife and daughter – have done so in a private capacity. They were building an extension to their house when they came across the buried concrete bunker, all the rest of West’s property having, apparently, burned down decades earlier. On breaking a hole into it, they discovered West’s perfectly preserved, barely breathing body.

They speculate that Dr Pillsbury must have put West into a trance, but then later that night the house burned down. Everyone assumed West had perished in the fire.

Waking him gently, the father, mother and (inevitably) beautiful daughter, carefully and sympathetically help West to cope with the loss of everything he once knew, and induct him into the secrets of Boston 2000.

Dr Leete explains that the society he has arrived in is one of perfect peace and equality. He then begins the immense lecture about society 2000, an enormous, encyclopedic description of the Perfect Society of the future, which makes up most of the text.

Capitalism has been abolished. The ‘market’ has been abolished. Private enterprise has been abolished. Everything is controlled and managed by the state which represents ‘the nation’. All industry has been nationalised and all production is planned and administered by civil servants. Everyone is supplied with whatever they need by the state.

All citizens are born and raised the same. Everyone pursues education until aged 21 and is educated to the highest level they can attain, and then everyone undertakes three years working as a labourer. During this period people find out what their skills and abilities are, and then opt, at age 24, for the career which best suits their skills, whether it be coal mining or teaching Greek. At that point they join one of the dozen or so ‘armies’ of workers, organised and co-ordinated like one of the armies of 1887, and inspired by the same martial sense of patriotism and duty – but an army devoted to maintaining peace and creating wealth for everyone.

Equality is maintained by making those in unpleasant jobs work relatively short hours for the same rewards as those who work longer hours under more pleasant conditions.

And there is no money. Everyone has a ‘credit card’ and the state pays everyone the same amount every month, regardless of their job. How you ‘spend’ that credit is up to you, but it is all you get every month and there is no way to increase it, because individuals are not allowed to buy or sell or barter anything.

This Perfect Society is, then, a sustained attempt to put into practice the 19th century socialist adage of ‘from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’ (popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program).

And how did all this come about? Was there a violent revolution to transform the values of Bellamy’s day and to overthrow the vested interests of capitalists and bankers? The opposite, explains Dr Leete.

Friedrich Engels

Now I just happen to have recently read Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

In it Engels explains that historical materialism uses the philosophical notion of the dialectic to explain how new social systems arise out of the old. Thus, in Marx and Engels’s view, the late nineteenth century was seeing, out of the anarchy of super-competitive capitalism, thronged with competing companies, the emergence of larger companies, which bought each other up to create cartels of a handful of giant companies, eventually creating monopolies. This, they claimed, appears to be the natural development of capitalism, if left unchecked.

Engels shows how out of this natural development of capitalism, quite naturally and logically emerges state socialism. For already in various Western countries the state had decided to take into state ownership ‘natural monopolies’ such as telegraphy and the Post Office.

Engels explains that, as the other industries (coal, mining, steel, ship-building, railways) also become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands it will become obvious that the state should step in and run these industries as well. In other words, out of the anarchy of capitalism will emerge the order of state socialism – naturally, inevitably.

And that’s exactly what has happened in Bellamy’s version of history. One by one the state took over ownership of every industry until it had taken over all production. And the state, representing all the population, proceeded to reform them in the interests of the whole population, along the lines which Dr Leete is now explaining to West in pedantic detail.

Was there a violent revolution? No, because people had by that stage grasped the trend and seen how efficiently the government managed the other big concerns already in its control. People realised that it made sense. It was all quite painless.

Bellamy loses no opportunity to ram home the contrast between the squalor of his own day and the wonder of the Perfect Society. Not only do Dr Leete and Edith Leete explain things – at great length – but towards the end of the book West is invited to listen to a sermon delivered by one Dr Barton, who has heard about the discovery of the sleeper, and takes it as a peg on which to hang a disquisition about the changes between West’s day and the present.

The revolution

Here is Dr Barton long-windedly describing the glorious revolution which, about a century earlier, overthrew the old order and instituted the Perfect Society.

‘Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us. Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?

‘You know the story of that last, greatest, and most bloodless of revolutions. In the time of one generation men laid aside the social traditions and practices of barbarians, and assumed a social order worthy of rational and human beings. Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became co-workers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. ‘What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?’ stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, ‘What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?’—its difficulties vanished.

‘Poverty with servitude had been the result, for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of the serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth. Human slavery, so often vainly scotched, at last was killed. The means of subsistence no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor, was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table. It was impossible for a man any longer to use his fellow-men as tools for his own profit. His esteem was the only sort of gain he could thenceforth make out of him. There was no more either arrogance or servility in the relations of human beings to one another. For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another. Humanity’s ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages, at last was realized.’ (Chapter 26)

You don’t need me to point out the way that, the nearer an author gets to a difficult subject, the more flowery and evasive his language becomes, and that the precise nature of the ‘revolution’ is the touchiest subject of all – and so becomes obscured by the most gasous verbiage – ‘when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race’ etc.

Here is Dr Leete’s version of the Great Event:

‘It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.’ (Chapter 24)

‘A mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn’. Hmmm.

Instead of specifics, Bellamy gives us windy rhetoric. Instead of practical human steps, Bellamy gives us poetic visions.

Anyway, by virtue of this bloodless revolution in human society, politicians and political parties have been abolished because the committees which make up ‘the nation’ adjust and control things in the interests of the people, and everyone agrees what those are.

Thus laws and lawyers have been abolished because nine-tenths of 1887 law was about gaining, protecting and disputing property. Now there is no way to gain private property except by spending the monthly credit which everyone receives, now there is no money and no buying or selling or any other way whatsoever of acquiring valuables – there is no need for almost all of the old law.

Even the criminal law has fallen into disuse since nine-tenths of violent crime was robbery or burglary or mugging designed to get money or property. In a society without money, there is no motive for crime.

A platonic dialogue

And so on and so on, for 200 rather wearing pages, Mr West and Dr Leete sit in a room while the former asks dumb questions and the latter wisely and benevolently explains how the Perfect Society works. It often feels like one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, in the sense that West is simply the straight man who asks the questions – what about the law? what about crime? what about education? – which prompt Dr Leete to roll out another highly detailed and well-thought-out explanation of the Perfect Society.

Hardly anything happens. West accompanies young Edith Leete on a shopping expedition but this is solely so she can explain to him the huge advantages of a planned economy where the state provides everything its citizens require through central production and distribution, thus eliminating competition with the enormous waste of resources spent on advertising, on the artificial creation of different brands and makes, on the  countless different shops all offering complicated deals and 0% finance and all the rest of it.

All that has gone.Now you go to the one and only local megastore and buy goods which are available everywhere in the country, at the one fixed price. And it’s all cheap precisely because there are no middlemen and advertisers and so on to raise costs.

Similarly, one evening he goes out for dinner with the Leetes but this is solely a pretext to explain food production and distribution, and the way public food cooked in public restaurants is now cheaper and infinitely better than it was in 1887, while the waiters and so on are simply performing their three-year labouring apprenticeship and are not looked down on as a different class. Dr Leete himself was a waiter for a spell. Everyone is equal and is treated as an equal.

Critique

Painting visions of the future is relatively easy – although Bellamy’s vision becomes more and more compelling due to the obsessive thoroughness with which he describes every conceivable aspect of the Perfect Society – the difficulty with this kind of thing is always explaining how it came into being. This is often the weak spot in the writing of utopias. For example many utopian authors have invoked a catastrophic war to explain how the old world was swept away and the survivors vowed never to make the same mistakes again.

Because it’s the most important, and often the weakest part of a utopian narrative, it’s often the most telling to examine in detail. Andthis, I think, is the crux of the problem with Engels and Bellamy – the notion they both use that the state somehow, magically, becomes the people.

Notoriously, Engels speculated that the post-revolutionary state would simply ‘wither away’. Once the people had seized the means of production and distribution, once they had overthrown the exploiting bourgeois class, then ‘the state’ – defined as the entity through which the bourgeoisie organised its repression of the people – would simply become unnecessary.

Bellamy and Engels conceive of the state as solely a function of capitalism. Abolish the inequalities of capitalism – abolish ‘the market’, indeed all markets – and the state disappears in a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, the entire history of the twentieth century has taught us that the state does just the opposite: given half a chance, it doesn’t weaken and fade, it seizes dictatorial power. More accurately, a cabal of cunning, calculating people – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – will take advantage of a weakened state to seize absolute power – it happened in Tsarist Russia, in post-war Italy, in Weimar Germany -and then institute absolute control, using all the tools of modern technology and propaganda at their command.

The last hundred years have revealed ‘the state’ to be something more like an arena in which a host of competing interests can just about be brought into alignment, held, contained, managed, with frequent political and economic crises and collapses. We now know that when ‘revolutions’ occur, they do not overthrow the state, but simply entrench a new and generally more oppressive state than the one that preceded it – Russia 1917, China 1949, Iran 1979.

But even more important than the question of how the old regime was overthrown, at the heart of the description of all utopias is a debate over ‘human nature’.

In Looking Backward West asks the obvious question: in order to bring all this about there must have been some kind of revolution in human nature: how did you bring that about?

To which Dr Leete, in his calm, wise, man-of-the-future way, explains that there has been no change in human nature: changing the system people are born into and live under allows real human nature to blossom. People, says Dr Leete, are naturally co-operative and reasonable, if you let them be. The Perfect Society is not a distortion of human nature – it is its final, inevitable, true blossoming.

This is the crux: we in 2018 find this difficult to credit because we have the history of the twentieth century to look back on – an unmitigated catastrophe in which, time after time, in Europe, Asia, Africa, China, South America, people have been shown to be irreducibly committed to pursuing their own personal interests, and then the interests of their family, tribe or kinship group, their community, or region, or class, or ethnic or racial groupings – well before any vague concept of ‘society’.

In my view the real problem with utopias like Bellamy’s or William Morris’s News From Nowhere (published just two years later) is that – although they deny it – they both posit a profound, and impossible change in human nature, albeit not quite the one they often identify and refute.

My central critique of books like this is not economic or political it is psychological, it is to do with the extremely narrow grasp of human psychology which books like this always depict.

My point is that in their books, everyone in society is like them – gentle and well-meaning, middle-class, bookish and detached. It is symptomatic that West wakes up in the house of a doctor, a nice, educated middle class man like himself not, say, in the house of a coal miner or factory worker or street cleaner or sewage engineer.

So many of these utopias are like that. One well-educated, middle-class white man from the present meets another well-educated, middle-class white man from the future and discovers – that they both magically agree about everything!

In a way, what these fantasies do is magic away all the social problems of their day, hide, conceal, gloss over and abolish them. It turns out that two chaps in a book-lined study can solve everything. Which is, of course, what most writers like to think even to this day.

In my opinion most writers have this problem – an inability to really grasp the profound otherness of other people – beginning with the most basic fact that a huge number of people don’t even read books, ever, let alone fairy tales like this – and so never hear about these writers and their fancy plans.

It is symptomatic that when the daughter of the house, fair Edith, wants to cheer West up, she takes him to a library, which contains leather-bound volumes of Dickens, Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley and all the rest of the classics. He is instantly reassured and at home. In a fantasy world of books. Exactly.

The central problem with propertyless socialism

There is no money and so no greed in this future society. Dr Leete says people don’t pass on inheritances because they cannot now convert goods into money, so heirlooms are just so much clutter.

As I read that I thought, but people will still barter and exchange. Why? Because people enjoy it, as my mum used to enjoy going to car boot fairs. And as soon as you have fairs and markets and people bartering and exchanging, you give goods a value, a higher value to some than to others – and people will start collecting, hoarding, exchanging, building up reservoirs of valuable goods, selling them on to the right person at the right time, at a profit – and it all starts over again.

Somehow all these utopias ignore the basic human urges to value things, and to swap and exchange them. My kids are collecting the Lego cards from Sainsburys and are swapping them with friends in the playground. My mum loved going to car boot fairs. My wife likes watching Antiques Road Show which is all about money and value. Maybe these are all ‘tools of the capitalist bourgeois system to keep us enslaved to a money view of the world’. Or maybe they reflect something fundamental in human nature.

This may sound trivial, but whether people had the right to sell goods was the core of the problem Lenin faced in 1921, after the civil wars with the white Russians were more or less finished, and he faced a nation in ruins. Farmers had stopped growing crops because the Red soldiers just commandeered them without paying. Where was their motivation to get up before dawn and slave all day long if the produce was just stolen?

And so Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants and farmers to keep some of their produce i.e. not turn it all over to the state, and allowed them to use it or sell it as they saw fit. I.e. Lenin had to buckle to the human need to buy and sell. It was Stalin’s insistence, ten years later, that all agricultural produce was to be taken from the farmers by the state authorities that led to the great famine in the Ukraine which led to some three million people starving to death.

Which all reminds me of the terrifying stories in Anne Applebaum’s book, Iron Curtain, about the lengths communist authorities had to go to in post-war Eastern Europe to ban freelance buying and selling. As soon as a farmer sells eggs from a chicken or milk from a cow which are surplus to the state’s quota, he is laying the basis for capitalismAny display of independent buying and selling had to be banned and severely punished. Applebaum’s accounts of farmers and workers and even schoolchildren, being arrested for what seem to us trivial amounts of marketeering, really ram this point home.

Each and every incident was, to the communist authorities, a crack in the facade which threatened to let capitalism come flooding back, and so destroy the entire socialist society and economy they were building.

In Bellamy’s Perfect Society prices are set by the state, everything is supplied by the state, and you ‘buy’ things based on your fixed monthly income from the state. There is no competition and so no bargains or special offers. We now know that, when something very like this was put into effect in Soviet Russia, the result was the creation of a vast black market where normal human behaviour i.e. bartering, buying and selling for profit, returned and triumphed.

In fact, the several accounts of the last decades of the communist experiment which I’ve read claim that it was only the black market i.e. an unofficial market of bartering and trading everything, raw material, industrial and agricultural produce, which allowed the Soviet Union’s economy to stagger on for as long as it did.

What the Russian experiment, and then its extension into China and Eastern Europe, showed is that the socialist concept of society proposed by Marx, Engels, Bellamy or Morris, can only exist by virtue of an unrelenting war on human nature as it actually is – selfish, stupid, criminal, lazy, greedy, sharp and calculating human nature.

Only by permanent state surveillance, by the complete abolition of free speech and freedom of assembly, by the creation of vast prison camps and gulags, and severe punishments for even voicing anti-socialist sentiments, let alone tiny acts of rebellion such as bartering or selling goods, could ‘socialist societies’ be made to artificially survive, despite all the intrinsic ‘human’ longings of their inhabitants.

And even then it turned out that state planning was inefficient and wasteful, completely failing to produce any of the consumer goods which people cried out for – cars, fridges, TVs, jeans.

Bellamy’s encyclopedic approach

Then again, it’s not necessarily the function of utopias like this to portray a realistic society of the future. Bellamy tries, far more than most authors of utopias, to paint a really persuasive picture of what a Perfect Society would look like. But ‘utopias’ need not be as pedantically systematic as the one he has written; they can also perform the less arduous function of highlighting the absurdities and injustices of our present day society. And here Bellamy, in his slow, steady, thoughtful manner, is very thorough and very effective. His targets include:

  • competition over wages
  • the anarchy of a myriad competing companies
  • the inevitability of regular crises of over-production leading to crashes, banks failing, mass unemployment, starvation and rioting
  • state encouragement for everybody to rip everybody else off
  • the system whereby a lengthy number of middle-men all cream off a percentage before passing products on to the public thereby ensuring most people can’t afford them
  • advertising and hucksterism, which he ridicules – now abolished
  • political parties representing special interests – all gone
  • demagogic lying politicians – rendered redundant by universal altruism
  • rival shops stuffed with salesman motivated by commissions to sell your tat – replaced by one shop selling state-produced goods
  • how greed, luck and accident forced most people into a job or career – rather than his system of allowing people to choose, after long education in the options, the vocation which suits them best
  • having to travel miles to concert halls and sit through tedious stuff before they get to anything you like – in the future ‘telephones’ offer a selection of music piped straight to your home
  • international trade is managed in the same way, by a committee which assigns fixed values to all goods
  • travel is easy, since American ‘credit cards’ are good in South America or Europe
  • when the Leete family take West for a meal, they point out that communal canopies unroll in front of all buildings in case of rain, to protect pedestrians
  • at the meal there is a lengthy diatribe on how the waiter serving them comes from their own class and education and is happy to servile, unlike 1887 when the poor and uneducated were forced into ‘menial’ positions
  • state education is a) extensive, up to age 21, b) designed to draw out a person’s potential
  • sports is compulsory at school in order to create a healthy mind in a healthy body (Chapter 25)
  • women are the equals of men, and all work, apart from short breaks for childbirth and early rearing
  • all the false modesty of courtship has been abolished, replaced by frank and open relationships between the sexes
  • and – with a hint of eugenics – Dr Leete claims that now men and women are free to marry for love instead of for money, as was mostly the case in 1887, this allows the Darwinian process of natural selection to operate unobstructed and it is this which accounts for the fact that the Bostonians of 2000 are so much taller, fitter and healthier than the Bostonians West knew in 1887

All these aspects of contemporary capitalist society come under Bellamy’s persistent, thorough and quietly merciless satire.

Style

A comparison with the science fantasies which H.G. Wells started writing a few years after Looking Backward was published, sheds light on both types of book.

The key thing about Wells’s stories is their speed. One astonishing incident follows another in a mad helter-skelter of dazzling revelations. Wells is heir to the concentrated, punchy adventures – and the pithy, active prose style – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. He takes their fast-moving adventure style and applies it – instead of hunts for treasure in colourful settings or detective sleuthing – to the scientific ideas which he found being discussed by all around him as he studied for his science degree in South Kensington in the late 1880s.

Bellamy couldn’t be more different from Wells. He is slow – very slow. His book is really a slow-paced, thoughtful political treatise, with a few romantic knobs on.

And his prose, also, is slow and stately and ornate, pointing back to the Victorian age as much as Wells’s prose points forward to the twentieth century. Here is Dr Leete giving another version of the crucial moment when the capitalist world of monopolies gave way to one, state monopoly.

‘Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.

‘In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.’ (Chapter 5)

Wordy, isn’t it? You have to slow yourself right down to his speed to really take on board the power of his arguments.

But it’s worth making the effort in order to savour and mull them. It is, for example, a clever rhetorical move on Bellamy’s part to make the American rejection of capitalism around 1900 seem a natural extension of the American rejection of monarchy a century earlier (in the 1775 War of Independence).

And here is Dr Leete explaining why, in the new system, money isn’t needed.

‘When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.’

Clever, isn’t it? Clear, rational, sensible… And totally unrelated to the real world.

Epilogue

And then West wakes up and it was all – a dream!

I kid you not. Like the corniest children’s school composition, that is how the book ends. West finds himself being stirred and woken by his (black) manservant to find himself back in bed, in  his underground bunker, back in 1887 – and experiences a crushing sense of loss as he realises that the future world he was just getting used to… was all a fantasy.

There then follows by far the most imaginatively powerful passage in the book. West dresses and goes out into the Boston of 1887, walking past the confusion of shops, the bombardment of advertising hoardings, down into the industrial district where noisy, smoky factories are employing children and old women, screwing out of them their life’s blood, all that human effort wasted in violent and unplanned competition to produce useless tat (‘the mad wasting of human labour’), then wandering up to the banking district where he is accosted by his own banker who preens himself on the magnificence of ‘the system’, before walking on into the slums where filthy unemployed men hover on street corners and raddled women offer him their bodies for money.

All the time, in his mind, West is comparing every detail of this squalid, chaotic, miserably unhappy and insecure society with the rational, ordered life in the Perfect Society which he (and the reader) have been so thoroughly soaked in for the preceding 200 pages.

The contrast, for the reader who has followed him this far, between the beauty of what might be, and the disgusting squalor of what is, is genuinely upsetting. It was a clever move to append this section. It is the only part of the book which has any real imaginative power, and that power is fully focused on provoking in the reader the strongest sensations of disgust and revulsion at the wretchedness and misery produced by unfettered capitalism.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked with the effluvia of a slave ship’s between-decks. As I passed I had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship, retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look upon the woeful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a knife!

And then – on the last page – there is another, final twist. West wakes again… and is back in the Perfect Society of the future.

His vision of waking and wandering through the Golgotha of Boston in 1887 was itself a dream. He rouses himself hot and sweating. He looks back in horror at the life he led back and the values he unthinkingly accepted. And he is filled with shame, bitter recriminating shame and overwhelming guilt that he did nothing, nothing at all to change and reform the society of his day but acquiesced in his privileged position, enjoyed the wine and the fine women of his class, ignored the poor and brutalised, and didn’t lift a finger to change or improve the world.

The fair Edith appears picking flowers in Dr Leete’s garden and West falls at her feet, puts his face to the earth and weeps bitter tears of regret that he stood by and let so many people suffer so bitterly.

And I confess that, despite all the rational objections to his Perfect Society, and to the rather boring 200 pages which preceded it, these final pages are such an effective accusation of all us middle-class people who stand by and let people endure appalling poverty and suffering, that it brought a tear to my eye, as well.


Related links

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman (2005)

Relevance of biography for Stevenson

Normally I don’t like biographies of writers, since they take you away from the hard-earned riches of the fictional text, and drag you back down into the everyday world of contracts and illnesses, of gossip and hearsay.

Thus Harman spends some pages trying to decide whether Stevenson’s penis entered the vagina of his older, married friend, Miss Sitwell, or whether the penis of his friend Sidney Colvin had already had that pleasure – or whether neither penis gained entry until Colvin and Sitwell married years later. This concern about who ‘became lovers’ with whom, exactly when and where, is precisely the kind of Hello magazine tittle-tattle I despise, and so I skipped these parts.

But a biography of Stevenson is worth reading because his published writings are so scattered and diverse – plays, poems, ballads, fables, ghost stories, horror stories, short stories, novellas, children’s adventures, adult tales, essays, reviews, appreciations of other writers, travel books – as to be difficult to reconcile and grasp as a complete oeuvre. It helps a lot to make sense of Stevenson’s output to understand the shape of his life and why he produced what he did, when.

An account of his life is necessary to show a) how all the different writings fit together b) what his own attitude towards them was; crucially, for me, how his thoughts about style and approach changed, evolved, or were deployed, for different texts.

Harman’s biography

There have been half a dozen biographies of Stevenson, from the circumspect one by his cousin Graham Balfour in 1901 to Frank McLynn’s magnum opus in 1994. Harman’s is the most recent one and takes advantage of the availability of more manuscript material, and especially the eight volumes of the Yale edition of Stevenson’s letters, which were published in the mid-1990s.

The main ideas which emerge are:

Stevenson the Unfinisher

  • Stevenson wrote a phenomenal amount, some thirty published books as well as scores of short stories and hosts of essays, as well as thousands of letters. This is why the Tusitala edition of his complete works amounts to an impressive 35 volumes.
  • BUT he was a chronic beginner of stories which he never finished. He was a starter not a finisher. Harman describes some stories he wrote for his school magazine, all of which ended with the phrase To be completed… and none of them ever were, and neither were scores of other plans. He was a great maker of lists of projects, Harman details the plans he made at one point at university: plans for thirteen plays, umpteen essays, long epic poems – ideas spurted out of him endlessly.
  • A complete guide to his prose works lists over 300 projects of which only some 30 were ever published. A biography of Hazlitt, a massive history of his own family, various plays, books of essays… the biography is littered with abandoned projects and ideas…

So Stevenson was the possessor of a striking fecundity, but a troubled fecundity, and this sheds immediate light on the works I’ve been reading towards the end of his career:

  • The Bottle Imp intended as just one of a volume of supernatural tales the rest of which were never written
  • Weir of Hermiston unfinished
  • St Ives unfinished.

It also sheds light on the speed and hastiness of many of his finished works, which often seem thrown together, written at tremendous speed, before the afflatus and inspiration fade and he abandons them.

Sometimes the speed is somehow captured in the text itself as energy and excitement – hence Treasure Island, Kidnapped.

Sometimes it isn’t transmuted into the text which feels more like a list of incidents than a narrative which engages and transports you, as with The Black Arrow.

And in his three collaborations with his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, the Osbourne factor amounts to a tremendous slowing down of Stevenson’s usual pell-mell effect – most notable in the grindingly slow first half of The Wrecker, which takes an age to get into gear and move towards the fast-moving and violent climax.

Doubles

Like everyone else who’s ever written about Stevenson, Harman is entranced by the really blindingly obvious idea of ‘doubles’ in his fiction, taking the duality which is blindingly central to Jekyll and Hyde and then detecting it in other ‘double’ stories, like Deacon Brodie or Ballantrae and so on. Of course it’s there to some extent, but an obsessive focus on it obscures the many many other aspects, themes and elements of his work.

Rebellion against parents

His father and his father before him were engineers, members of what became known as ‘the lighthouse Stevensons’, the dynasty which built many of the lighthouses around the notoriously dangerous Scottish coast. Stevenson was a rarity in the extended family, in being an only son, and his father made every effort to force him into the family business, making Stevenson study engineering for three years, touring the lighthouses his family had built and studying the ports and harbours where new ones were planned.

He remained a flop as an engineer, unable to tell one type of wood from another, incapable of the mathematics and physics required, but the extensive travel around the Scottish coast, meeting and staying with poor peasants in remote locations, stood him in very good stead when it came to writing his Scottish fictions.

Bohemian pose

The biography gives a fascinating account of Stevenson’s life as a very reluctant engineering student in dank and foggy Edinburgh, and his student-y predilection for roughing it in low-life pubs and brothels, sitting in the corner of smoky taverns while prostitutes plied their trade and dockers argued and fought. He and his friends were living La Vie Boheme before the term was coined and Stevenson is thought to have slept with one or more of the prostitutes he knew, experimented with hashish, and been a devotee of the debauched poetry of Charles Baudelaire. This taste for low life, again, stood him in good stead when he moved on to Paris, when he imagined life among bandits and outlaws and pirates for his adventure books, when he found himself among emigrants and cowboys in America, and then in his final guise, as friend and defender of South Sea Islanders against the incompetent colonial authorities.

Sick and well

Though always extremely thin and weedy in his young manhood, Stevenson was nonetheless extremely active, playing the gay blade at the artists’ colony in Barbizon, northern France, restlessly pacing up and down rooms, his feverish eyes drinking in his surroundings and his mind pouring forth an endless stream of repartee and humour. He is sent to the south of France and Switzerland to try and cure his lung disorders, but it is far from clear what he actually had. Was it TB or some form of syphilis?

The ill health seems to crystallise during the arduous journey across the Atlantic and then by train across America in 1879. By the time he arrives at Fanny Osbourne’s house he was really unwell, and it was during his stay in California that he experienced his first bad haemorrhage.

At some level, being accepted by Fanny – 10 years his elder – coincided with his official advent to the condition of invalid; somehow their relationship skipped the ‘lovers’ stage directly to ‘mother’ and ‘invalid’, and there it was to stay until his death.

The elusive masterpiece

Harman makes the point that right up to his death (in 1894, aged just 44) Stevenson’s friends and fans were hoping against hope that he would finally deliver The Masterpiece that would cement his place as a Master of English Literature. His precocious essays and stories promised so much, it was hard for everyone, including the man himself, to accept that he just couldn’t produce the kind of solid, consistent, three-volume novel typical of Dickens, Eliot, George Meredith. But he couldn’t and he didn’t. Instead, Stevenson’s oeuvre is a) extremely scattered b) littered with unfinished projects.

Worse than the non-arrival of The Masterpiece, was the way that his entire output from the South Seas was viewed by many as a calamitous abandonment of a conventional career. Instead of a bigger better Kidnapped or Ballantrae his fans were subjected to a pamphlet defending a missionary who worked with lepers, a series of rather boring letters to his friend Sidney Colvin, the long travel book In The South Seas which, unlike his other short witty travelogues, was long and weighed down with pages of local history and culture which quickly became boring. The few fictions seemed desperately diverse and unfocused: was The Bottle Imp the beginning of a series of fables setting a kind of Arabian Nights fantasy in Tahiti? And what to make of the short novel The Ebb-Tide which combined grotesque levels of violence with what seemed to be a sustained attack on Western civilisation in a fiction in which almost every white character is despicable.

Against this backdrop Harman makes the interesting point that the unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston, when it was finally published, was greeted with relief by Stevenson’s fans because it was so obviously a return to the Scottish setting of some of his greatest works and showed, without any doubt, a significant progress in psychological portrayal of character.

Thus Hermiston was enshrined as the pinnacle of his achievement – which involved ignoring the long potboiler, St Ives, which Stevenson had brought much closer to completion but is a regrettable reversion to the smash-bang-wallop style of earlier shockers – and, much worse, I think, involved downplaying or just ignoring the South Sea fictions, The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide, which are, I think, masterpieces of a completely new realistic-but-grotesque style, something new in his writing and immensely promising.

What I’ve learned

From this time round reading Stevenson, the main findings have been:

1. The travel books are brilliant. I thought they’d be dry and dusty and irrelevant, but they turn out to be short, punchy, engaging, funny and full of fascinating and vivid character studies, as well as providing a fascinating experiment in autobiography in instalments.

2. Stevenson’s emigration to the South Pacific led to a typical explosion of writing in all sorts of genres – travelogue, local history, cultural analysis, essays, pamphlets, letters to the press, letters home to friends, parables and fables. But head and shoulders above them stand the two longer fictions – The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide – which I wish someone had recommended to me years ago, and I think are among his greatest achievements.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Silverado Squatters by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Sight-seeing is the art of disappointment.

Introduction

In summer 1879, after an unhappy year of separation from his American lover, Fanny Osbourne, who had left him in Europe to return to her errant husband in California, Stevenson realised he had to confront her and force her to choose between her unfaithful husband, Sam, and himself, the impecunious Scots writer.

So he booked a berth on a steamer across the Atlantic from Glasgow to New York (a ten-day trip brilliantly described in The Amateur Emigrant), a few days later travelled the width of the continent by train from New York to San Francisco (as described in the more downbeat travelogue Across The Plains) and finally arrived at her doorstep in Monterey on Saturday 30 August.

But this wasn’t a fairy tale romance and negotiations with Fanny, and between Fanny and her husband, dragged on for months. In fact, Fanny didn’t manage to get a divorce from Sam until well into the next year, 1880, and she and Stevenson didn’t get married until 19 May 1880.

What to do next? Well some friends had mentioned an abandoned silver mining settlement at Calistoga, in the upper Napa Valley, which might be both picturesque material for a book and good for his health. The trip across the Atlantic, and then in a crowded unhygienic train across the continent, had severely weakened Stevenson, and it was only after his arrival in California that he had the first of many haemorrhages which were to dog the rest of his life. Fanny had barely married him before she found herself mothering an invalid.

So it was thought that Caligosta and the abandoned settlement of ‘Silverado’ would combine adventure and romance with healthy, restorative mountain air.

The Silverado Squatters

In a nutshell, they get a train north into the Napa Valley, then a horse-drawn wagon to a trading post, and then a wagon with a local Jewish trader and his family up to the remote Toll House Hotel, then walk up to the abandoned settlement. Far from being a leafy picturesque setting, Silverado turns out to be a handful of ruined sheds on a small flat outcrop on the edge of a foothill of the mighty Mount Saint Helena.

The place still stood as on the day it was deserted: a line of iron rails with a bifurcation; a truck in working order; a world of lumber, old wood, old iron; a blacksmith’s forge on one side, half buried in the leaves of dwarf madronas; and on the other, an old brown wooden house.

Robert, Fanny and her son, Lloyd, who had become Robert’s step-son, settle in to making the primitive wooden shack habitable. Obviously there’s no electricity, no toilet, there doesn’t appear even to be running water. As so often through all of Stevenson’s travel books I am awed at the extreme physical abasement he and his companions are prepared to put up with, in a ‘world of wreck and rust, splinter and rolling gravel, where for so many years no fire had smoked’.

Not a lot happens. Rather than give a synopsis, here are some highlights or themes.

Stevenson uses the telephone

I only saw Foss once, though, strange as it may sound, I have twice talked with him. He lives out of Calistoga, at a ranche called Fossville. One evening, after he was long gone home, I dropped into Cheeseborough’s, and was asked if I should like to speak with Mr. Foss. Supposing that the interview was impossible, and that I was merely called upon to subscribe the general sentiment, I boldly answered “Yes.” Next moment, I had one instrument at my ear, another at my mouth and found myself, with nothing in the world to say, conversing with a man several miles off among desolate hills. Foss rapidly and somewhat plaintively brought the conversation to an end; and he returned to his night’s grog at Fossville, while I strolled forth again on Calistoga high street. But it was an odd thing that here, on what we are accustomed to consider the very skirts of civilization, I should have used the telephone for the first time in my civilized career. So it goes in these young countries; telephones, and telegraphs, and newspapers, and advertisements running far ahead among the Indians and the grizzly bears.

Native Americans

Our driver gave me a lecture by the way on Californian trees — a thing I was much in need of, having fallen among painters who know the name of nothing, and Mexicans who know the name of nothing in English. He taught me the madrona, the manzanita, the buck-eye, the maple; he showed me the crested mountain quail; he showed me where some young redwoods were already spiring heavenwards from the ruins of the old; for in this district all had already perished: redwoods and redskins, the two noblest indigenous living things, alike condemned.

Californian wine

Calistoga, where he and Fanny head is in the Napa Valley. I’d vaguely heard the name because of the wines, but was surprised that Stevenson dedicates a whole chapter to ‘Napa Vine’, describing the experiments of the bold Americans with different grapes on different soils which ends with the surprising prediction

The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.

Being Scottish

Five thousand miles from home, Stevenson is surprised to find out just how homesick he feels, and indulges in one of his many meditations on the nature of Scottishness in a chapter titled ‘The Scot Abroad‘.

A few pages back, I wrote that a man belonged, in these days, to a variety of countries; but the old land is still the true love, the others are but pleasant infidelities. Scotland is indefinable; it has no unity except upon the map. Two languages, many dialects, innumerable forms of piety, and countless local patriotisms and prejudices, part us among ourselves more widely than the extreme east and west of that great continent of America. When I am at home, I feel a man from Glasgow to be something like a rival, a man from Barra to be more than half a foreigner. Yet let us meet in some far country, and, whether we hail from the braes of Manor or the braes of Mar, some ready-made affection joins us on the instant. It is not race. Look at us. One is Norse, one Celtic, and another Saxon. It is not community of tongue. We have it not among ourselves; and we have it almost to perfection, with English, or Irish, or American. It is no tie of faith, for we detest each other’s errors. And yet somewhere, deep down in the heart of each one of us, something yearns for the old land, and the old kindly people.

Of all mysteries of the human heart, this is perhaps the most inscrutable. There is no special loveliness in that gray country, with its rainy, sea-beat archipelago; its fields of dark mountains; its unsightly places, black with coal; its treeless, sour, unfriendly looking corn-lands; its quaint, gray, castled city, where the bells clash of a Sunday, and the wind squalls, and the salt showers fly and beat. I do not even know if I desire to live there; but let me hear, in some far land, a kindred voice sing out, “Oh, why left I my hame?” and it seems at once as if no beauty under the kind heavens, and no society of the wise and good, can repay me for my absence from my country. And though I think I would rather die elsewhere, yet in my heart of hearts I long to be buried among good Scots clods. I will say it fairly, it grows on me with every year: there are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps. When I forget thee, auld Reekie, may my right hand forget its cunning!

Abandoned towns

One of the romantic aspects of America, when I was in my teens and reading hitch-hiking literature and watching 1970s movies, was the forlorn sense of abandonment, of windblown derelict settlements, of tumbleweed blowing through half-habited streets of boarded-up houses, which gave a powerful romantic feeling. It’s interesting to read Stevenson observing the origins of the phenomenon and explaining it.

One thing in this new country very particularly strikes a stranger, and that is the number of antiquities. Already there have been many cycles of population succeeding each other, and passing away and leaving behind them relics. These, standing on into changed times, strike the imagination as forcibly as any pyramid or feudal tower. The towns, like the vineyards, are experimentally founded: they grow great and prosper by passing occasions; and when the lode comes to an end, and the miners move elsewhere, the town remains behind them, like Palmyra in the desert. I suppose there are, in no country in the world, so many deserted towns as here in California.

Provisions

There is something singularly enticing in the idea of going, rent-free, into a ready-made house. And to the British merchant, sitting at home at ease, it may appear that, with such a roof over your head and a spring of clear water hard by, the whole problem of the squatter’s existence would be solved. Food, however, has yet to be considered, I will go as far as most people on tinned meats; some of the brightest moments of my life were passed over tinned mulli-gatawney in the cabin of a sixteen-ton schooner, storm-stayed in Portree Bay; but after suitable experiments, I pronounce authoritatively that man cannot live by tins alone. Fresh meat must be had on an occasion.

The Jew tyrant

Three chapters deal with the Russian Jewish merchant who takes charge of the Stevenson party and trucks them up to the abandoned mining settlement. Stevenson names him Mr Kelmar. He finds the Kelmars an attractive family and makes a number of direct comparisons between Jews and Scots, generally flattering to both.

Kelmar was the store-keeper, a Russian Jew, good-natured, in a very thriving way of business, and, on equal terms, one of the most serviceable of men. He also had something of the expression of a Scotch country elder, who, by some peculiarity, should chance to be a Hebrew. He had a projecting under lip, with which he continually smiled, or rather smirked. Mrs. Kelmar was a singularly kind woman; and the oldest son had quite a dark and romantic bearing, and might be heard on summer evenings playing sentimental airs on the violin.

Nonetheless it is a prominent feature of the book that through Kelmar’s activities Stevenson comes to the conclusion that many of the shop-keepers and traders in the region are Jews who very cannily lure trappers and miners into debt and into what, in effect, he calls debt slavery.

Stevenson is, presumably, painting what he sees – and here, as elsewhere, is astonishingly liberal and broad-minded for his age (consistently preferring Indians, Chinese and Mexicans to the unmannerly Americans and revoltingly crude emigrants). He likes the Kelmars and their undimmable high spirits.

Take them for all in all, few people have done my heart more good; they seemed so thoroughly entitled to happiness, and to enjoy it in so large a measure and so free from after-thought; almost they persuaded me to be a Jew.

Nonetheless, I can imagine the sheer amount of space devoted to Kelmar and the ultimately quite harsh criticism of his business practices, bothering some readers.

That all the people we had met were the slaves of Kelmar, though in various degrees of servitude; that we ourselves had been sent up the mountain in the interests of none but Kelmar; that the money we laid out, dollar by dollar, cent by cent, and through the hands of various intermediaries, should all hop ultimately into Kelmar’s till;—these were facts that we only grew to recognize in the course of time and by the accumulation of evidence… Even now, when the whole tyranny is plain to me, I cannot find it in my heart to be as angry as perhaps I should be with the Hebrew tyrant. The whole game of business is beggar my neighbour; and though perhaps that game looks uglier when played at such close quarters and on so small a scale, it is none the more intrinsically inhumane for that.

The sea fogs

The sun was still concealed below the opposite hilltops, though it was shining already, not twenty feet above my head, on our own mountain slope. But the scene, beyond a few near features, was entirely changed. Napa Valley was gone; gone were all the lower slopes and woody foothills of the range; and in their place, not a thousand feet below me, rolled a great level ocean. It was as though I had gone to bed the night before, safe in a nook of inland mountains, and had awakened in a bay upon the coast. I had seen these inundations from below; at Calistoga I had risen and gone abroad in the early morning, coughing and sneezing, under fathoms on fathoms of gray sea vapour, like a cloudy sky—a dull sight for the artist, and a painful experience for the invalid. But to sit aloft one’s self in the pure air and under the unclouded dome of heaven, and thus look down on the submergence of the valley, was strangely different and even delightful to the eyes. Far away were hilltops like little islands. Nearer, a smoky surf beat about the foot of precipices and poured into all the coves of these rough mountains. The colour of that fog ocean was a thing never to be forgotten. For an instant, among the Hebrides and just about sundown, I have seen something like it on the sea itself. But the white was not so opaline; nor was there, what surprisingly increased the effect, that breathless, crystal stillness over all. Even in its gentlest moods the salt sea travails, moaning among the weeds or lisping on the sand; but that vast fog ocean lay in a trance of silence, nor did the sweet air of the morning tremble with a sound…

The hunter

A humorous portrait of the phenomenally indolent self-important hunter, Irvine who the Toll House owners suggest could be a useful handyman for the Stevensons – but who turns out to be the exact opposite. It’s interesting to read Stevenson’s confident generalisation about this type of mountain / frontiersman, so different from the Hollywood stereotype of the all -American hero. A portrait of the class of people Stevenson tells us are referred to as ‘Poor Whites or Low-downers’.

There is quite a large race or class of people in America, for whom we scarcely seem to have a parallel in England. Of pure white blood, they are unknown or unrecognizable in towns; inhabit the fringe of settlements and the deep, quiet places of the country; rebellious to all labour, and pettily thievish, like the English gipsies; rustically ignorant, but with a touch of wood-lore and the dexterity of the savage. Whence they came is a moot point. At the time of the war, they poured north in crowds to escape the conscription; lived during summer on fruits, wild animals, and petty theft; and at the approach of winter, when these supplies failed, built great fires in the forest, and there died stoically by starvation. They are widely scattered, however, and easily recognized. Loutish, but not ill-looking, they will sit all day, swinging their legs on a field fence, the mind seemingly as devoid of all reflection as a Suffolk peasant’s, careless of politics, for the most part incapable of reading, but with a rebellious vanity and a strong sense of independence.

The toll house

A Dickensian satire on the extraordinary indolence of the Toll House and its inhabitants, Rufe, Mrs Rufe, the Chinese cook, the guests – Mr Corwin, Mr Jennings the engineer – and the timid village schoolma’am.

The Toll House, standing alone by the wayside under nodding pines, with its streamlet and water-tank; its backwoods, toll-bar, and well trodden croquet ground; the ostler standing by the stable door, chewing a straw; a glimpse of the Chinese cook in the back parts; and Mr. Hoddy in the bar, gravely alert and serviceable, and equally anxious to lend or borrow books;—dozed all day in the dusty sunshine, more than half asleep.

How, the modern reader wonders, did any of them survive or live? Where did the money come from? And what did they do all day? Chew straws apparently. Lounge on the veranda. Stare out over the panoramic mountain view, stunned into silence.

Crickets and humans

It’s one of the longer of Stevenson’s travel books but he is always excellent company, writing clearly and vividly, always alert to other people, to the scenery around him, to life. In fact this is the first of the five travel books I’ve read which has a chapter devoted to the natural world and the wildlife around them, systematically describing the trees, the wild flowers, the rather terrifying hosts of rattle snakes, and ending with a humorous conclusion about the ever-present sound of the crickets or cicadas.

Crickets were not wanting. I thought I could make out exactly four of them, each with a corner of his own, who used to make night musical at Silverado. In the matter of voice, they far excelled the birds, and their ringing whistle sounded from rock to rock, calling and replying the same thing, as in a meaningless opera. Thus, children in full health and spirits shout together, to the dismay of neighbours; and their idle, happy, deafening vociferations rise and fall, like the song of the crickets. I used to sit at night on the platform, and wonder why these creatures were so happy; and what was wrong with man that he also did not wind up his days with an hour or two of shouting.

What a good idea. What a typically boyish, impish and humorous conclusion.

A fanciful illustration of the old miners bunkhouse on the narrow ledge of Silverado, a ruined ore chute to the left, and our hero admiring a seafog rolling in over the Napa Valley

A fanciful illustration of the old miners’ bunkhouse on the narrow ledge of Silverado, a disused ore chute to the left, and our hero admiring a sea fog rolling in over the Napa Valley


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Old and New Pacific Capitals by Robert Louis Stevenson (1880)

In summer 1879, after a year of separation from his American lover, Fanny Osbourne, Stevenson realised he had to confront her and force her to choose between her unfaithful husband, Sam, and himself, the impecunious Scots writer.

So he booked a berth on a steamer across the Atlantic from Glasgow to New York (a ten day trip brilliantly described in his travelogue, The Amateur Emigrant). After only a few days he travelled the width of the continent by train from New York to San Francisco (as described in the rather more downbeat travelogue, Across The Plains) and finally arrived at Fanny’s doorstep in Monterey on Saturday 30 August 1879. But this wasn’t a fairy tale romance and negotiations with Fanny, and between Fanny and her husband, dragged on for months.

During this hiatus, Stevenson explored Monterey and the surrounding countryside as well as taking trips back up to San Francisco and, as usual, converted his experiences and insights into prose.

The resulting work – The Old and New Pacific Capitals – was not long enough to justify a book by itself, and wasn’t in fact published until 1892, in the volume of miscellaneous writing which also included Across The Plains.

I – The Old Pacific Capital

The essay is divided into two parts: ‘The Woods and the Pacific’ and ‘Mexicans, Americans and Indians’. The first part is a riot of evocative and attractive nature writing.

The one common note of all this country is the haunting presence of the ocean. A great faint sound of breakers follows you high up into the inland cañons; the roar of water dwells in the clean, empty rooms of Monterey as in a shell upon the chimney; go where you will, you have but to pause and listen to hear the voice of the Pacific. You pass out of the town to the south-west, and mount the hill among pine-woods. Glade, thicket, and grove surround you. You follow winding sandy tracks that lead nowhither. You see a deer; a multitude of quail arises. But the sound of the sea still follows you as you advance, like that of wind among the trees, only harsher and stranger to the ear; and when at length you gain the summit, out breaks on every hand and with freshened vigour that same unending, distant, whispering rumble of the ocean; for now you are on the top of Monterey peninsula, and the noise no longer only mounts to you from behind along the beach towards Santa Cruz, but from your right also, round by Chinatown and Pinos lighthouse, and from down before you to the mouth of the Carmello river. The whole woodland is begirt with thundering surges. The silence that immediately surrounds you where you stand is not so much broken as it is haunted by this distant, circling rumour. It sets your senses upon edge; you strain your attention; you are clearly and unusually conscious of small sounds near at hand; you walk listening like an Indian hunter; and that voice of the Pacific is a sort of disquieting company to you in your walk.

After the omni-present ocean roar the next thing which attracts Stevenson’s attention is the ever-present risk of forest fires. These are, of course, still a peril in California today. What grips is Stevenson’s astonishingly vivid perceptions, the power of his imagination and his quicksilver turn of phrase.

To visit the woods while they are languidly burning is a strange piece of experience. The fire passes through the underbrush at a run. Every here and there a tree flares up instantaneously from root to summit, scattering tufts of flame, and is quenched, it seems, as quickly. But this last is only in semblance. For after this first squib-like conflagration of the dry moss and twigs, there remains behind a deep-rooted and consuming fire in the very entrails of the tree. The resin of the pitch-pine is principally condensed at the base of the bole and in the spreading roots. Thus, after the light, showy, skirmishing flames, which are only as the match to the explosion, have already scampered down the wind into the distance, the true harm is but beginning for this giant of the woods. You may approach the tree from one side, and see it scorched indeed from top to bottom, but apparently survivor of the peril. Make the circuit, and there, on the other side of the column, is a clear mass of living coal, spreading like an ulcer; while underground, to their most extended fibre, the roots are being eaten out by fire, and the smoke is rising through the fissures to the surface. A little while, and, without a nod of warning, the huge pine-tree snaps off short across the ground and falls prostrate with a crash. Meanwhile the fire continues its silent business; the roots are reduced to a fine ash; and long afterwards, if you pass by, you will find the earth pierced with radiating galleries, and preserving the design of all these subterranean spurs, as though it were the mould for a new tree instead of the print of an old one.

Mexicans, Americans and Indians

Founded by Catholic missionaries, a place of wise beneficence to Indians, a place of arms, a Mexican capital continually wrested by one faction from another, an American capital when the first House of Representatives held its deliberations, and then falling lower and lower from the capital of the State to the capital of a county, and from that again, by the loss of its charter and town lands, to a mere bankrupt village, its rise and decline is typical of that of all Mexican institutions and even Mexican families in California.

Stevenson is no fan of what he calls the ‘absolutely mannerless Americans’ and finds himself attracted, like many a European traveller before and since, by the natural dignity of the dispossessed Mexicans, ‘a people full of deportment, solemnly courteous, and doing all things with grace and decorum’. He is impressed at the way the buildings, mood and language of Monterey are all Mexican, and yet they own nothing – having been comprehensively swindled out of all the land by the shrewd Yankees.

And of course, not only the Mexicans are victims. In the final sequence of this chapter, he describes a half-ruined Catholic chapel overlooking the valley of the River Carmel and the way, once a year, it is thronged with Native Americans who were thoroughly converted to Catholicism by the region’s earliest Spanish missionaries, long long gone.

And it made a man’s heart sorry for the good fathers of yore who had taught them to dig and to reap, to read and to sing, who had given them European mass-books which they still preserve and study in their cottages, and who had now passed away from all authority and influence in that land—to be succeeded by greedy land-thieves and sacrilegious pistol-shots. So ugly a thing may our Anglo-Saxon Protestantism appear beside the doings of the Society of Jesus.

‘Greedy land-thieves and sacrilegious pistol-shots’. Probably not how modern Californians think of their forebears.

II – San Francisco

Within the memory of persons not yet old, a mariner might have steered into these narrows—not yet the Golden Gates—opened out the surface of the bay—here girt with hills, there lying broad to the horizon—and beheld a scene as empty of the presence, as pure from the handiwork, of man, as in the days of our old sea-commander. A Spanish mission, fort, and church took the place of those “houses of the people of the country” which were seen by Pretty, “close to the water-side.” All else would be unchanged. Now, a generation later, a great city covers the sandhills on the west, a growing town lies along the muddy shallows of the east; steamboats pant continually between them from before sunrise till the small hours of the morning; lines of great sea-going ships lie ranged at anchor; colours fly upon the islands; and from all around the hum of corporate life, of beaten bells, and steam, and running carriages, goes cheerily abroad in the sunshine. Choose a place on one of the huge throbbing ferry-boats, and, when you are midway between the city and the suburb, look around. The air is fresh and salt as if you were at sea. On the one hand is Oakland, gleaming white among its gardens. On the other, to seaward, hill after hill is crowded and crowned with the palaces of San Francisco; its long streets lie in regular bars of darkness, east and west, across the sparkling picture; a forest of masts bristles like bulrushes about its feet; nothing remains of the days of Drake but the faithful trade-wind scattering the smoke, the fogs that will begin to muster about sundown, and the fine bulk of Tamalpais looking down on San Francisco, like Arthur’s seat on Edinburgh.

He just has a great way with a paragraph; it rolls and builds and climbs with a sweeping rhythm. Stevenson comes over as loving this new, jumped-up city with its immensely polyglot, multicultural inhabitants, French, German, Italian – but particularly the people who bring with them a genuinely alternative and tremendously evocative culture, the Chinese.

Of all romantic places for a boy to loiter in, that Chinese quarter is the most romantic. There, on a half-holiday, three doors from home, he may visit an actual foreign land, foreign in people, language, things, and customs. The very barber of the Arabian Nights shall be at work before him, shaving heads; he shall see Aladdin playing on the streets; who knows but among those nameless vegetables the fruit of the nose-tree itself may be exposed for sale? And the interest is heightened with a chill of horror. Below, you hear, the cellars are alive with mystery; opium dens, where the smokers lie one above another, shelf above shelf, close-packed and grovelling in deadly stupor; the seats of unknown vices and cruelties, the prisons of unacknowledged slaves and the secret lazarettos of disease.

It is well written and written with an enthusiasm, energy and brio which are completely infectious. I want to go there, to explore the grids of streets going steeply up and down hill, to smell the aromas of different cuisines in the different national quarters, to watch armed men on street corners, to marvel at the palaces of the rich up on Nob Hill, and to marvel at the great forest of masts gathered in the enormous harbour. Stevenson has a magnificent gift of making wherever he’s describing sound like the best place in the whole world.

Everywhere the same sea-air and isleted sea-prospect; and for a last and more romantic note, you have on the one hand Tamalpais standing high in the blue air, and on the other the tail of that long alignment of three-masted, full-rigged, deep-sea ships that make a forest of spars along the eastern front of San Francisco. In no other port is such a navy congregated. For the coast trade is so trifling, and the ocean trade from round the Horn so large, that the smaller ships are swallowed up, and can do nothing to confuse the majestic order of these merchant princes. In an age when the ship-of-the-line is already a thing of the past, and we can never again hope to go coasting in a cock-boat between the “wooden walls” of a squadron at anchor, there is perhaps no place on earth where the power and beauty of sea architecture can be so perfectly enjoyed as in this bay.

Makes you want to travel not only in space half way round the world to California, but back back in time to the baby years of a San Francisco he portrays so evocatively.

Photo of Robert Louis Stevenson

Photo of Robert Louis Stevenson


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

Across the Plains by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

In August 1878, driven to distraction by the absence of his American lover, Fanny Osbourne, who had returned to California to patch things up with her estranged husband – Stevenson decided he could take no more of the emotional uncertainty in their relationship and, telling only his closest friends, bought a ticket on a transatlantic steamer from Glasgow to New York, planning to travel on to California to comfort and/or confront her.

The Amateur Emigrant describes in detail the transatlantic part of the trip, the journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York. This book picks up the second part – the train journey across America from New York to San Francisco. On Monday 18 August 1878 Stevenson took a river boat from New York to Jersey City, New Jersey, boarded the train and began the journey to California.

It is a shame for contemporary readers that these books didn’t all come out in chronological order or as he wrote them. Instead, The Amateur Emigrant wasn’t published till after Stevenson’s death, in 1895 (because of his family’s opposition to the image it painted of their boy slumming it with the roughest of the rough in steerage class) and Across the Plains was bundled up into a collection of miscellaneous writings, edited by his friend Sidney Colvin and only published in 1892, when Stevenson’s style and subject matter had moved far beyond it.

Across The Plains

You can tell that Stevenson was exhausted by now: the transatlantic journey had in reality been more gruelling than the Amateur Emigrant – for the most part buoyant, good-humoured and insightful – had implied.

In this book, for the first time, he seems to be failing in health and spirits, he feels oppressed, there are five bad experiences for every good one, and half way through the journey he actually falls ill, with no one to care for him. According to Claire Harman’s biography, when he finally arrived in Sacramento on the doorstep of his beloved Fanny, he looked like death, no longer the dashing blade who had charmed her at the artists’ colony in Barbizon two summers earlier, but a ragged, smelly, walking skeleton.

Things get off to a bad start as the emigrants squeeze into the emigrant shed in West Street, New York before being hustled down to the docks in the pouring rain. Several emigrant boatloads have docked in the city over the course of a few days, whereas no trains have left during that time, so all the facilities, waiting rooms, luggage areas and so on, are painfully packed. The ferry to New Jersey is wet and so over-crowded it leans to one side in the water.

The train is packed and uncomfortable, there is no food to be had apart from nuts and oranges, the hard wooden carriage benches are too narrow for two people to sit comfortably together and everyone smells like wet dogs.

It takes some time to get clear of the East Coast and into Pennsylvania, trying to sleep and being jostled awake again by rude neighbours or the rattling of the train. It’s a short book; you can read it in a couple of hours. Highlights for me include:

American sunsets

He finds American sunsets strikingly different from what he’s used to.

And it was in the sky, and not upon the earth, that I was surprised to find a change. Explain it how you may, and for my part I cannot explain it at all, the sun rises with a different splendour in America and Europe. There is more clear gold and scarlet in our old country mornings; more purple, brown, and smoky orange in those of the new. It may be from habit, but to me the coming of day is less fresh and inspiriting in the latter; it has a duskier glory, and more nearly resembles sunset; it seems to fit some subsequential, evening epoch of the world, as though America were in fact, and not merely in fancy, farther from the orient of Aurora and the springs of day. I thought so then, by the railroad side in Pennsylvania, and I have thought so a dozen times since in far distant parts of the continent. If it be an illusion it is one very deeply rooted, and in which my eyesight is accomplice.

Afro-Americans

He came ready to be shocked and full of pity for the poor downtrodden negro of liberal myth, and so was disconcerted that the first few blacks he met in America were confident hotel staff who almost looked down on him as a stranger to their cities and country.

I had come prepared to pity the poor negro, to put him at his ease, to prove in a thousand condescensions that I was no sharer in the prejudice of race; but I assure you I put my patronage away for another occasion, and had the grace to be pleased with that result.

He only meets two or three Afro-Americans and is impressed in each case by their self-possession and dignity. 140 years later American has, of course, solved all its issues around black people and is a beacon of racial peace and harmony.

America and guns

In the mid-West a drunk sneaks onto the train. It takes a couple of stops for the conductor to discover him but, when he does, the conductor manhandles the guy off the train (which is moving slowly through a siding). The man isn’t harmed, leaps to his feet and pulls a gun out of his belt.

It was the first indication that I had come among revolvers, and I observed it with some emotion. The conductor stood on the steps with one hand on his hip, looking back at him; and perhaps this attitude imposed upon the creature, for he turned without further ado, and went off staggering along the track towards Cromwell followed by a peal of laughter from the cars. They were speaking English all about me, but I knew I was in a foreign land.

Luckily, 140 years later, America has completely sorted out its problems with guns.

Rude and cramped

He finds a lot of Americans a strange combination of the rude and the sentimental. There are few public announcements about the trains’ movements and timetable and, since the emigrants are at the bottom of the train food chain, Stevenson gets used to their train spending interminable hours in sidings and being shunted to one side to let the important expresses whizz past.

The conductors are rude and surly: one memorably simply refuses to answer a question Stevenson puts to him point blank. All the emigrants know is that, when the train has stopped and they’re ranged about the siding, some eating, some half stripped off to wash, at any moment there might be a shout of ‘All aboard’, and the train will begin to move off, and they’ll all have to drop everything or throw food and toiletries into bags and scramble back aboard as best they can.

In the absence of public announcements the newsboys, who sell newspapers, fruit and nuts, become a vital contact with the outside world, but these are also often crude and rude, one of them kicking Stevenson’s long legs out of his way every time he goes up or down the carriage.

Size and scale

Stevenson finds the size and scale of the country dispiriting. There’s a ‘chapter’ (or short section) called The Plains of Nebraska which is just long enough for him to give a good sense of being frightened of the endless flat featureless plains which spread out in all directions – ‘a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board’.

He has a harrowing vision of how appalling it must have been for the first settlers who moved for days and days and days at oxen pace across the plains and never saw any feature or thing of interest to mark their progress. How dispiriting.

The desert of Wyoming

He knows the hills are coming and hopes they will provide a respite from the despair of the plains, but –

I longed for the Black Hills of Wyoming, which I knew we were soon to enter, like an ice-bound whaler for the spring. Alas! and it was a worse country than the other. All Sunday and Monday we travelled through these sad mountains, or over the main ridge of the Rockies, which is a fair match to them for misery of aspect. Hour after hour it was the same unhomely and unkindly world about our onward path; tumbled boulders, cliffs that drearily imitate the shape of monuments and fortifications—how drearily, how tamely, none can tell who has not seen them; not a tree, not a patch of sward, not one shapely or commanding mountain form; sage-brush, eternal sage-brush; over all, the same weariful and gloomy colouring, grays warming into brown, grays darkening towards black…

Mile upon mile, and not a tree, a bird, or a river. Only down the long, sterile cañons, the train shot hooting and awoke the resting echo. That train was the one piece of life in all the deadly land; it was the one actor, the one spectacle fit to be observed in this paralysis of man and nature…

Stevenson’s negativity is surprising. Nowadays super-real photos of the Rockies feature as computer screensavers or in cool movies about cruising through the astonishingly picturesque mountains. His negative response made me think that this whole huge area of America – like the desert which he describes later – only really became picturesque once you could travel freely through it in a car, not on foot. From the 1930s, say, you could drive out to these places, stay a night or two in a lodge or camp – and at any time drive back out of them, quickly and easily.

To someone used to walking – as Stevenson had just been walking in south-central France – and so used to the small-scale pleasures of copses and shaws and streams and dingles – the vast extent of the endless plains – and then the barren rockiness of the immense mountains  – is truly horrifying. Imagine being lost there. You’d die far from any water, trees or shade, let alone human habitation.

The desert

Finally, appalled by the plains, then by the barren mountains, Stevenson is further disheartened by the fierce desert.

From Toano we travelled all day through deserts of alkali and sand, horrible to man, and bare sage-brush country that seemed little kindlier, and came by supper-time to Elko… Of all the next day I will tell you nothing, for the best of all reasons, that I remember no more than that we continued through desolate and desert scenes, fiery hot and deadly weary.

He really didn’t like almost all the scenery he saw and, speaking as a fellow walker, as someone used to thinking about territory in terms of footfall and paces and hours of walking, I can only agree with him. train through it, drive through it, fly over it, and the American West is astonishingly raw and beautiful. but imagine being dropped into it with just a bottle of water and told to walk – quelle cauchemar!

Emigrants as a group

His thoughts about his fellow emigrants are noticeably less charitable than when he was aboard the emigrant ship. more than before, he is forced to the conclusion that many of the emigrants are failures in life, alcoholics, stupid people, lazy people, all of them naively convinced that if they travel West a miracle will happen – that they will reach a place where their stupidity, laziness or alcoholism will be magically transformed and they will become as rich and worthy of respect, as they know – deep inside – is their due.

But they won’t. At the end of his analysis of the shortcomings of the emigrants, Stevenson throws off a far more profound observation. If you were looking for rational causes for the mass emigrations i.e. evidence that people really do change their characters in foreign lands, you would look in vain. By and large they continue to be failures wherever the are. No, it isn’t about wages and economics and jobs – the compulsion to travel is something deeper and far more primeval.

If, in truth, it were only for the sake of wages that men emigrate, how many thousands would regret the bargain! But wages, indeed, are only one consideration out of many; for we are a race of gipsies, and love change and travel for themselves.

Prejudice

Stevenson’s opinion of the emigrants sinks even lower when he considers their attitude towards the Chinese. The emigrant train was divided into three sections: one for white men, one for white women and children, and one for the Chinese (Chinese labourers having, of course, slaved away and died building the transcontinental railways).

Not only are the American conductors, officials and the emigrants generally rude or sometimes violent, but they display a wall of prejudice against the Chinese: Stevenson singles out the accusation the most vocal bigots make that the Chinese are filthy. Stevenson thinks this is almost funny, since he notes that the Chinese carriage was probably the cleanest and the Chinese most often to be seen washing as much of their body as was decent in the stations and sidings – unlike his filthy, stinking white companions. (Stevenson slips in mention of a white demagogue he hears, weeks later in San Francisco, calling on a crowd of whites to rise up and throw off the ‘oppression’ of the Mongolian, again marvelling at how stupid and ignorant this kind of rabble-rousing is.)

Luckily, there are no demagogic politicians appealing to racial stereotypes in America these days.

Native Americans

Displaying admirable, and for his day astonishingly liberal instincts, Stevenson also goes out of his way to feel sorry for the Americans’ gruesome treatment of native American Indians, the original owners of this ‘great’ land.

Another race shared among my fellow-passengers in the disfavour of the Chinese; and that, it is hardly necessary to say, was the noble red man of old story—over whose own hereditary continent we had been steaming all these days. I saw no wild or independent Indian; indeed, I hear that such avoid the neighbourhood of the train; but now and again at way stations, a husband and wife and a few children, disgracefully dressed out with the sweepings of civilisation, came forth and stared upon the emigrants. The silent stoicism of their conduct, and the pathetic degradation of their appearance, would have touched any thinking creature, but my fellow-passengers danced and jested round them with a truly Cockney baseness. I was ashamed for the thing we call civilisation. We should carry upon our consciences so much, at least, of our forefathers’ misconduct as we continue to profit by ourselves.

If oppression drives a wise man mad, what should be raging in the hearts of these poor tribes, who have been driven back and back, step after step, their promised reservations torn from them one after another as the States extended westward, until at length they are shut up into these hideous mountain deserts of the centre—and even there find themselves invaded, insulted, and hunted out by ruffianly diggers? The eviction of the Cherokees (to name but an instance), the extortion of Indian agents, the outrages of the wicked, the ill-faith of all, nay, down to the ridicule of such poor beings as were here with me upon the train, make up a chapter of injustice and indignity such as a man must be in some ways base if his heart will suffer him to pardon or forget.

Final relief

The bareness and sterility of the desert oppresses Stevenson almost as much as the stink of his unwashed companions and their brutal attitude to the Chinese or Indians. All combine to make the journey hellish and explain the excess of relief he feels when the train finally emerges into the wooded, watered scenery of the Pacific side of the Rocky Mountains.

It is a spiritual and emotional relief for Stevenson and for the reader – that this short book ends on this sudden up-beat note.

I sat up at last, and found we were grading slowly downward through a long snowshed; and suddenly we shot into an open; and before we were swallowed into the next length of wooden tunnel, I had one glimpse of a huge pine-forested ravine upon my left, a foaming river, and a sky already coloured with the fires of dawn. I am usually very calm over the displays of nature; but you will scarce believe how my heart leaped at this. It was like meeting one’s wife. I had come home again—home from unsightly deserts to the green and habitable corners of the earth. Every spire of pine along the hill-top, every trouty pool along that mountain river, was more dear to me than a blood relation. Few people have praised God more happily than I did.

Stevenson is always interesting and entertaining, but this is easily the most disillusioned and bleak of the four travel books I’ve read so far.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Amateur Emigrant by Robert Louis Stevenson (1895)

Humanly speaking, it is a more important matter to play the fiddle, even badly, than to write huge works upon recondite subjects.

Introduction

This is the third of Stevenson’s short autobiographical travel books, following An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879).

Stevenson had met in France and fallen in love with the short, feisty American, Fanny Osbourne, ten years his senior and married to a feckless American prospector and philanderer, who she’d separated from  in order to come and learn to paint in France. Stevenson was totally smitten by Fanny, this tough-talking shrewd independent lady, completely free from the airs and graces of polite British society, and so when she decided to return to California to try and patch things up with her husband, she left Stevenson feeling dejected and rejected in France.

He travelled south and spent August 1878 deeply miserable in a village near Le Puy in southern France – then conceived the idea of going on a walk with a donkey as material for another book, looked around for a likely donkey and finally set off on a 12-day walk, which lasted from late September to early October 1878.

Although it has plenty of Stevensonian fancy, the donkey book feels more oppressed than the Inland Voyage – and a number of references to unrequited love and how things are better experienced as part of a loving couple, alert the reader to Stevenson’s lovelorn condition.

After concluding the donkey book, Stevenson spent a long year mooning about in France, then back in London, visiting friends round the Home Counties, travelling back to Edinburgh to see his parents, trying and failing to write anything, before he finally came to a momentous decision: in August 1879 he decided that he must see Fanny again and bring the relationship to a head. He would travel to California and force a decision: did she want reconciliation with her no-good husband or would she choose him – a shabby, unhealthy, unknown Scottish author?

In this determined spirit Stevenson bought a ticket on a transatlantic steamer, the Devonia, to New York and went aboard on 7 August 1879.

(An Amateur Emigrant should, logically, have been the third of his published travelogues and followed fairly quickly on the heels of the other two, but his friends, and especially his family, were so shocked by his descriptions of conditions among the rough working class steerage passengers, and Stevenson’s shameless hobnobbing with them, that they suppressed the book during his lifetime; it was only published after his death, in 1895.)

An Amateur Emigrant

Stevenson is a great one for chucking you right into the action at the start of his texts. All three of the travel books get stuck right in, with no long-winded Victorian preparations. The first sentences are:

We made a great stir in Antwerp Docks. (An Inland Voyage)

In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. (Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes)

and so with Emigrant:

I first encountered my fellow-passengers on the Broomielaw in Glasgow.

No preliminary remarks, just straight in, the Broomielaw being the ferry boat which takes Stevenson and his fellow passengers from the Glasgow docks down the River Clyde to where the transatlantic steamer, the Devonia, is anchored.

Steerage

Some critics (Andrew Noble is mentioned as one in the Wikipedia article about The Amateur Emigrant) think this is Stevenson’s best book because it confronts the squalor and economic tribulations of Victorian working class life – epitomised by the thin walls through which Stevenson can hear the chavs of his day being seasick, eating their meals, smacking their children and having drunken fights – ‘the usual sounds of a rough night at sea, the hateful coughing and retching of the sick and the sobs of children’, and so on.

Maybe.

At the other end of the scale, his biographer, Claire Harman, thinks it is one of Stevenson’s worst books (pp.171-173) because his attempts to rough it, to blend in with the genuine working classes, so obviously fail. She thinks the ‘pose’ of detached bohemian which worked so well in the first two travel books, is unsuitable in this context.

That aspect comes as no surprise to this reader. The young man who had spent years perfecting a bohemian nonchalance, playing the part of the knowing littérateur, of the Parisian flâneur, the alert and witty observer, was never going to blend in with illiterate Irish peasants and scouse navvies he found himself among. He is interested in the whimsies of character, in flights of fancy, not in economic plights, social theory or political analysis – as he goes to some lengths to explain.

We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass.

So: no facts and figures; instead japing paras about the ship-borne beverages:

At breakfast we had a choice between tea and coffee for beverage; a choice not easy to make, the two were so surprisingly alike. I found that I could sleep after the coffee and lay awake after the tea, which is proof conclusive of some chemical disparity; and even by the palate I could distinguish a smack of snuff in the former from a flavour of boiling and dish-cloths in the second. As a matter of fact, I have seen passengers, after many sips, still doubting which had been supplied them.

Stevenson presents himself, at least initially, as a witty, self-sufficient man of letters talking directly to other witty, well-off men of letters about the oddities of the crazy world – with the occasional moment of sublimity and nature worship thrown in just so everyone can confirm the superiority of their finer feelings.

Is was a bleak, uncomfortable day; but at night, by six bells, although the wind had not yet moderated, the clouds were all wrecked and blown away behind the rim of the horizon, and the stars came out thickly overhead. I saw Venus burning as steadily and sweetly across this hurly-burly of the winds and waters as ever at home upon the summer woods. The engine pounded, the screw tossed out of the water with a roar, and shook the ship from end to end; the bows battled with loud reports against the billows: and as I stood in the lee- scuppers and looked up to where the funnel leaned out, over my head, vomiting smoke, and the black and monstrous top-sails blotted, at each lurch, a different crop of stars, it seemed as if all this trouble were a thing of small account, and that just above the mast reigned peace unbroken and eternal.

He is a student with a student’s shallow flashiness, his lack of human experience revealed in his lack of empathy and understanding. Soon enough he has paired off with a preposterous Welshman named Jones, the equivalent of his sidekick Simpson in the Inland Voyage, and they take to strolling the decks pointing out the oddities and absurdities of their fellow passengers:

If he had one taste more strongly than another, it was to study character. Many an hour have we two walked upon the deck dissecting our neighbours in a spirit that was too purely scientific to be called unkind; whenever a quaint or human trait slipped out in conversation, you might have seen Jones and me exchanging glances; and we could hardly go to bed in comfort till we had exchanged notes and discussed the day’s experience.

In this mood, other people aren’t hell, or fellow pilgrims – they are a source of unending entertainment. They are a God-given source of material on which Stevenson can practice his prose pirouettes. Hence an entire chapter titled, simply, Steerage Types:

We had a fellow on board, an Irish-American, for all the world like a beggar in a print by Callot; one-eyed, with great, splay crow’s-feet round the sockets; a knotty squab nose coming down over his moustache; a miraculous hat; a shirt that had been white, ay, ages long ago; an alpaca coat in its last sleeves; and, without hyperbole, no buttons to his trousers. Even in these rags and tatters, the man twinkled all over with impudence like a piece of sham jewellery; and I have heard him offer a situation to one of his fellow-passengers with the air of a lord. Nothing could overlie such a fellow; a kind of base success was written on his brow. He was then in his ill days; but I can imagine him in Congress with his mouth full of bombast and sawder. As we moved in the same circle, I was brought necessarily into his society. I do not think I ever heard him say anything that was true, kind, or interesting; but there was entertainment in the man’s demeanour. You might call him a half- educated Irish Tigg.

Emigration – myth and reality

However, as the days go past Stevenson is prompted to be a bit more reflective. Quite early on there is an honest attempt to contrast his own, youthful (naive and shallow) images of emigration with the reality he found around him.

As I walked the deck and looked round upon my fellow-passengers, thus curiously assorted from all northern Europe, I began for the first time to understand the nature of emigration. Day by day throughout the passage, and thenceforward across all the States, and on to the shores of the Pacific, this knowledge grew more clear and melancholy. Emigration, from a word of the most cheerful import, came to sound most dismally in my ear. There is nothing more agreeable to picture and nothing more pathetic to behold. The abstract idea, as conceived at home, is hopeful and adventurous. A young man, you fancy, scorning restraints and helpers, issues forth into life, that great battle, to fight for his own hand. The most pleasant stories of ambition, of difficulties overcome, and of ultimate success, are but as episodes to this great epic of self-help. The epic is composed of individual heroisms; it stands to them as the victorious war which subdued an empire stands to the personal act of bravery which spiked a single cannon and was adequately rewarded with a medal. For in emigration the young men enter direct and by the shipload on their heritage of work; empty continents swarm, as at the bo’s’un’s whistle, with industrious hands, and whole new empires are domesticated to the service of man.

This is the closet picture, and is found, on trial, to consist mostly of embellishments. The more I saw of my fellow-passengers, the less I was tempted to the lyric note. Comparatively few of the men were below thirty; many were married, and encumbered with families; not a few were already up in years; and this itself was out of tune with my imaginations, for the ideal emigrant should certainly be young. Again, I thought he should offer to the eye some bold type of humanity, with bluff or hawk-like features, and the stamp of an eager and pushing disposition. Now those around me were for the most part quiet, orderly, obedient citizens, family men broken by adversity, elderly youths who had failed to place themselves in life, and people who had seen better days. Mildness was the prevailing character; mild mirth and mild endurance. In a word, I was not taking part in an impetuous and conquering sally, such as swept over Mexico or Siberia, but found myself, like Marmion, ‘in the lost battle, borne down by the flying.’

Labouring mankind had in the last years, and throughout Great Britain, sustained a prolonged and crushing series of defeats. I had heard vaguely of these reverses; of whole streets of houses standing deserted by the Tyne, the cellar-doors broken and removed for firewood; of homeless men loitering at the street-corners of Glasgow with their chests beside them; of closed factories, useless strikes, and starving girls. But I had never taken them home to me or represented these distresses livingly to my imagination.

A turn of the market may be a calamity as disastrous as the French retreat from Moscow; but it hardly lends itself to lively treatment, and makes a trifling figure in the morning papers. We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass. It is by the scenic accidents, and the appeal to the carnal eye, that for the most part we grasp the significance of tragedies. Thus it was only now, when I found myself involved in the rout, that I began to appreciate how sharp had been the battle. We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in the one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another; and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed. We were a shipful of failures, the broken men of England.

‘A shipful of failures’. It is a sustained critique of his own romantic delusions and, in that third paragraph, a vivid depiction of the economic hard times which had fallen on Britain, which so few other writers of the time seem even to have been aware of.

Aspects of Victorian society

In fact Stevenson’s entire writing career took place against a prolonged depression across the industrialised world, which began with the Panic of 1873 and lasted twenty years in Britain. (The Long Depression Wikipedia article) This book is a rare concession – or description – of the economic calamity which affected millions.

Stevenson must also have been aware of the steady trickle of ‘small wars’ which characterised the later Victorian period, British colonial wars on the periphery of India and the stirrings of what would become the Scramble for Africa i.e. the ruthless competition among European powers to gain control of as much of Africa as possible. This is generally dated to the 1880s but Stevenson read the papers and was aware of its tremors. Here, they only impinge insofar as the emigrants he meets might have been involved or suffered in them.

Nearly all with whom I conversed upon the subject were bitterly opposed to war, and attributed their own misfortunes, and frequently their own taste for whisky, to the campaigns in Zululand and Afghanistan.

Politics

If there’s a spectrum between Harman (this is a bad book) and Noble (this is his best book) I find myself at the Noble end. Stevenson’s writing is so attractive, so sharp and quick, that it always wins you over. And slowly, through a patchwork of observations and through a gallery of characters which he paints with depth and insight, a picture of the wrong end of 1870s British society emerges.

Take the chapter titled ‘The Sick Man’. It starts off with RLS and chums coming across a man half conscious in the scuppers and chronicles their earnest attempts to get him seen by the pretty indifferent ship’s doctor. But next day, when RLS seeks out The Sick Man, and finds him quite recovered, the tone completely switches, as Stevenson gives a long account of the man’s emblematic career – born in Ireland, worked as a trawlerman out of Newcastle for 25 years, married a Scots lass, he has saved enough to have a house of  his own and is on a pleasure trip to visit his brother in the States.

This slow accumulation of biographical detail makes it all the more powerful when Stevenson goes on to describe The Sick Man’s political opinions: he thought the masters selfish and greedy, but also the unions who carried out so many strikes nowadays. In fact, he despaired of England under its current masters and dispositions and Stevenson ends the chapter with a kind of bombshell summary of the man’s astonishingly apocalyptic belief that only a full-scale violent revolution could save Britain.

He had so little faith in either man or master, and so profound a terror for the unerring Nemesis of mercantile affairs, that he could think of no hope for our country outside of a sudden and complete political subversion. Down must go Lords and Church and Army; and capital, by some happy direction, must change hands from worse to better, or England stood condemned. Such principles, he said, were growing ‘like a seed.’

From this mild, soft, domestic man, these words sounded unusually ominous and grave. I had heard enough revolutionary talk among my workmen fellow-passengers; but most of it was hot and turgid, and fell discredited from the lips of unsuccessful men. This man was calm; he had attained prosperity and ease; he disapproved the policy which had been pursued by labour in the past; and yet this was his panacea, — to rend the old country from end to end, and from top to bottom, and in clamour and civil discord remodel it with the hand of violence.

When I read this kind of thing in the mouths of people from so long ago, I am struck all over again that one of the most remarkable things in history is that there wasn’t a violent revolution in Britain in the subsequent 140 years – as there was almost everywhere else in the world with, generally catastrophic, results. The history of Britain for the last 200 years is a history of the flexibility, the arts of accommodation, which managed all the social stresses and inequalities generated by the industrial revolution, and yet contained and defused them.

Working class talk versus literary writing

The penultimate chapter is a long meditation on what it is to be a ‘gentleman’. It starts with the ways Stevenson managed to get himself accepted into the society of working men on board, so much so that he was disconcerted to find himself looked down on by the posh passengers in 1st class when they came tour the ship’s ‘slums’.

Stevenson gives a dispassionate analysis of the people he met and so – maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but maybe it fits with his Tory mind-set – that one of his most striking findings is how lazy and work-shy the average working man is, epitomised in the story of the ‘tapper’.

More interesting from a literary point of view is his meditation on why working people are often such good talkers and storytellers.

There were many good talkers on the ship; and I believe good talking of a certain sort is a common accomplishment among working men. Where books are comparatively scarce, a greater amount of information will be given and received by word of mouth; and this tends to produce good talkers, and, what is no less needful for conversation, good listeners. They could all tell a story with effect. I am sometimes tempted to think that the less literary class show always better in narration; they have so much more patience with detail, are so much less hurried to reach the points, and preserve so much juster a proportion among the facts. At the same time their talk is dry; they pursue a topic ploddingly, have not an agile fancy, do not throw sudden lights from unexpected quarters, and when the talk is over they often leave the matter where it was. They mark time instead of marching. They think only to argue, not to reach new conclusions, and use their reason rather as a weapon of offense than as a tool for self-improvement. Hence the talk of some of the cleverest was unprofitable in result, because there was no give and take; they would grant you as little as possible for premise, and begin to dispute under an oath to conquer or to die.

I was struck by the implication that what literary writing has that non-literary talking doesn’t have, is ‘an agile fancy… [which throws] sudden lights from unexpected quarters.’

There’s a lot of different literature and definitions and traditions of what literature is. But the ‘agile fancy’ which throws ‘sudden lights from unexpected quarters’ is a good definition of the core, appealing element of Stevenson’s own writing.

Conclusions

This is another very good book. I think it taught me a basic lesson that the novelist proceeds through people, characters, human types, rather than generalisations. The generalisations (and there are lots) are generally the icing on top of the real bulk, which is the real observation of people.

And so you close the book a bit better informed about the economic depression which prompted so many to emigrate from the British Isles in the 1870s and 80s, about the squalid conditions in ‘steerage’, and with a much better idea of what ’emigration’ actually meant, and who it affected.

But overwhelmingly what we have experienced is a gallery of late Victorian characters – Jones the purveyor of a miracle snake oil, the Sick Man who has done well out of life but still reckons there should be a revolution, the stowaway Alick who can charm the birds out of the trees, the amateur fiddler who can make anyone get up and dance a jig, the stern but fair bosun, and so on and on.

It is completely different in feel from the two previous travel books, but just as good in the speed and penetration of his perceptions. He was a travel writer of genius.

the Last of England by Ford Maddox Brown (1855)

The Last of England by Ford Maddox Brown (1855)


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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