I'm a big Robert Louis Stevenson fan. I'm quite proud of this post on Nabokov and Stevenson and the horror that is Robert Scholes, if you missed it first time around. And just a few days ago I had cause to mention the time I bought ten remaindered copies of Treasure Island and gave them away. This wasn't just for the Peake illustrations. Treasure Island is first rate. (Settle for the Wyeth illustrations if you have to. If only all of life's little compromises were so glorious.) The book's sort of misunderstood. Swathed in a variety of unfortunate associations - from irrelevant to unsavory to merely regrettable. Did you know that Treasure Island was Disney's first full-length live action motion picture? Click on that last link and scroll down until you see the captain and the annoying kid who played Jim.
'Arrr, Jim lad, it'll be twenty five long years afore we have the craft and artistry even teh make such wonders as "Hot Lead and Cold Feet" and "The Apple Dumpling Gang". Meantimes, yer stuck with me! Arrrr!'
It's as though the souls of Disney and Stevenson have been inextricably and inadvisably bound together with hoops of celluloid. Including: if you are caught reading Treasure Island on the bus, someone's sure to think: 'The deluded fool liked "Treasure Planet" so much that when he heard there was one about an island he ran out and bought the book!' But you can, as the lady said in the non-Disney movie, secretly despise them.
Actually, I have nothing against Disney. In fact, I am not such a snob as to disdain post-"Little Mermaid" Disney animated features. I love Disney, not to put too fine a point on it. Belle, by contrast, abominates the devil and all his works for what he did to the original little mermaid story. Fair enough. All the pain that the original mermaid endured. Pins and needles to say the least. Suffering for love. (That's what I married her for, you understand.) But she is at a tactical disadvantage. She has a two-year old daughter who wanders around holding my VCD edition of "Monsters Inc.", which she is 'scawwed' to watch, but which she likes to 'read'. Which means: opening it up and looking at the pictures on the flap. Worse: Belle is a bookish brunette named 'Belle'. The number of opportunities this affords for me to burst into song? "That girl is very straaaaaaange." It's like she's Wolverine and I'm Magneto. She's way cooler and cuter, and there's nothing I can ever do about that; but my special power gives me total control of what is deep inside her - so far as Disney movies go.
But I digress.
The thing that is not generally known about Stevenson is that he is such a wonderful verbal acrobat. You figure: he wrote boy's adventure tales for his day. Ripping yarns. And they are probably a little tame by today's standards, need a little bit of CGI goosing to make their way. Wrong. Couldn't be more wrong. Bellona Times - whyever haven't I blogrolled? he's exemplary - links to these letters.
To begin with, I'm going to quote the entire selection Bellona quotes, because it settles the whole Stephen King question:
I am all at a standstill; as idle as a painted ship, but not so pretty. My romance, which has so nearly butchered me in the writing, not even finished; though so near, thank God, that a few days of tolerable strength will see the roof upon that structure. I have worked very hard at it, and so do not expect any great public favour. In moments of effort, one learns to do the easy things that people like. There is the golden maxim; thus one should strain and then play, strain again and play again. The strain is for us, it educates; the play is for the reader, and pleases. Do you not feel so? We are ever threatened by two contrary faults: both deadly. To sink into what my forefathers would have called 'rank conformity,' and to pour forth cheap replicas, upon the one hand; upon the other, and still more insidiously present, to forget that art is a diversion and a decoration, that no triumph or effort is of value, nor anything worth reaching except charm.
Yes, that's bloody damn IT, isn't it? I mean It was not a great novel. But the people liked Pennywise the Clown, didn't they? And there's nothing wrong with that. My comparison of Stephen King to Aerosmith was apposite, if I may be so immodest. And suppose someone were trying to say who was better: Aerosmith or, say, Philip Glass? Better not ask that question, then, seeing as it's a category error.
Stevenson. The man can write. Two metaphors per paragraph better than any I come up with in a month. And he can think. His implicit commentary on Wittgenstein on Augustine on naming is embarrassingly apt. He hereby manages to compress my dissertation into a sentence, and my recent work on literary theory is tossed off without so much as a glance:
Did you ever read St. Augustine? The first chapters of the CONFESSIONS are marked by a commanding genius. Shakespearian in depth. I was struck dumb, but, alas! when you begin to wander into controversy, the poet drops out. His description of infancy is most seizing.
I re-read the other day that heartbreaking book, the LIFE OF SCOTT. One should read such works now and then, but O, not often.
I couldn't say, but do suspect this of truth.
You would be ashamed of Dover; you would scruple to refer, sir, to a spot so paltry. To be idle at Dover is a strange pretension; pray, how do you warm yourself? If I were there I should grind knives or write blank verse, or - But at least you do not bathe?
Would you engage in a knifefight in the telephone booth of wit with the man who made that cut. One would have to bring a hand grenade. Where would it all end?
But go back to the early ones - letters home to parents from school. The French have a word for it, and then some.
MA CHERE MAMAN, - Jai recu votre lettre Aujourdhui et comme le jour prochaine est mon jour de naisance je vous ecrit ce lettre. Ma grande gatteaux est arrive il leve 12 livres et demi le prix etait 17 shillings. Sur la soiree de Monseigneur Faux il y etait quelques belles feux d'artifice. Mais les polissons entrent dans notre champ et nos feux d'artifice et handkerchiefs disappeared quickly, but we charged them out of the field. Je suis presque driven mad par une bruit terrible tous les garcons kik up comme grand un bruit qu'll est possible. I hope you will find your house at Mentone nice. I have been obliged to stop from writing by the want of a pen, but now I have one, so I will continue.
My dear papa, you told me to tell you whenever I was miserable. I do not feel well, and I wish to get home.
Do take me with you.
And, on the other side:
RESPECTED PATERNAL RELATIVE, - I write to make a request of the most moderate nature. Every year I have cost you an enormous - nay, elephantine - sum of money for drugs and physician's fees, and the most expensive time of the twelve months was March.
But this year the biting Oriental blasts, the howling tempests, and the general ailments of the human race have been successfully braved by yours truly.
Does not this deserve remuneration?
I appeal to your charity, I appeal to your generosity, I appeal to your justice, I appeal to your accounts, I appeal, in fine, to your purse.
My sense of generosity forbids the receipt of more - my sense of justice forbids the receipt of less - than half-a-crown. - Greeting from, Sir, your most affectionate and needy son,
This is why you should read Stevenson. He's better than you or I shall be in this lifetime.