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Treasure Island – by Robert Louis Stevenson

Cover illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for the 1911 edition

Cover illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for the 1911 edition

After reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and several other of his short stories, I found that I especially liked the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson. He is a beautifully descriptive writer, but not in a dull or prosy way so that the action suffers; he’s writing is exciting, evocative, with imaginative stories and images you don’t forget. And since I’d never read Treasure Island, I thought that it should be my next Stevenson book. I was curious, because Treasure Island is so often dismissed as children’s literature, if it would have a different tone or if the writing would be different.

It was different, though not in a bad way. Partly, this is because Treasure Island is written in first person from the perspective of a boy who is the son of a landlord whose parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn. His tone is more straightforward than, say, Mr. Utterson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which is ironic, since Mr. Utterson is supposed to be a staid lawyer, but there is something so outlandish in Dr. Jekyll’s experiments that it unfailingly elicits the most extraordinary descriptions in response). But Jim Hawkins writes in a much more direct fashion. I don’t recall noticing his prose as much. The story is the most important thing.

Which is as it should be since Stevenson had children – boys – in mind when he wrote his first novel. In his book The Art of Writing, Stevenson says that he had the assistance of his step-son and father in writing the novel and they both gave him many ideas. He tried to write exactly the kind of book a boy would want to read or that he would have wanted to read. There were no women involved, he said.

But though Treasure Island is less gothic and more straighforward, there are still some wonderful moments, like when Long John Silver comes to parley with Captain Smollett and his small band, who have taken refuge in a stockade. He and the captain sit outside and smoke their pipes in silence, waiting for the other to begin while everyone within the stockade is so curious about the scene playing before them and the confrontation that occurs that they’ve left their posts – where they’re supposed to be watching for treachery – and are instead watching the two implacable men in fascination.

TI-treasureAnd I love this description, that recalls the haunting, vivid quality of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jim is thinking about how Captain Flint killed the six men who helped him bury the treasure all those years ago.

…I was haunted by the thought of the tragedy that had once acted on that plateau, when that ungodly buccaneer with the blue face – he who died at Savannah singing and shouting for drink – had there, with his own hand, cut down his six accomplices. This grove, that was now so peaceful, must then have rung with cries, I thought; and even with the thought I could believe I heard it ringing still.

Having seen the 1950 Disney live action version of Treasure Island multiple times (it was a childhood staple), it was interesting to read that Long John Silver is supposed to be blonde, with a face like a “ham.” Sometimes I can picture it and sometimes I can’t. I’ll often see Robert Newton, instead. Another thing I noticed is that in all the movie adaptions I’ve seen of the book, I don’t recall any of them including the scene where Silver tries first to talk a sailor into joining the mutineering pirates and after failing, hurling his crutch at the man so that it breaks his back and then hurling himself on his broken back and ferociously stabbing him to death. If they’d ever included that in a movie, I don’t think the audience would have ever recovered…at least not long enough to hope he gets away.

Long John Silver is less sympathetic in the book. He’s always scheming and playing both sides of the field, and if he can get away with it, perfectly willing to betray anyone. There is not much of that sneaking affection for Jim that redeems Silver in the movies. He is a treacherous buccaneer to his core…just a far more savvy and smart-talking one than your average, run-of-the-mill pirate. He has some education and plans on retiring as a gentlemen after he gets his share of the treasure.

TI-parrotJim Hawkins is an interesting character, too. He’s really not a very reliable boy. He’s always running off on some whim and abandoning his duty, though somehow it always turns out that his disobedience has saved them. At the end of the book, Captain Smollett acknowledges that Jim has saved their lives, though remarks that he would probably never go to sea with him again. Ironically enough, Treasure Island is a book that seems to reward moral ambivalence. Even Long John Silver gets away at the end, with a bag of gold. And Ben Gunn is also a murderous pirate too; who gets to return home and achieve a degree of celebrity and gold (though he spends his share in a matter of weeks).

In the introduction to my copy of Treasure Island, John Seelye argues that the description of Treasure Island matches that of California, which seemed a unique idea to me. Stevenson had traveled to California and never to the Caribbean, so I guess Stevenson just used his memory of California to describe his famous island? While reading the book, I had to confess that Seelye had a point. There are azalea bushes, nutmeg trees, oaks, pines, sea lions, rattle snakes and even very large trees with red bark that suggest Redwood trees. It’s not very Caribbean in flavor. If ever another movie is made of Treasure Island, they should shoot it in Northern California.

Here is Stevenson’s descriptions of Redwoods.

The third [tree] rose nearly two hundred feet into the air above a clump of underwood; a giant of a vegetable, with a red column as big as a cottage, and a wide shadow around in which a company could have maneuvered.

The treasure is buried beneath this tree.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Fiction

 

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The Thirteen Clocks (1950) – A Fairy Tale by James Thurber

13clocksFortunately, one is never too old for fairy tales. At least, that is what I tell myself and that seems to suffice. James Thurber is primarily known for his humorous short stories and blobby illustrations. He wrote the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” But he also wrote several children’s books and for several months now I have had a copy of The Thirteen Clocks sitting by my bedside, waiting for an afternoon for me to sit down and read it all the way through without interruptions, which shouldn’t have been hard since it is only 124 pages of large print, with numerous pictures. But my peaceful afternoon finally came and my cat took a nap and I had a cup of tea and read through the book.

In the introduction by Neil Gaiman, he said it is the kind of book you want to read aloud, which is certainly true. The story is relatively unoriginal – princess in distress, an evil duke, a prince in disguise who must perform an impossible feat to rescue her – but the characters and the prose are not. They are quite extraordinary and delightful to read, especially the prose. It often rhymes. Here is an example of what I mean. The Duke is rather sensitive about things relating to his gloves. A traveler is talking to a prince disguised as a minstrel who called the Duke’s gloves mittens when,

A black figure in velvet mask and hood and cloak disappeared behind a tree. “The cold Duke’s spy-in-chief,” the traveler said, “a man named Whisper. Tomorrow he will die.” The minstrel waited. “He’ll die because, to name your sins, he’ll have to mention mittens. I leave at once for other lands, since I have mentioned mittens.” He sighed. “You’ll never live to wed his niece. You’ll only die to feed his geese. Goodbye, good night, and sorry.”

You almost want to read it aloud in a singsong voice. The Duke is an evil man with cold hands. “His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.” All the clocks in his castle have stopped and he claims to have killed time. He also has a niece, who has the only warm hands in the castle and whenever a suitor entreats her warm hand in marriage, he assigns an impossible task that they are guaranteed to fail in, like cutting a slice of the moon off or hunting the thorny Boar of Borythorn, which does not exist. But when a prince arrives, disguised as a minstrel, he is assisted by the Golux, “the only Golux in the world and not a mere Device” who also has an “indescribable hat.” As unreliable as the Golux seems to be, this makes all the difference in the world. He may be forgetful and make stories up that he subsequently believes because he forgot he made them up, but as he says, “I make mistakes, but I am on the side of Good.” and “must always be on hand when people are in peril.” The prince must place his trust in the Golux, despite his frequent unease with him.

13clocks (1)Perhaps the real reason to read this story is for the language. I’ve read a surprising number of negative reviews for this book, so I think this is the kind of book where you really have to appreciate wordplay, paradoxes, whimsy, and riddles. Conveniences and coincidences and surprises abound with so much brazenness, as if Thurber were delighting in making the story as whimsically coincidental as he could. As Sonja Bollle pointed out in her article, Thurber is having fun with this when the Duke exclaims at the Golux near the end ‘”You mere Device!” he gnarled. “You platitude! You Golux ex machina!”‘

Thurber’s characters are also unforgettable. Besides the Duke and the Golux there are the Duke’s three spies: Whisper, Hark and Listen. Whisper is the spy master in chief, Hark is rather snarky, even to the Duke, while Listen is invisible. There is also Hagga, who cries tears of precious jewels. And there is the Todal, a creature that can’t be killed who is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should.” The mere mention of his name is enough to make locks of people’s hair turn white, or even their mask turn grey.

There is quite a streak of dark humor in The 13 Clocks. The books ends, not with the happy couple – though they are a happy couple – but with the demise of the Duke. Quite chilling, in a funny, creative kind of way. The whole book is filled with little snippets of dark humor. One of the Duke’s methods of disposing of people is to have them fed to the geese. Children have died in his castle for trampling his camellias. Hagga’s tears/jewels of sorrow last forever, but her tears/jewels of laughter last only a fortnight (fourteen days) before turning back into tears. But perhaps all good fairy tales are actually quite dark, if you think about them.

It is such a quotable book, I can’t resist one last quote. As the Duke says,

“We all have flaws,” he said, “and mine is being wicked.”

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2015 in Children's Literature

 

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Villette (1853) – Charlotte Brontë

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artVillette is an odd book, though it is a fascinating one. It reads like a dream, like living inside someone’s head and looking out. What I call living in your head is when you are so self-aware and thoughtful that you are referencing the outside world from your own sensations, as if your internal life were more real than the external one. The protagonist of Villette, Lucy Snow, though she maintains that she is not particularly imaginative, lives in a constantly imaginative world of her own senses that feels to the reader (at least this one) as if it were as real as the physical alone.

Since Villette is generally considered to be the chronicle of a woman both lonely and set apart from her surroundings, this is very well shown by Brontë. The novel is told in first person by Lucy Snowe, whose background she does not explain. There is some family tragedy and she seems to be left without family or fortune. She leaves England and travels to the fictional city of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, where she becomes a teacher at a girl’s boarding school.

The school is run by the imperviously immovable, calm and cold Madame Beck, who has a distinct flair for espionage on her pupils and staff. She knows everything there is to know about everyone and will even snoop in their private possessions, always neatly putting everything away, of course. Another teacher is M. Paul Emanuel, who is Madame Beck’s cousin and teaches literature and is a temperamental, imperious, but also utterly sweet man. Lucy also reconnects with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her godmother’s very handsome son, Dr. Bretton. There is also Paulina Home and her father, friends of the Brettons who Lucy knew in England.

The book could almost be called a psychological novel and is less about what Lucy does and more about her isolation in Villette (religiously, since Labassecour is Catholic, culturally and physically – people view her as insignificant and she has a habit of withdrawing for people) and her attempts to reconcile herself to what she considers to be her destiny. As a woman without money or beauty, she believes she must forge her own independence and suppress all strong feeling and love, first for Dr. Bretton and then for M. Emanuel. She feels that the most she can hope for is a degree of independence, as achieved by Madame Beck, who owns and runs the school.

The most fascinating aspect of the book to me is how Lucy perceives herself. She is not a reliable narrator. There are things she doesn’t say, such as the unnamed tragedy in her background. Even the ending is ambiguous: does Paul Emanuel die or doesn’t he? She makes incorrect statements about herself. She says she does not suffer from an extreme imagination, which is palpably not true. She considers herself timid and retiring yet travels to Europe alone, with very little money and no prospects. She quells defiant students. She gets pushed into a play and finds that she likes it very well and does well at it.

But not only does she not see herself correctly (or is she deliberately misrepresenting herself, or is she being ironic or is it a blend of all three?), but no one else understand her, either.

The light in which M. de Bassompierre evidently regarded “Miss Snowe” used to occasion me much inward edification. What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed! Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home [de Bassompierre], a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional perhaps, too strict, limited and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governess-correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunity of intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature – adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary.

Ironically, it is not at all clear that Paulina knows her any better than anyone else. And in truth, Lucy’s character contains aspects of all these traits. Even Paul Emanuel, the only person to see the fire underneath, does not see all.

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte

One other fascinating thing about Lucy is how much Madame Beck and she have in common, though Lucy has more heart than Madame Beck. Madame Beck’s extreme phlegm is something Lucy admires and Madame’s habit of espionage is something that Lucy engages in, too. This is partly because she often seems to be a looker on of life, rather than a participant, which lends her an air of voyeurism. She watches people, she sees them when they are not aware of her, she listens when people don’t know she’s near. Like Lucy, Madame Beck wants to marry Paul Emanuel, though she never says so, and is aligned with Emanuel’s priest to keep them apart. She’s like a mirror image of Lucy, grown cold and calculating, a frightening possible fate for Lucy. Dr. Bretton calls Lucy a shadow and Madame Beck certainly acts like one, stealthily shadowing people, spying on them, a cipher to everyone except Lucy.

The prose in Villette is quite unique, but thoroughly enjoyable. At times, she engages in incredible flights of imagination, describing her emotions in pictorial terms that are almost florid, which is ironic considering how much she despises the pomp, ceremony and excess complexity of Catholicism, Italian arias and the Dutch masters. She values simplicity and realism in art, is a relatively plain Protestant, yet her expressions are by no means temperate or plain. For her, emotions almost become animate objects or living things. Here is her description of how she felt, waiting for a letter from Dr. Bretton, whom she loves.

“I suppose animals kept in a cage, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh! – to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature’s endurance – I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair. This last came so near to me sometimes that her breath went right through me. I used to feel it, like a baleful air or sigh, penetrate deep, and make motion pause at my heart, or proceed only under unspeakable oppression. The letter – the well-beloved letter – would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for.

But she is also ironically funny. Her description of the governess of Madame Beck’s children is fresh and unexpected: she describes a “coarse” and drunk woman as a “sleeping beauty” and “heroine of the bottle.” There is a bit of French in Villette, which is frustrating if you don’t know French (which I don’t, alas). There are exchanges of several sentences in French, though Lucy’s reactions and thoughts can sometimes give a vague idea of what is said.

Ultimately, Villette is a less satisfying book than Jane Eyre, but perhaps more interesting to think about. It’s a book of several moods. Sometimes she makes the reader privy to intimate feelings and at others it seems she holds them at a distance. I alternated between pity, mild exasperation, admiration, and humor. She never explains her ultimate fate, but the reader is left with the impression that she did not find happiness in life. She seems to have found independence, but never mastered the art of suppressing those powerful emotions and longings. But perhaps it is a good thing, otherwise she would have become Madame Beck.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2015 in Fiction

 

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