Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A few extracts of reviews on Alberto Manguel's biographical novel depicting Robert Louis Stevenson's final days in Samoa.

Alberto Manguel, who evidently shares the enthusiasm for Robert Louis Stevenson of his friend Borges, has written this short tale of the RLS of the Samoa days. This is the very end, with Stevenson barely fit for firing off missives to the Times about Germans or any other nationality. Known as Tusitala, “the teller of tales”, Stevenson is a benign presence on the island. He defended the native people against the interests of colonialists and the more aggressive missionaries, as well as defending the reputation of Father Damien, “the leper priest of Molokai” from rivals from other denominations (although his defence would offend the pious Damien enthusiast as much as the attacks)

This novella - short story really - is a beguiling fiction weaved around those last days. Robert Louis Stevenson, wracked by the final stages of tuberculosis, filled with “nostalgia for places he had never been.” Mr Baker, a missionary, whose increasingly psychotic preachings resemble less and less the gospels and more and more a dark, genocidal vision of destruction, makes his appearance on the island. Repelled by his rhetoric, Stevenson is nevertheless beguiled by Baker’s accent, taking him back to the Edinburgh of his youth. Baker, however, has nothing but scorn for Tusitala, to the writer that: “you would be better employed reading to them from the Scriptures. That is the only truth.”
by Seamus Sweeney

Manguel's Stevenson went to Samoa to be able to breathe but is oppressed by a combination of status and inertia. He comes across Baker, a missionary from Edinburgh, who is delighted to meet Samoa's "chief celebrity", and they reminisce about Scotland while watching the sun go down. After this convivial start, the story becomes one of shadows: a girl whom Stevenson has publicly admired is raped and killed. His hat (a famous attribute) is found nearby.

Trapped heat suffuses everything: the movements of a crowd, which are "unpredictable and strong as a blaze"; the obscenely rotting papayas, the mouldering books and clothes, Stevenson's inexpressible desire, and the extreme red of the blood he coughs up, which is the same colour as the flower in the murdered girl's hair. Baker, who loathes the island's "poisonous brightness", proves to be a fanatic and a drunk. Stevenson is implicated by the evidence of people who swear that they saw him in places he couldn't have been - or could he? Rumours and accusations thicken the toxic atmosphere, and no one's version of events adds up.

This contrived fiction works well as a novella, a form which can bring out the artifice in a writer to remarkable, or rococo, effect. Here, plain speech bumps up against formal debate and undigested biographical matter, while people act according to the information they have to convey. Syntactical oddities make the book read at times as if it were in translation, but this adds to the general air of mediation.
from Telegraph.co.uk

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde in Bournemouth in 1885, and died in Samoa 10 years later. Alberto Manguel, of Argentinian descent, author of a notable History of Reading, has read into Stevenson's last days a gothic drama that places the writing of the novel at the end of his life, and makes use of the report that his wife Fanny caused him to burn his first draft on the grounds that it had made a story out of an allegory. Stevenson's second shot stresses the "thorough and primitive duality of man", the idea that every thinking fellow feels himself at times to be two fellows. Manguel's novella borrows from Stevenson's letters, from the expurgated edition of 1899: the story it tells is about the writer of the letters, but it could also be considered counterfactual. It seems to point a dualistic moral, and it bears a faint likeness to the stories of the Argentinian (and Stevensonian) allegorist, Borges.

Juxtaposing Jekyll with Stevenson's unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston, which he was writing at the time of his death, brings out a duality in his art. The first of these novels is in English. Parts of the second are in Scots. He was a writer who excelled when he turned to the language of his youth. A fair number of his critics miss the point, and lack feeling for the Scots tongue.

The exiled Stevenson was both a laird and a scarecrow. To protect his lungs he had cast himself away in the thick of a tropical rain forest. "We are a very crazy couple to lead so rough a life." But he wrote some of his very best and most Scottish things in a Samoa of tribal chiefs, diplomats, missionaries, servants, labourers, lotus-eaters. There he would sit lustrous-eyed, in his moustaches, playing his flageolet, a touching sight. Horrid Henry Adams, the American historian and snob, called him a filthy "bundle of sticks in a bag". But he also walked with kings, while the European powers quarrelled over the islands' natural resources. A relative of mine, a British colonial servant stationed in Fiji, saw him as "a meddling conceited fool, who thinks as a successful novelist he should be allowed to try to rule Samoa".
by Karl Miller, The Guardian

In this uncluttered novella illustrated by Stevenson's own woodcuts, I had the strange sensation of stumbling across an oasis in a desert of too many words. Reading felt as soothing as exhaling. Which is both ironic and to the point, given Manguel's subject matter: the final months of Stevenson's sickly life in Samoa, where he went to breathe more easily. Manguel prefaces his work with Goethe's caveat: "No one wanders under palm trees unpunished." When the author finds himself drawn to a young girl at a ceremony, he recalls St Augustine thanking God for "not making him responsible for his dreams". The girl is later found raped and murdered, with Stevenson's hat in the vicinity. The fiction of his mind finds increasingly alarming ways of crawling out. Far from Edinburgh Presbyterianism, in a land where "the stories you tell become part of reality", Manguel offers a terrifying defence for and indictment of the "claptrap of fiction".
by Sarah Adams, The Guardian

In Stevenson Under the Palm Trees, the Argentine literary critic Alberto Manguel (who describes readers as "post-mortem creators") resuscitates the Victorian author, creating a murder mystery based on his final days in Samoa. Much has been made of Stevenson's atheism (particularly in contrast with his father's Calvinism), and in this taut novella, the spiritual struggle comes to a head: Stevenson falls victim to a malady he could reasonably be credited with inventing—a split personality à la Jekyll and Hyde. "Open—brash, unhidden," he is haunted by a ghost-like missionary, "reserved, whispered, buttoned-up." When a young girl on the island is raped, the reader is not sure whether the writer did it, or the missionary, or whether—as Stevenson puts it in his 1886 classic—"these incongruous faggots were . . . bound together."
by Rachel Aviv, Village Voice

In the novella, the ailing Stevenson, out watching a beautiful island sunset, encounters a stranger, a Scottish missionary who straightaway announces his disgust with the easy morality and vices of the natives. A short time later, with that sudden compression that fables specialize in, the body of a beautiful young girl is found in the hills, and the author's hat is discovered nearby. There is just enough ambiguity -- abetted by Stevenson's delirious fevers -- to direct our thoughts to the theme of the double. As it turns out, Stevenson himself is involved with this theme in the work he is struggling with, a grim Scottish fantasia that bears a distinct resemblance to his famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Manguel's spare storybook style keeps us from deeper engagement with the plot but serves him well at the end, when the suggestions and implications are most densely woven. Then he can create a sonorous cadence in keeping with the dark intention of this little work: "He tried not to think of what had happened. Here, in the green heat, that which was forbidden was not mentioned. Evil was tabu, unuttered, it was not given existence in words. On the stones of Edinburgh was written, in the Gothic script that had so delighted Sir Walter Scott in his youth, the Old Testament warning, Thou Shalt Not, so that during Stevenson's wanderings through the city his eye would always land, unbidden, on the outlawed temptations, the sins spelled out for all to know, offered as in a dark mirror even to those who had not yet conceived them, like an inverted pleasure." Though we do hear the Stevensonian echo throughout, only in these last pages does the note ring clear.
by Sven Birkerts, Washington Post

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