Monday, February 15, 2010

His mind was thronged with answerable ideas and images - the short fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson

I want to spend the week looking at the short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The best of them are, within some limits, as good as anyone's, as long as anyone is not named Chekhov, and we do not exaggerate how many are among the best. 

At times, reading through The Complete Short Stories,* I felt I was learning more about late 19th century English magazine writing than about Stevenson.  He was a professional, a craftsman working at a high level.  He disdained words like "genius," and I'm not sure that he was wrong.  At his level, though, professionalism, curiosity, and attention to detail gets a writer a long ways, perhaps even to genius.  

Stevenson's short fiction can be usefully divided by geography.  French, Scottish, South Seas - that covers almost everything, good or bad.  There are exceptions, such as the last story he wrote, "The Waif Woman" (1892), which is a mock Icelandic saga.  One might imagine Stevenson under a palm tree in Samoa, reading Grettir's Saga or what have you, thinking about Iceland.

"Markheim" (1885) is another exception, set in an antique shop in London.  Markheim murders the shop owner and is then tormented by the devil, perhaps real, perhaps simply his guilty conscience.  This is, by the way, a Christmas story, and not even Stevenson's least appropriate Christmas story.  I'm not sure the conception, the basic story, is anything too special.  These are special:

The dealer struggled like a hen, striking his temple on the shelf, and then tumbled on the floor in a heap.

The candle stood on the counter, its flame solemnly wagging in a draught; and by that inconsiderable movement, the whole room was filled with noiseless bustle and kept heaving like a sea: the tall shadows nodding, the gross blots of darkness swelling and dwindling as with respiration, the faces of the portraits and the china gods changing and wavering like images in water.

Or here, where the murderer, rummaging about for money, hears music next door:

Markheim gave ear to it smilingly, as he sorted out the keys; and his mind was thronged with answerable ideas and images; church-going children and the pealing of the high organ; children afield, bathers by the brookside, ramblers on the brambly common, kite-flyers in the windy and cloud-navigated sky; and then, at another cadence of the hymn, back again to church, and the somnolence of summer Sundays, and the high, genteel voice of the parson (which he smiled a little to recall), and the painted Jacobean tombs, and the dim lettering of the Ten Commandments in the chancel.

The second one ingeniously projects the murderers physical reaction onto the outside world. That last long sentence, with thoughts that actually invoke the devil, is an example of a barrier Stevenson hits repeatedly in his short fiction, especially in the later stories.  He comes right up to the edge of stream-of-consciousness.  He would use it if he had it, but he doesn't.  I don't think Stevenson was a formal innovator.  He did wonders with the tools of others.

*  I happen to have read and will refer to the two volume The Complete Short Stories: The Centenary Edition, ed. Ian Bell, Henry Holt, 1993.  But I don't see any special advantage over other editions, like this Modern Library collection.  A generous Selected Stories would be ideal, although only a few stories - some juvenilia, some fragments, and one irritating humor piece** - were not worth reading.

**  "Diogenes" (c. 1882), which features a surprising appearance by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  "I'm nothing if not local-coloury - the furniture in each of my books alone is worth the money."  I haven't read Lady Audley's Secret.  Is the furniture really that good?


  1. Will we receive a list of limited "truly great" stories? I might be adding Stevenson for the challenge. I am definitely reading "A Child's Garden of Verses" but hope to add many of the writers mentioned so far.
    The editor in me must point out that you probably intended that the murderer "hears music" rather than "here's music".

  2. I'm due to read a couple of Stevenson essays this week - do you have any opinion about how they stack up next to his fiction? ("An Apology for Idlers" and another one whose title I don't remember at the moment.)

  3. I will find a way to read a first Stevenson this year!

    Amateur reader (and others)-has any one read the essays of Boswell collected under the title The Hypocondriack-maybe 500 pages in two volumes-last in print in 1928?-I hope to read that this year-

  4. As a kid, I actually loved Kidnapped, Amateur Reader. Not sure that I've ever read a Stevenson short story, though. Looking forward to the rest of the week over here.

  5. I enjoyed Stevenson's kids books. Didn't know he wrote short stories!

  6. I suppose when the week is through I will have covered most of the best Stevenson stories. I do not want to exaggerate their number.

    Thanks for the correction - funny how the writing brain works.

    Emily - I'm still working through the essays, but I'll go ahead and venture a reckless opinion: Stevenson is the best writer of familiar essays in English since Lamb and Hazlitt. His literary essays are just as good. "An Apology for Idlers" (which I read last night) is a typical specimen.

    I mean, don't expect "Dream Children"! Lamb didn't write two of those.

    Rebecca - I saw an Arthur Conan Doyle quote somewhere to the effect that Stevenson invented the English short story. Not quite true, but not quite false, either.

    mel - remember, everything Stevenson wrote is short! The "short stories" are just, um, shorter. Anyway, it will be easy to squeeze in some RLS.

    I suspect that Boswell's essays are period pieces, good versions of the sort of thing people were writing at that time. And, frankly, I don't trust Boswell as any sort of wisdom writer. But I would be happy to be wrong.

    Richard - inshallah, I will read Kidnapped this year.