Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A mediocre Stevenson novel and a failed experiment - come and gone ere I could fix it, with a swallow's swiftness

A little experiment will fill out the rest of the week, one that goes back to a conversation between Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares that Sr. Caravana wrote about a year ago.  Borges and Bioy Casares made a list of fictional characters with unusual lifelikeness.  Count Fosco from The Woman in White, Eugénie Grandet and her father, Proust’s M. de Charlus – mostly I could see what they meant.  The experiment was to read a couple of examples I did not know and see if I could still see, so to speak.  I chose
"Pinkerton from The Wrecker;… Shaw’s characters (Candida’s poet and husband)."

Shaw is for later.  The Wrecker is the 1892 collaboration between Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, their second novel together.  Their third, The Ebb-Tide surprised me by proving to be a second-rate novel verging on the first-rate.  The Wrecker is unfortunately a third-rate book with a second-rate novel visible within it, right in the middle.  The narrator and that Pinkerton fellow have purchased, for the equivalent of a million mostly borrowed dollars a ship run aground on Midway Island in the belief that it holds a secret cargo, most likely opium.  The race to the wreck is exciting, the detective work aboard the ship is compelling, the mystery is not bad.

I usually avoid what I think of as creative writing workshop criticisms, necessary for a work-in-progress but pointless for a hundred year old book.  In this case, though, the first third of the novel, or perhaps closer to the first half, should have been cut and the last third heavily rearranged.  If that wrecker plot sounds intriguing (and it is pretty good), I can save you some trouble: start no earlier than Chapter IX, lopping off that thin first third, and honestly Chapter XII would be better.  Read through Chapter XV, everything that takes place on board the wreck.  Now skip to the surprisingly violent final three chapters to resolve the mystery.

I am only guessing, but I believe the reader who follows this path will avoid every substantial section written by the merely competent Lloyd Osbourne.  Sorry, Lloyd, but competent fiction is too common.

Those middle chapters, obviously Stevenson’s, really do lift off.  Here the wreckers have just arrived at Midway Island.  Is the ship they gambled on even there?  Has someone else gotten to it first?

[Captain] Nares wiped his night glass on his sleeve and passed it to me, motioning, as he did so, with his hand.  An endless wilderness of raging billows came and went and danced in the circle of the glass; now and then a pale corner of sky, or the strong line of the horizon rugged with the heads of waves; and then of a sudden – come and gone ere I could fix it, with a swallow's swiftness – one glimpse of what we had come so far and paid so dear to see: the masts and rigging of a brig penciled on heaven, with an ensign streaming at the main, and the ragged ribbons of a topsail thrashing from the yard. (Ch. XII)

That long, winding second sentence is definitive Stevenson.  Ye shall know him by his complex-compound sentences.  The brig is “penciled on heaven” because the narrator is an artist.  I assume that answers the question you were about to ask.

Right, Pinkerton.  He’s okay.  He is the most accurate depiction of the entrepreneurial personality I have seen in 19th century fiction, plenty lifelike in that sense.  Captain Nares is as good, and a couple of other characters come close.  But that description of the use of a spyglass on a rugged sea seems as lifelike as anything.


  1. Stevenson is always a bit hit and miss for me, even if he comes wonderfully recommended by Borges.

    But have you ever read a short-story called "Markheim?" It may well be the best thing RLS ever wrote.

  2. He is the most accurate depiction of the entrepreneurial personality I have seen in 19th century fiction, plenty lifelike in that sense.

    Well that is really something--possibly worth reading for that alone. At least, I want to.

    I will have to look into this "Markheim" as well...

  3. "Markheim" is one of Stevenson's best story, and despite the murder and intervention by the devil, only his second-most grisly Christmas story.

    The story did not make my Stevenson Top 3, though, the conventional Jekyll & Hyde, then "The Sea Fogs" chapter of The Silverado Squatters, and third the essay "The Lantern Bearers," the latter of which goes some ways towards explaining Borges's great attraction to Stevenson.

    Yeah, the entrepreneur is interesting, if unfortunately inadequately explored. Now the type has been so carefully dissected that people get degrees in Entrepreneurship, but Stevenson was just a good observer of character.