Our book today is that hilarious, engrossing, inimitable classic, Twelve Against the Gods, written under the pen-name of “William Bolitho” in 1929 (the same author also wrote the enormously enjoyable Murder for Profit) and celebrating a baker’s dozen historical figures who epitomize one aspect or another of the adventurer’s ideal as conceived by our author, who certainly knew something of which he wrote, having led quite an adventurous life from his Cape Town boyhood to his blooding at the Somme to his braving of Fleet Street as correspondent for the old Manchester Guardian. In that life he learned, among many other things, how to write in a way that makes people want to read him – always a good trait for somebody determined to live by his pen. In Twelve Against the Gods, he picks several signal characters from the past and writes their lives in brief ala Plutarch (whom he often invokes, always adoringly, and self-deprecatingly enough so that the reader will invariably wish this book were enormous and were called Forty Against the Gods). The list is varied: Alexander the Great, Cagliostro, Christopher Columbus, Casanova, Charles XII of Sweden, Mohammed (spelled in the old style, as “Mahomet”), Lola Montez, Isadora Duncan, Catiline, Napoleon (I & III), and Woodrow Wilson (whom our author saw cheered through the streets of Paris in the heady days after World War I) – and the idea is simple: “History has always treasured a catalogue of adventurers – she has not changed her ways, though she may not, for business reasons, be allowed to publish it.”
Those business reasons didn’t quite preclude this book, however, and the reading public ate it up. Bolitho is not hero-worshipping – the common thread uniting his portraits isn’t selflessness or even physical bravery but rather an essential hunger for life, and a willingness to risk everything for that hunger. His adventurers are all gamblers:
What if this injustice were the very life of adventure? The man who puts his stake on the roulette board does not want justice, or his stake back unaltered. Justice for Christopher [Columbus] is a small shop in Genoa, or it may be a foot of wall in a Portuguese jail for fraudulent bankruptcy, or a hole in the ooze at the bottom of the sea, somewhere a few leagues out from the Canaries. Justice for Alexander is another dagger such as killed his father; for Casanova a horse-whipping, or a lifelong judgment of alimony. In this light, adventure is an excited appeal for injustice; the adventurer’s prayer is “Give us more than our due.”
Bolitho’s stars make that prayer all the time in these stories, and since our author was both a student of history and a thorough (though a trifle embarrassed) Edwardian, the prayers tend to be male-dominated. He grew up in a world that still routinely relegated women to the roles of either queens or courtesans: “In the Law of Adventure, male adventure, love is no more than gold or fame – all three, glitterings on the horizon, beckoning constellations,” he tells us, “But with the woman-adventurer all is love or hate, the sole pole of her field. Her adventure is man; her type is not the prospector but the courtesan.” This is manifestly too easy, of course; Bolitho could easily have alighted on female figures of significantly more consequence than a dancer and an actress, and if only he wrote that enormous tome Forty Against the Gods, surely he would have.
He doesn’t do it in this book, but that’s its only shortcoming. “Life, that winged swift thing, has to be shot down and reposed by art, like a stuffed bird, before we can use it as a model,” he tells us, and this is exactly what he does in these pages: his characters are artfully posed indeed and seem to live in every anecdote and aphorism. His research is sounder than it seems on its razzle-dazzle surface, but you don’t really go to a book like this one for research – you go to it for the razzle-dazzle, and rightly so. Bolitho was an extremely lively thinker about history, and it’s always fun to read the musings of such a person. Sometimes he can be a little eerie, as when he writes, “To say that the United States is the historical counterpart of old Rome is too far-fetched. To say that it will be extraordinarily like it in a hundred years is an intelligent probability.”
And sometimes – in fact often – he’s bracingly misanthropic:
The nightingales, dear naturalists, do not sing for us or you. The flowers are proud, and those trees your own grandfather planted in sweat have no feelings of gratitude towards men. All animals except the parasitical dog and cat we have debauched hate us; a sparrow that will not move aside for an elephant will hide itself before the most angelic child on earth can come within reach. … The trees themselves, it might seem, turn their backs to you, the wet blanket, the human, the unwanted, the horror. A strange experiment, that one of carnivorous anthropoids, killer-monkeys; the whole of Nature hopefully awaits the day we shall be extinct.
Fortunately for readers everywhere (or anyway, the ones diligent enough to go find a copy of this wonderful book – a handy Penguin Classic would solve that little problem, and yours truly would of course be happy to introduce and annotate such a volume), those killer monkeys sometimes write things worth reading. Twelve Against the Gods is high up on a list of such things – it’s exactly the kind of highly opinionated, actively moralizing after-dinner chat that was the norm rather than the exception among the ancient writers Bolitho so adored. In fact, it’s a fitting companion to Plutarch, which is just about the highest – and rarest – praise a book can get.