Posts from March 2015

March 8th, 2015

Six for Snow-Struck Boston!

bostonThe sun was shining yesterday in Boston, which was so strange after the last 90 days that I looked at the city, seeing it with the fresh realization that Boston has managed to survive a genuine battering of storms and cold and storms and cold. It wasn’t an easy survival, of course, and it was deeply embarrassing on top of everything else, since vital parts of the city’s superstructure collapsed virtually overnight when the storm-onslaught started and then limped and whined along day after day, week after week while the actual working people of Boston did what they always do: dug out, kept on, made mordant jokes. Walking around the city in the sunlight, I saw the now-familiar mountainous snowbanks and single-file switchback foot-paths where sidewalks used to be, but for the first time in over a month, it felt like a siege had been lifted. So naturally, when I got back home to my books, I pulled together a little pile of Boston titles, six gems I want to recommend about this place I love so much:

Boston Observed – I automatically started with this profusely-illustrated (and slightly boston observedoversized) 1971 volume by Carl Seaburg, a first-rate archive-sifter and a gentle divine of that most pleasantly baffling of all denominations, the Unitarian Universalists (as far as I’ve ever been able to determine, they worship the Sacred Cod of the State House, which is fine by me), who kicks off his lively tour of Boston’s history in true Bostonian fashion, by complaining about the weather. Once he’s run through rain, heat, humidity, and yes, snow, he gets all churchy in order to make some observations about the vanity of human works, or some such:

So here we stand, secure we think, on our asphalt-paved Boston, surrounded by our brick or concrete or glass and steel walls, breathing our air-conditioned air in our fluorescent-lighted buildings. We look at our captive trees and flower in their permitted parks – ah Nature! Yet under our feet, about our proud artificial town, above our heads in the polluted skies, the natural process continues. We can only record it. It doesn’t stop because we have hidden ourselves from it. The changes of the natural order proceed on their courses. The winds tear the land. The waves eat the shore. Silt eddies, sinks, settles, stratifies. Rocks weather; the eternal hills flow. Rains beat down; the ice cometh. Deep beneath our feet, rocks boil, strata shift, secret springs infiltrate, chemicals act out their lawful obligations upon each other.

hidden gardens of beacon hillHidden Gardens of Beacon Hill – if we move from the what of worship to the where, we can’t do better than this little 1972 pamphlet (since much enlarged, of course) put out by the Beacon Hill Garden Club and rather paradoxically seeking to celebrate something most people in the Club would simultaneously prefer to conceal: that Beacon Hill is warrened with gorgeous hidden nooks and crannies of well-tended green. I’ve sat in many of the gardens featured in these pages (and I’ve spent a good deal of time in two extremely gorgeous little spaces whose owners blanched white at the very idea of being mentioned in such a public thing), so whenever I flip through this book I smile at the combination of cloistered and boasting that fills its pages right from the beginning:

The gardens in this book cannot, in general, be glimpsed from the street or even guessed at, tucked away as they are behind the weathered brick facades of Beacon Hill. These little city gardens have as their main feature the immensely personal quality of a garden that is really an outdoor extension of the house. Like the tiny inner patio gardens of the Mediterranean countries, they are created not for public show but for the retreat and refreshment of the family.

Destroying Angel: The Conquest of Smallpox in Colonial Boston – Naturally,a destroying angel thinking about these last 90 days brought tangentially to mind other hardships Boston’s faced in its long history, and the books about those hardships. One of the best of those books is this slim 1974 volume by the wonderful Ola Elizabeth Winslow, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Jonathan Edwards and here writes about the horrific 1721 smallpox epidemic that swept through the city and transformed it, however temporarily, into a plague zone straight out of the Middle Ages:

Boston’s doctors had no rest day or night. With hundreds sick there were always calls that could not be answered. Selectmen were as busy as the doctors, week by week making themselves available day or night. The General Court was prorogued three times during this period. Their alternate meetingplace in early summer had been Cambridge, which was now also under siege. Selectmen’s orders give hints of problems that arose. In late July complaints against the continual ringing of funeral bells had led to an order that one bell might be tolled at a time and that only at designated hours. A forty-shilling fine was imposed for disobedience to this order, but very soon it had to be rescinded. Boston’s accustomed funeral pattern made obedience too painful to endure, and the bells rang again.

mfa handbook backThe Illustrated Handbook of the Museum of Fine Arts – If I mfa handbook frontneeded a smile after the excellent but grim tidings of Winslow’s book, I could always turn to this 1976 volume produced by the MFA, in which some design mavin gave free rein to drollery by covering a handbook – front and back – with all the hands on display in the museum’s permanent collections. This was one of the last museum, um, handbooks that was made in black-and-white, but it’s so full of sharp prose and fine photography that it’s always a pleasure to take it in hand.

 

The Bostonians – Every bit as pleasant, I’m often surprised to realize, is this great 1886 novel Henry James, especially in this 2003 Modern Library paperback with its shrewd Introduction by A. S. Byatt, who understands the charms of the book perfectly and sums up a key difference in its conception just brilliantly:

The writing of The Bostonians has a vigor and blithe wit found nowhere else in James. It also has a layered subtlety that might be lost on modern readers. If we compare it with The Princess Casamassima, written immediately after it, about anarchism and the class structure in London and Europe, we can see that the fact that James knew neither the English working class nor socialist and anarchist theory in Europe led him to write something like a pastiche of Dickensian melodrama (and the French melodrama of Sue and Dumas pere, also). He works up his Londoners from literary and external sources. His improbable New Englanders are real.

boston in the age of kennedyBoston in the Age of John Fitzgerald Kennedy – And speaking of improbable, real New Englanders: in any short list like this one, I always feel disposed to give pride of place to this luminous little 1966 volume by Walter Muir Whitehill, then the legendary director of the Boston Athenaeum and here putting Boston squarely in the middle of the “Centers of Civilization” series. True to form, Walter spends virtually no time in his book on its nominal subject, Boston in the “age” of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a singularly unedifying and slightly tinny time for the city and one our author dispenses with in fairly short order so that he can spend the bulk of his book talking about much older history and civic folklore. Unlike the other volumes in this wonderful, forgotten series, Boston in the Age of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is a strongly personal work; even when Walter is delving into the history of some part of this city he loved so much – like, say, the Gardner Museum he adored – he can’tlucy reads about jfk's boston extricate himself from his subject and doesn’t really even try:

After Mrs. Gardner’s death on July 27, 1924, Fenway Court was opened, as her will directed, “as a Museum for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” The provision that forbade rearrangement, substitutions, additions, or changes in the collection seemed at the time unduly restrictive, but after forty years I am glad that she made it. Every other museum that I know has changed beyond recognition, in these four decades, some of them for the worse. The finest pictures in Fenway Court would be worth seeing even if hung at eye level, flanked by aspidistras, on characterless walls lighted by fluorescent tubes screened by egg crates, with purple, green, and yellow chairs of eccentric shape for the convenience of visitors. lucy reads about bostonBut I like them better as they are, and because their arrangement remains unchanged, Fenway Court is not only a remarkable collection of pictures but an equally remarkable document in the history of taste at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And because Mrs. Gardner left ample endowments for its maintenance, there is an abundance of music and flowers.

It was a pleasure to revisit these Boston volumes, especially while allowing myself to dream of Spring at last. And that one weather forecasting model predicting mid-March snowstorms for New England? I’m trying not to think about that.

September 1st, 2012

Pugs of Wisdom: Time and the Master!

The sublime Anthony Lane (surely it’s time for a follow-up to Nobody’s Perfect?) on the novels of Henry James:

His books are drenched in time: the times at which they were written, and the times and ways in which they were rewritten or left alone; the times in which they are set; the times that elapse in the careers of the characters, as they thrive or sour; the time it takes for a man to split into two, like the hero of “The Jolly Corner,” and to see what he might have become; and, last, the times at which we read them, and, if we happen to be incurable Jamesians, at which they leave us other than we were.

 

October 9th, 2010

Leon Edel’s One-Volume Henry James!

Our book today is Henry James: A Life, Leon Edel’s massive 1985 one-volume abridgment of the monumental five-volume James biography he worked on for twenty years. That five-volume set, finished in 1972, constitutes another classic example of a “Steve book” – a book my friends are a) certain I’ve read and b) almost equally certain they themselves will never get around to reading.

I can’t vouch for the second part (one day I may get my fondest wish and the rest of you may finally devote a proper amount of time to reading!), but the first part is true: I’ve read that five-volume work twice over, and I did it with increasing desperation, because Henry James remains a (metaphorically speaking, of course) closed book to me. I’ve heard stellar estimations of his work for a hundred years, had colleagues at the old Boston Transcript and Boston Ledger telling me he was the greatest novelist since Richardson even while I was in the act of penning a pithy damnation of his latest serialized piece of sop-work in Scribners. And of course the ensuing decades have only more firmly enshrined James in the literary pantheon – you won’t see any five-volume biographies of Booth Tarkington.

Even for a reader as confident as I am, such universal praise can be unsettling. You start to wonder (if you’ve kept an open mind, that is): could I be wrong about this guy’s work? Could I be missing something? Can fourteen million Frenchmen, as the saying goes, possibly be wrong?

I keep meaning to return to James’ novels with an unbroken concentration to sniff out any particular worth in them. I said I’d do it in 2008, then in 2009, then in 2010. I’m not averse to finding that worth – but I keep putting off the search, mainly because some of my worst reading-memories of turn-of-the20th-Century literature are associated with my last run-through the Master’s canon.

In the meantime, I’ve searched Edel’s volumes for hand-holds to help scale the mountain – and although I don’t think I’ve ever found any, I’ve enjoyed the biography itself immensely. Gore Vidal once witheringly referred to the five-volume set as an extended historical novel, and over the years I’ve spent an absurd amount of time pouring over individual volumes making a mental effort to exonerate them from this claim. I confess that even in the one-volume abridgment, Edel provides plenty of fuel for Vidal. There’s penny-ante psychoanalysis on virtually every page, as in this bit about William James’ sudden marriage:

He [Henry] was patently jealous of the young bride and for complex psychological reasons. It was not that William was rejecting him. William had pushed him away ever since their childhood when he had plainly told Henry he was too much of a sissy to play with boys like himself who curse and swear. The drama, as critics have suggested, resided now in the struggle of the two brothers, and after half a lifetime of “twinship,” to achieve their individuation.

But the reason my efforts were absurd is because I forgot one of the cardinal rules of Gore Vidal: never take his apercus seriously. The only apercus one should ever take seriously are one’s own.

And besides, those incidences of head-shrinking aren’t but a fraction even of the abridged volume. Mostly what we get on page after page is Edel’s frank and inviting prose and his unceasing spirit of inquiry, as when he’s chronicling James’ rise from simple literary immigrant to the toast of England’s landed elite:

The crude state of poverty in London gave Henry pause. He was stuck by “the rigidly aristocratic constitution of society; the unaesthetic temper of the people; the private character of most kinds of comfort and entertainment.” The Victorian world was carefully organized to preserve – to reinforce – respect for traditional institutions. This was one way of maintaining national stability. To a member of America’s upper middle class, where society was in a state of flux, England’s codes and rules, and its stratified class structure, proved a revelation. The thought occurred to James that in a nation in which personality was repressed to such an extent, there had to be some safety valve. Where had the Britons placed the “fermenting idiosyncrasies” that had been corked down? “The upper classes are too refined,’ James was to write, “and the lower classes are too miserable.” The judgment may have seemed to him in later years too summary, too unsubtle. His revising pen altered it to “The better sort are too ‘genteel,’ and the inferior sort too base.” This might be the measure of the distance he was to travel from Bolton Street into the life of England’s leisured class.

No, it’s not Edel who bothers me in every re-reading of his biographies (and although I’m not sure any writer deserves a five-volume biography, I whole-heartedly recommend this one-volume condensed version – it’s still far and away the life of James to read, if you’re so inclined), it’s James himself, just as always. Here he is simpering and temporizing and pettily guarding secrets nobody wants to know. Here he is counting coins even when wealthy, making waspy remarks even about his own gracious hosts, and through it all exuding an aura of petulance that makes even a sympathetic reader gasp for cleaner air. Edel is just about as sympathetic a biographer as James is likely to get from the ranks of first-rate historians, and yet even in his account, the Master comes off as an essentially small man, a treasurer of trifling transgressions, his own handiest sycophant.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the central apostasy of James’ life, his much-ballyoo’d expatriate status. Edel paints this picture with the same accuracy he paints everything else, but that does James no favors. We read again James’ own justifications for his removal to England. In a section of Edel’s book on James’ biography of Hawthorne, we read the expat’s acidic little aria to all the things England has that his own country lacks:

No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities, nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom or Ascot!

That half those assertions were wrong even when they were made is both obvious and infuriating; but it’s far worse that the original sentiment – which was Hawthorne’s, from The Marble Faun – is twisted out of context and drained of affection:

no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case in my dear native land

Is it any wonder that James’ piping little “No Epsom or Ascot!” should infuriate his erstwhile countrymen and perhaps make them hate him just a bit – or more than a bit?

In fairness to Edel’s enormous talent if nothing else, I should grant that the hatred is hard to maintain for the whole of this graceful, persuasive book. This is a warm, even-handed portrait of the artist, and that portrait contains some personable elements, some charm. And it’s not like we need personal perfection from our writers, Heaven knows – I may believe that James’ contemporary and friend Edith Wharton was the much better novelist, but three biographies of her have convinced me I probably wouldn’t have liked her any more than I currently like James. Her novels are far less self-consciously fussy, but it’s possible, just possible, that James was tangling things up for effect, in full cognizance of how it read.

Maybe I’ll grant him that, in 2011.

July 8th, 2010

Penguins on Parade: The Princess Casamassima!

Some Penguin Classics are a bit guilt-inducing, even with the best of intentions. Surely there’s no author in the last century who induces guilt quite so readily – if unintentionally – as Henry James? We sense at once how formidable he is, but we cannot love him as we know he wants us to, and we feel guilty about that. Plus, his novels don’t tend to be idle strolls in the park – not only are they full-blown college lectures, but they’re lectures at which you have to wear a tie.

This is true for everything the torturous old windbag wrote, but surely it reaches its peak in his strangest, weirdest, and least successful major novel, The Princess Casamassima? Here is the Henry James guilt-trip doubled, tripled, and squared: a massive political novel from a mandarin social observer who was seen to pale visibly whenever politics came up as a topic at a country house dinner. If Henry James had lived in the era of Youtube and decided to make a rap-video, the result couldn’t be any more awkward than this.

And yet, as I’m gradually, belatedly coming to realize, there’s a softly shining charm woven through everything James wrote – even this ungainly behemoth of a book.

The plot is pure mechanics: young Hyacinth Robinson is brought up by a poor-but-honest seamstress after his mother kills his nobleman father (just in case you were afraid James would take us all the way into Dickens territory with no trail ‘of bread-crumbs back). He’s a good boy, a hard worker, and he’s entered on the book-binding trade when he falls into bad company (worse company, that is, even than the bookish trade): political radicals who lead him on with heady talk of valorous actions against social oppressors. Hyacinth makes a vow to assassinate one such figure (he’s not picky about which one) when suddenly the plot intervenes and he’s befriended by the title character. The Princess sees only the good in Hyacinth and invites him to her manor for an evening.

Predictably, it has the Brideshead effect: Hyacinth becomes aware, has his awareness opened to the broader spectrum of life (including the fact that actual fallible three-dimensional people inhabit all those spectra), and he stops wanting to be a fire-breathing political radical. Because James himself was easily and instantly intoxicated by the world Princess Casamassima represents (so much so that he abandoned his own country when that world but merely beckoned)(but I’m gradually coming to like the man’s books very much, so that’s the last word you’ll hear from me on that touchy subject), he portrays Hyacinth’s seduction as something that happens quite literally overnight. Here’s the transforming moment, and because this is Henry James, it’s eighteen friggin pages long:

The night before, at ten o’clock, when he arrived, he had only got the impression of a mile-long stretch of park, after turning in at a gate; of the cracking of gravel under the wheels of the fly; and of the glow of several windows, suggesting in-door cheer, in a façade that lifted a variety of vague pinnacles into the starlight. It was much of a relief to him then to be informed that the Princess, in consideration of the lateness of the hour, begged to be excused till the morrow; the delay would give him time to recover his balance and look about him. This latter opportunity was offered him first as he sat at supper in a vast dining-room, with the butler, whose acquaintance he had made in South Street, behind his chair. He had not exactly wondered how he should be treated: there was too much vagueness in his conception of the way in which, at a country-house, invidious distinctions might be made and shades of importance illustrated; but it was plain that the best had been offered him. He was, at all events, abundantly content with his reception and more and more excited by it. The repast was delicate (though his other senses were so awake that hunger dropped out and he ate, as it were, without eating), and the grave mechanical servant filled his glass with a liquor that reminded him of some lines in Keats –in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. He wondered whether he should hear a nightingale at Medley (he knew nothing about the seasons of this vocalist), and also whether the butler would attempt to talk to him, had ideas about him, knew or suspected who he was and what; which, after all, there was no reason for his doing, unless it might be the poverty of the luggage that had been transported from Lomax Place. Mr. Withers, however (it was in this manner that Hyacinth heard him addressed by the cabman who conveyed the visitor from the station), gave no further symptom of sociability than to ask him at what time he would be called in the morning; to which our young man replied that he preferred not to be called at all – he would get up by himself. The butler rejoined, ‘Very good, sir’ while Hyacinth thought it probable that he puzzled him a good deal, and even considered the question of giving him a glimpse of his identity, lest it should be revealed, later, in a manner less graceful. The object of this anticipatory step, in Hyacinth’s mind, was that he should not be oppressed and embarrassed with attentions to which he was unused; but the idea came to nothing, for the simple reason that before he spoke he found that he already was inured to being waited upon. His impulse to deprecate attentions departed, and he became conscious that there were none he should care to miss, or was not quite prepared for. He knew he probably thanked Mr. Withers too much, but he couldn’t help this – it was an irrepressible tendency and an error he should doubtless always commit.

“Is it really true,” the Princess asks him later in the book, animated by her customary wide-eyed and non-judgemental nature, “that you have never seen a park, nor a garden, nor any of the beauties of nature, and that sort of thing?”

That sort of thing. Hee. Yes, Hyacinth informs her, it’s really true: he was raised by a seamstress in Lomax Place. The Princess is delighted, not disdainful: she’s never had a chance to show anything real to somebody before, and she’s always wanted to.

And there you see the book this might have been, poking at the fraying seams of the book it is: if you go through The Princess Casamassima with a black pen and strike out all the political content – for which James was almost ridiculously ill-suited – there remains  a quite lovely story of two alien worlds finding each other, being gifted by each other. Of course you’d have to change the clunky, tragic ending of the present story, but vast heaps of James’ trademark baroque verbiage could remain untouched.

As it is, we have the vast, haltingly ambitious Nonesuch that is The Princess Casamassima. In the gorgeous Penguin Classic edition (adorned by Sargent’s quite thrilling portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, which shows that the Penguin Classic art department cannot be surpassed in its quiet knowledge of what it’s about; in real life, the sitter was as perfect an illustration of the meeting of those two worlds as you were ever likely to find), the huge editorial chores are undertaken by Derek Brewer, and the extensive, invaluable notes are by Patricia Crick. As is so often the case, the Penguin version of this work is so much better in every way than any other version (precious few other versions, in this case) that the comparisons aren’t worth making.

No, if you’re in the mood for Henry James at his most fallible – if you find yourself less intimidated and more charmed by a work of genius that’s nevertheless a failure as a novel (this is certainly how it worked on me, to the betterment of my understanding of all James’ books, eventually), the Penguin Classic of The Princess Casamassima is the book for you.  Everything James wrote gives the impression of those vague pinnacles rising into the night at Medley, but at least this book has foundations of clay, to aid the overawed visitor.

March 3rd, 2010

Penguins on Parade: RLS in the South Seas!

Some Penguin Classics stand as reminders of what might have been. Necessarily, the entire shelf of Penguin Classics from ancient Greece and Rome serve this melancholy purpose – imagining the lost works of Sophocles, Euripides, Asinius Pollio, Livy, and the rest all here with us, neatly persevered inside those so-familiar black-spined paperbacks, knowing with that sweet assurance that they’d all have first-rate critical introductions and helpful notes and dorky cover-designs  – it’s almost as pleasant, in its way, as actually having the books would be (and there’s no final curtain here! If truck-sized statues can be unearthed in Egypt in 2010, so can meticulously-preserved Egyptian libraries – plenty of reedy, well-read Romans went there for the salubrious climate, and the Egyptians themselves were quite fond of literature, so you never know what might turn up).

That sweet, sad imagining can happen a lot closer to our own day, of course. Think of reedy, well-read Robert Louis Stevenson, who repaired in 1888 to the South Seas for their salubrious climate (and because the editor of McClure’s – a first-rate literary magazine at the time, run with easy generosity and unquenchable bonhomie by Sam McClure – offered to pay for the trip if he could have the literary gleanings that came from it) and there began to dream about writing not just an account of his travels – a type of literature at which he excelled and in which he’d already written one very good example and one immortal classic – but the book on the South Seas, a massive compendium of the languages, the topographies, the nature, the peoples, the customs, of course the superstitions, of that entire swath of the globe.

It’s the oddest thing about Stevenson as a writer, and it stands eternally to his credit: despite the fact that he had mastered the fine art of capturing the public taste with light, deceptive adventure stories, he was always yearning for new literary forms, for fresh and dangerous challenges. The books he dreamt of writing but never did form one of the most intriguing ghost-canons in all of literature, and in the South Seas, he dreamt big. Probably some of this ambition came from the fact that on some level he knew how sick he was (a frail constitution racked by consumption and tortured almost every hour of every day by tobacco – it’s highly doubtful that any single human being ever smoked more than Robert Louis Stevenson, and certainly no author ever did, even the ones who were famous for it)(although Scott Fitzgerald came close).

Somewhere along the course of the island-hopping that he did with his family – he traveled with his long-suffering mother and his drill sergeant wife, plus a ragged little entourage of servants and cooks – going from the Marquesas to Hiva Oa to Borabora, meeting priestesses and missionaries and drunken, comic kings, the decision sort of crept upon him that he would not, after all, be returning to wet and chilly London. He knew the decision would upset his friends back home – friends like Sidney Colvin at the British Museum , a devoted first-reader and confidante – but he could confess it readily enough to his more literary acquaintances. He wrote to Henry James:

I must tell you plainly – I can’t tell Colvin – I do not think I shall come to England more than once, and then it’ll be to die. Health I enjoy in the tropics; even here [Sydney Australia], which they call sub or semi-tropical, I come only to catch cold.

This wasn’t quite true – Stevenson could always be the most maddening combination of gloomy and optimistic – he never ‘enjoyed’ much health in the tropics, despite intervals of activity and naked sea-bathing. He was almost always sick, sometimes incapacitated, and more than one doctor along the way warned him that his condition was precarious – he could develop a fatal hemorrhage at any moment. He grew more relaxed in the islands, not that precise and proper dress had ever been his forte. No less fastidious a South Seas visitor than Henry Adams could only remark in horror:

Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless. He was costumed in very dirty striped cotton pyjamas, the baggy legs tucked into coarse knit woolen stockings, one of which was bright brown in color, the other a purplish dark tone.

But sick or no, distracted or no (his wife Fanny could be a handful, to put it mildly), he kept writing. His readers and financial sponsors back home expected it, and he was on fire to do it anyway. He wanted to capture the essence of the South Seas, to write a huge miscellany that would stand as a worthy substitute for actually being there – he wanted to cover every aspect of this hot, beautiful new world he was seeing and bring it all home to readers who would never see it:

No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor, and the task before me is to communicate to fireside travellers some sense of its seduction, and to describe the life, at sea and ashore, of many hundred thousand persons, some of our own blood and language, all our contemporaries, and yet as remote in thought and habit as Rob Roy or Barbarossa, the Apostles or the Caesars.

So he investigated every local custom, talked with every Western visitor and every native storyteller. We want our great writers to be more omnivorously curious than we are, we hope they will be – and Stevenson was. He always had been (the one thing his heterogeneous mass of books share in common is their underlying wide-eyed wonder at being in a world of infinite stories), but something about being in the South Seas, perhaps some presentiment that he really never would see England again, only increased his hunger – hence his dreams for the book he wanted to call simply, all-inclusively The South Seas, and hence, too, his frequent pauses to note mortuary rituals:

So in Samoa only the spirits of the unburied awake fear. During the late war many fell in the bush; their bodies, sometimes headless, were brought back by native pastors and interred; but this (I know not why)was insufficient, and the spirit still lingered on the theatre of death. When peace returned a singular scene was enacted in many places, and chiefly round the high gorges of Lotoannu, where the struggle was long centered and the loss had been severe. Kinswomen of the dead came carrying a mat or sheet and guided by survivors of the fight. The place of death was earnestly sought out; the sheet was spread upon the ground and the women, moved with pious anxiety, sat about and watched it. If any living thing alighted it was twice brushed away; upon the third coming it was known to be the spirit of the dead, was folded in, carried home and buried beside the body and the aitu rested.

As Stevenson writes at the beginning of In the South Seas (the truncated, domesticated, and not entirely successful version of the book that was eventually created by Fanny and Colvin), “for some while before I set forth upon my voyage, I believed I was come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and the undertaker to expect.” His time-table was premature, but only a little: he had time for this one last adventure, and time enough to write a bit about it. It wasn’t the book he hoped for, but those of us who wish he’d written a thousand books will take this one as it is and count ourselves lucky.