The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Among the authors I have always read and, willy-nilly, have taken as a model is R. L. Stevenson. This is because Stevenson himself wrote the books he would have liked to read, because he, who was so delicate an artist, imitated old adventure stories and then relived them himself. To him, writing meant translating an invisible text containing the quintessential fascination of all adventures, all mysteries, all conflicts of will and passion scattered throughout the books of hundreds of writers; it meant translating them into his own precise and almost impalpable prose, into his own rhythm which was like that of dance-steps at once impetuous and controlled. (Stevenson's admirers are a chosen few in all literatures; J. L. Borges is the most eminent of them.)
...aaand breathe out. From Italo Calvino's introduction to Our Ancestors, translated by Archibald Colquhoun.

Stevenson's greatest charm, in a literary sense, is the personal relation he establishes with the reader; he shares with Montaigne, Sterne and Oliver Wendell Holmes this rarest and most endearing of qualities. Once he comes into a household, no matter how unobtrusively, he is apt to stay. He brings a genial and comforting presence; he is helpful, brave and kindly; one is the better for an hour passed in his smiling company, and he takes on, in a very actual way, the aspect of a friend. It is noteworthy that his collected editions sell mostly to people of very modest means - which is to say, to struggling people; hard-working, ill-paid people; people richer in cultivation and refinement than in money; who turn to him in fellow-feeling for solace and fortitude. And to these I should like to say that the real man, the real Stevenson, was no other than as they regard him [...]
From Lloyd Osbourne's introduction to New Arabian Nights, vol. 1 of the Tusitala edition.


[He] had keenly enjoyed the Colonel's amazement and disgust. He had the vanity of wickedness; and it pleased him to see another man give way to a generous movement, while he felt himself in his entire corruption, superior to such emotions.
From The Suicide Club: Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts, by RLS.



At 21 March 2007 at 21:38 , Blogger Joe said...

I've written about RLS a lot over the years; he's a writer from my youth who has stayed with me. I found myself writing about him again recently for work when the new graphic novel of Kidnapped came out and I had the same tingle of excitement, yearning and nostalgia for his fiction and his travel books, which remain as fresh as ever. I love him almost as much for his real life adventures despite his poor health and the enthusiasm he has for sharing that with readers. And living here in Edinburgh I still get a thrill from realising that as I sat writing the Kidnapped article for the work blog I was sitting only a few hundred yards from where RLS would have been studying or, more likely, where he would have been drinking after ducking out of studies. His books and the city's history and architecture all combine in my head.

That said though, years back I persuaded colleagues to pick out their favourite Scottish books for the Staff Recommends stand. One picked Treasure Island and summed it up in one sentence better than I would have with half a page of description - he simply said "the best boy's own adventure ever written." Simple, sure, but pretty spot on.


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