On the Enchanted Hill

The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson 1854–1890

edited by Bradford A. Booth, edited by Ernest Mehew
Yale University Press, six volumes, $45.00 each volume

Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny

by Alexandra Lapierre, translated by Carol Cosman
Carroll and Graft, 556 pp., $26.00

I started out writing, some thirty years ago, largely because of Stevenson. He was the man who opened the magic door. His wit, his style, his courage, his wanderlust, all enchanted me; and they still do. He made England seem small, and the world look big. He made the dreams of childhood sing with adult possibilities:

I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie,
And, watched by cockatoos and goats,
Lonely Crusoes building boats…

Henry James, his great and surprising literary champion, once said that simply to read Stevenson was to meet him. “It was as if he wrote himself outright and altogether, rose straight to the surface of his prose….” This was my experience, beginning at the age of eighteen down in the Cévennes with that donkey. Nothing much has changed since, except that Stevenson by his centenary year (1994—he died when he was only forty-four) has got bigger and more complicated as an author.

In a curious way, he seems to have grown up with my generation. He has moved in our consciousness from the bright cinematography of Treasure Island (1883) to the darker shadow-play of The Ebb-Tide (1894). Or to put it another way, he has left Alexandre Dumas and approached Joseph Conrad. Yet he is still the same beloved RLS, crackling and sparking with a kind of furious life. (As he once wrote to his cousin Bob: “How about your work? Stick in; we shall never be swells, but we can be cheesy sort of shits, with a push.” Stevenson is an absolute literary swell in my view, so you can expect nothing impartial from me on the subject.

Stevenson is a demanding presence, and never very far away. One fine windy morning last April, I got a phone call from Saint-Malo in France. “It’s about le grand Stevenson—sa vie, ses oeuvres, sa gloire.” The Festival of Travel Writers (“Etonnants Voyageurs“) was celebrating Stevenson’s centenary in a big way down at the old pirate’s port. All his texts were being republished in French, under the direction of Michel Le Bris (who is also writing a fine, combative biography). The festival was doing him proud: displays of original editions, films of his books, exhibitions of illustrations, symposia on his literary theories (“the debate with James about Realism”). There were panel discussions about his European influence (“Borges, Greene, all that”); on the dynamics of “Suspense Narrative”; on the thematics of exile and marginalization (“the Bohemian context opens out into Primitivism, like Gauguin maybe”). It was just the basic Stevenson stuff, of course. So would I care to send “a statement,” please? Could I fax it that afternoon? They were counting on “un ami de Stevenson.” Ah, mais merci, Monsieur Holmes. You couldn’t wonder that Stevenson always loved France.

It wasn’t exactly the moment for Deconstruction. This had to be a single arrow-shot, aimed high. But it made me say …

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