When I was about five or six, nothing produced a greater feeling of dread than a Mervyn Peake illustration of Blind Pew from a copy of Treasure Island given me when I was young. Peake’s Treasure Island illustrations use no outlines, but are composed of the finest etchings of pen, so that nothing is distinct but emerges as it were from a sea mist. The bullying, terrifying Pew himself seems woven from the very darkness around him, his blindness part of the fabric of the world in which he exists and seems a thing more powerful than sight.
The picture shows him moments before he gets trampled to death by a horse. He has taken a wrong turn, and the caption has him piteously pleading and wheedling –
‘Johnny, Black Dog, Dirk,’ and other names, ‘you won’t leave old Pew, mates – not old Pew?’
I still find it utterly hypnotic – no illustration or work of art has a more immediate hold over me.
This then was my introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson. Later I found out that those early compelling and precipitous chapters of Treasure Island were written almost as quickly as they are read; even to this day if I pick up the book I will find myself halfway through almost without realising it.
Since then I have read Kidnapped, its sequel Catriona, some of his essays and The New Arabian Nights. He is strangely impenetrable for one whose style is so open. He is like a window in a lit room on a darkened exterior, perfectly clear, yet impossible to see through. Was it just that his works were so simple that they invited no more than the most perfunctory analysis? The more I read, the less I felt this to be the case; The New Arabian Nights specifically present such a structure of mirrors and nesting boxes, and such a non-morbid preoccupation with violent death and a non-pious preoccupation with morality, while all rattling along in Stevenson’s typically brisk way, as to feel unique among things I have read.
This curiosity about his unmysterious but enigmatic writing has prompted me to go through his collected works from beginning to end – the Swanston edition. I’ll draw my impressions as I go, and then after I’ve read it all, I’ll go into a biography and maybe some critical stuff to see how they match up. With writers who have this rather external, many-faceted gem-like appearance, opinions tend to differ quite a lot; as with Shakespeare, I can imagine people finding their own appearance in the lineaments of his writing.
It’s as well to set out what I know of him – a vaguely coherent congeries of facts, and half certainties –
- Scottish, Edinburgh (the midden out back and the clean rational streets in front, being a sort of psychological ‘explanation’ of Jekyll and Hyde I came across once)
- Father, a lighthouse designer?
- Suffered health problems (tuberculosis?), causing him to eventually go to Samoa (and die there?)
- First half of Treasure Island written very quickly (map of island came to him first? did he lose it as well?)
- Wyndham Lewis’s not at all hostile description of him in Time and Western Man as ‘the sedulous ape’, and an observation about his cartoon like characters. [edit: as Martin Walker points out in the comments, this is in fact RLS’s comment upon himself, rather than Lewis’]
- known as a fine essayist.
- Got wife to help him with second selection of New Arabian Nights, known as the Dynamiter – an attractive image, like Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis writing bits of each other’s books.
That I think is pretty much that,
Oh, did he live in Sussex for a bit? Or have I made that up?
Next: What I Discovered Behind the Doors of Volume 1…