Sunday, September 22, 2013

Books, Maps and the Reading Life


 I was reminded of the importance of islands in literature while reading an article by Robert Macfarlane in the latest issue of Intelligent Life Magazine.  Like Macfarlane I had a love of cartography from an early age; "maps fire my mind" as he puts it. One of the possible sources of this love, for me and certainly for him, was a reading of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Stevenson became one of my favorite authors and Treasure Island is among his books that I have read a reread since. But there are other authors who have enthralled me with their islands. The following compilation of reviews includes four of these "island" books, but there are others that I have enjoyed including Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Island by Huxley and Golding's dark morality tale, Lord of the Flies.  

"In the beginning was the map. Robert Louis Stevenson drew it in the summer of 1881 to entertain his 12-year-old stepson while on a rainy family holiday in Scotland. It depicts a rough-coasted island of woods, peaks, swamps and coves. A few place-names speak of adventure and disaster: Spyglass Hill, White Rock, The Graves. The penmanship is deft—at the island’s southern end is an intricate compass rose, and the sketch of a galleon at full sail. There are warnings to mariners: "Strong Tides", "Foul Ground". And in the heart of the island is a blood-red cross, by which is scrawled "Bulk of treasure here".

Stevenson’s map was drawn to set a child dreaming, but it worked most powerfully upon its grown-up author, inspiring Stevenson to write his great pirate novel "Treasure Island" (1883). Poring over the map, he began to populate his landscape with characters (Long John Silver, Captain Flint), and to thicken it with plot. Up from that flat page sprang one of the most compellingly realised of all imaginary places. Countless children have made landfall upon its blonde beaches, moved cautiously through its grey woods and seen sunlight flash hard upon the wild stone spires of its crags. Once visited, the island inhabits you."  -  Robert Macfarlane, "A place that inhabits you", Intelligent Life Magazine September/October 2013.

Treasure IslandTreasure Island 
by Robert Louis Stevenson

“Sometimes the isle was thick with savages, with whom we fought, sometimes full of dangerous animals that hunted us, but in all my fancies nothing occurred to me so strange as our actual adventures.”  ― Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island  

  This is a foundational book for me. I read it originally around 1960 and along with Kidnapped is has cemented Stevenson's place in my reading life. Traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, it is an adventure tale known for its atmosphere, character and action, and also a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality—as seen in Long John Silver—unusual for children's literature then and now. The influence of Treasure Island on popular perception of pirates can be seen in media portrayals, including treasure maps with an "X", schooners, the Black Spot, tropical islands, and one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders. This adventure tale is one of conflicts, with the principal one being that between the virtue of advanced civilization versus the indiscipline of man in his savage state. Jim Hawkins, Dr. Livesey, and Captain Smollett, among the principal heroes, stand for virtues such as loyalty, truthfulness, thrift, discipline, religious faith, and temperance (especially with alcohol). The pirates suffer from drunkenness, impiety, and mutual betrayal, and tend to seize immediate gratification on the premise that life is short and uncertain. Long John Silver occupies a middle ground in this conflict: he shares the heroes' virtues of temperance, thrift, and deferred gratification, but only to aid him in achieving his ends, for which he is also willing to lie, betray, and murder. Most of the pirates can not even achieve Long John's level, which gives him a natural advantage in their company.

The novel can also be read as a bildungsroman which has become one of my favorite genres including such classics as David Copperfield and Of Human Bondage. In Treasure Island Stevenson writes of the development and coming-of-age of its narrator, Jim Hawkins. Jim's moral development culminates when he promises Silver not to attempt an escape. The novel includes exciting adventures but it also demonstrates ethical lessons in loyalty, truthfulness and temperance. The combination is presented in an exciting and suspenseful prose that never falters. It is one of the great adventure novels of my experience. 

The MagusThe Magus 
by John Fowles

"It came to me…that I didn't want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment, that what I was feeling at that moment justified all I had been through, because all I had been through was my being there. I was experiencing…a new self-acceptance, a sense that I had to be this mind and this body, its vices and its virtues, and that I had no other chance or choice.”  ― John Fowles, The Magus

While his novel The Collector was my introduction to the work of John Fowles I was not nearly as impressed with that novel as I was with The Magus. In it I found an intense, engrossing novel that maintained my interest in several ways including its setting on a Greek island.

The plot of the novel is a story of a young unhappy man who considers himself a poet and a philosopher. He takes a job at an English boarding school on a Greek island to escape what could become a complicated situation after a young woman with whom he is involved falls in love with him. Having used up his "charm with women," as one of the characters puts it, he sees this a better alternative. On this Greek island, he meets a millionaire named "Conchis" who tells the young man, Nicholas, stories of his life. To Nicholas' surprise, the characters in the stories begin to appear on the estate in what Fowles (in the prologue to the revised edition) describes as a kind of magical realism. While the novel seems to explore the ideas of conflict in mythology and philosophy, it rapidly turns into a kind of psychological mystery as Nicholas becomes more and more enmeshed in Conchis' mind games and it becomes more difficult for him--and the reader--to tell the difference between reality and fiction.

While, I found a certain resonance with Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier, in the showing of a secret hidden world to be explored along with reference to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the novel seems as much about the idea of "freedom" in the twentieth century. It also explores the definition of meaningful experiences, both inter-personal and intra-personal. While always artistic even while it sometimes seemed a bit bewildering it was ultimately a great read due to the uniqueness of its structure and its exploration of ideas. Combined with Fowle's beautiful prose that proved to be the right potion for a great novel. 

The Island of Dr. MoreauThe Island of Dr. Moreau 
by H.G. Wells

"The ocean rose up around me, hiding that low, dark patch from my eyes. The daylight, the trailing glory of the sun, went streaming out of the sky, was drawn aside like some luminous curtain, and at last I looked into the blue gulf of immensity which the sunshine hides, and saw the floating hosts of stars. The sea was silent, the sky was silent. I was alone with the night and silence.”  ― H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau 

  Over the period of a decade beginning with The Time Machine in 1895, H. G. Wells created some of his most popular fictions in the form of scientific romance novels. These books have captured the imagination of readers ever since and are arguably as popular today as they were more than one hundred years ago. Among these perhaps the strangest and best is The Island of Dr. Moreau. Undoubtedly influenced by Robinson Crusoe, but also by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island which was published only thirteen years earlier, this book goes far beyond those deserted island tales and looks forward to the twenty-first century and beyond. In its day it was considered blasphemous, but in the age of cloning its depiction of vivisection takes on new meaning while the blasphemy recedes into the background. Above all this is a good story with suspense that holds even after the first breathless reading that it usually inspires. The story is of such a suspenseful nature that I am reluctant to share any plot details for fear of spoiling the experience for the reader.

As with all great books the levels of meaning and reference in this book are many and the structure, a lost narrative found only after the author's death (reminiscent of Poe among others) is a nod to the era of the unreliable narrator for before his death Edward Pendrick, the narrator, claims to have no memory of the events which it described. Peter Straub, in his "Foreword" to the Modern Library edition, commented:

Given its infusion of the adventure tale with deep, pervasive doubt, Dr. Moreau can be seen as a unique and compelling alliance of Treasure Island and Joseph Conrad. (p. xvi)

I certainly agree with this assessment and believe that Wells, who was a good friend of Conrad as well as Henry James, Stephen Crane and Ford Madox Ford, might also agree with it. Like the best of Conrad reading this book was an exhilarating experience due both to its narrative and its deep meaning. 

The Man Who Loved Islands 
by D.H. Lawrence

"even islands like to keep each other company. " - D. H. Lawrence

Yes, more than men, that is the man of the story who loved islands, islands liked to keep each other company. This is a story from the pen of D. H. Lawrence who wrote many wonderful stories. In this story he has incorporated several themes and many layers of meaning all in less that twenty-five pages. The man who "loved islands" appears Quixotic as he attempts to create an imaginary island world around himself as he sequesters his being in his book-laden library to write about the birds of the classical world. But his dreams were quickly corroded as the corruption of humanity tainted his imaginary Eden. Suggestions of Milton's Paradise Lost - yet can Satan have corrupted humanity so thoroughly that few are honest or loyal enough to continue the journey with the man?
Imaginary though it was it reminded me of Rousseau's attacks on civilization while he wrote of an imaginary state of nature. This state of nature seemed to be close to the reincarnation of our man's island as he tried yet a second time to accomplish his dream. Ultimately the man who loved islands inherits a nightmare as the story veers into a snowy dystopia. What meaning does this hold for the reader? I am not sure, but the thoughts for which the story is a catalyst will continually remind me of this strange world.

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Parrish Lantern said...

not read but have Magus & I love Huxley's Island.

James said...

Magus is imbued with the spirit of Great Expectations and more. A mysterious novel of ideas as well as the Greek island. It is one of those books that the author returned to and produced a revised version.

Brian Joseph said...

I too loved maps at an early age.

This is a great list of books and there is much to ponder here. The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of my favorites. It really was so vary ahead of its time. Indeed, technology is beginning to catch up with it and we as a society are beginning to wrestle with some of the nuts and bolts issues addressed in this book.

James said...

I agree with your assessment of Well's ability to prophesy and perhaps forewarn a future so close to our own. That is one of the aspects of science fiction that I enjoy, exciting prophets even when they are wrong.