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RLS Day 2020: On reading

  09 Nov '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

 ‘I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson’ – Jorge Luis Borges

With the 170th anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson’s birth in 1850 falling on Friday 13th November, here is a century-spanning literary curiosity to bend your mind. In the 1960s, in Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares planned an anthology of Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing. It was to be a volume in a series of sumas of writing by authors they admired. The series didn’t materialise, most likely hitting budgetary rocks, but the Stevenson selections had already been made and a translator assigned before the project foundered. Their choices, drawn from Stevenson’s essays and short stories, show RLS at his intellectually curious, playful, fantastical, and metafictional best.

When Polygon’s Kevin MacNeil, author of A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde, discovered this curiosity, it was an irresistible temptation to bring it into print. Without the need to translate into Spanish, the Polygon edition of the Borges-Casares anthology contains Stevenson’s original text, even if Borges might have seen the appeal of translating first into Spanish and then back into English to see what kind of text might arisen from such trans-hemispheric transformations.

Robert Louis Stevenson: An Anthology contains personal essays such as ‘The Ethics of Crime’, ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ in its first part, and short fictions, such as ‘The Bottle Imp’ and ‘The Suicide Club’ in Part II. The essays are a mix of personal and philosophical, and they also offer insights into Stevenson’s conceptions of readership and authorship. Here is a passage on the kaleidoscopic pleasures of reading, from the essay ‘A Gossip on Romance’, written while Treasure Island made its first appearance as a serial in Young Folk magazine 1881-3:

IN ANYTHING fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was for this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood. Eloquence and thought, character and conversation, were but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig for truffles. For my part, I liked a story to begin with an old wayside inn where, ‘towards the close of the year 17—’, several gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls. A friend of mine preferred the Malabar coast in a storm, with a ship beating to windward, and a scowling fellow of Herculean proportions striding along the beach; he, to be sure, was a pirate. This was further afield than my home-keeping fancy loved to travel, and designed altogether for a larger canvas than the tales that I affected. Give me a highwayman and I was full to the brim; a Jacobite would do, but the highwayman was my favourite dish. I can still hear that merry clatter of the hoofs along the moonlit lane; night and the coming of day are still related in my mind with the doings of John Rann or Jerry Abershaw; and the words ‘post-chaise’, the ‘great North road’, ‘ostler’, and ‘nag’ still sound in my ears like poetry. One and all, at least, and each with his particular fancy, we read storybooks in childhood, not for eloquence or character or thought, but for some quality of the brute incident. That quality was not mere bloodshed or wonder. Although each of these was welcome in its place, the charm for the sake of which we read depended on something different from either. My elders used to read novels aloud; and I can still remember four different passages which I heard, before I was ten, with the same keen and lasting pleasure. One I discovered long afterwards to be the admirable opening of What Will He Do with It: it was no wonder I was pleased with that. The other three still remain unidentified. One is a little vague; it was about a dark, tall house at night, and people groping on the stairs by the light that escaped from the open door of a sickroom. In another, a lover left a ball, and went walking in a cool, dewy park, whence he could watch the lighted windows and the figures of the dancers as they moved. This was the most sentimental impression I think I had yet received, for a child is somewhat deaf to the sentimental. In the last, a poet, who had been tragically wrangling with his wife, walked forth on the sea-beach on a tempestuous night and witnessed the horrors of a wreck. Different as they are, all these early favourites have a common note—they have all a touch of the romantic.

Robert Louis Stevenson, from ‘A Gossip on Romance’

Read on to discover more about how Stevenson believed that romance and adventure, standing apart from serious novels, drama, and factual writing, nourish our inner life of dreams and desires.

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