April 27, 2010

As for Ben Gunn

The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”

You may have recognized these as the wonderful last lines of Treasure Island, which I’ve just been reading again because a conversation inspired by my last post about favourite fictional characters led me to suddenly think of Ben Gunn. Ben Gunn! How had I forgotten him? One of the most endearing souls ever found on the page, so enchantingly addled after three years marooned on Treasure Island, living on salted goat meat and dreaming of cheese, always of cheese, “toasted, mostly” as he confides to Jim Hawkins when he is discovered. "You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?”

I got my Treasure Island down to look up the part at the end where it tells what everyone ended up doing after they returned to England with the treasure. I love it when books do this: “and as for Tiny Tim, who did not die…”.

“As for Ben Gunn”, it says, “he got a thousand pounds, which he spent or lost in three weeks, or, to be more exact in nineteen days, for he was back begging on the twentieth. Then he was given a lodge to keep, exactly as he had feared upon the island; and he still lives, a great favourite, though something of a butt, with the country boys, and a notable singer in church on Sundays and saints’ days.”

My edition of Treasure Island is the one illustrated by NC Wyeth, the famous illustrator of children’s classics and father of the artist Andrew Wyeth. To my eyes, his are the best Treasure Island illustrations ever, although I suspect everyone feels this way about whatever editions of their favourite childhood books they grew up with.

If you’d like to see Wyeth's magnificent drama and colours for yourself, they're on view on the website Dead Men Tell No Tales along with pirate party supplies and photos of big and little kids, and a dog or two, dressed up as pirates. Do they know , I hope they do, that practically the sum total of our popular image of a pirate -- parrot on the shoulder, peg leg and yo ho ho-- was created by Robert Louis Stevenson, first on a family holiday in the Scottish mountains where "in front of a cheerful fire" he wrote 15 chapters in as many days, and the final chapters slowly, painfully in the mountains of Switzerland, where he had gone to shore up his fragile health?

Or if you prefer to look at the whole book, here it is, thanks to the Internet Archive and the New York Public Library

 The most riveting image from an RLS work I’ve ever encountered, actually, is a moving one. That would be the great French actor Jean-Louis Barrault playing Monsieur Opale, the Mr. Hyde figure in Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier.” Barrault, who had trained as a mime back when it was still an art rather than an annoying, ubiquitous busking activity, uses just facial expression and gait, not makeup as all the other film Mr. Hydes do, to make Monsieur Opale the personification of sheer evil. It might be the best film performance I’ve ever seen.

Here is the original French trailer, thanks to Thespalian, not a Roman emperor but someone from Frankfurt-on-Main who appropriately also likes the "Night on Bald Mountain" episode of Fantasia (it used to scare me to death as a kid), who hunted it down and posted it on youtube. The story unfolds (or "unrolls" as the French has it) by rushing us down a very noirish street to a fine residence where we are given a glimpse of Barrault as the esteemed psychologist Docteur Cordelier, before cutting to the shocking appearance of his Monsieur Opale in the next scene, so you can see Barrault in all his incredible transformational braveur.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson’s birth, and to celebrate it there's a new Robert Louis Stevenson website, the most comprehensive RLS website ever, containing both scholarly and non-scholarly material, full texts and lots of images, including those from four photograph albums the Stevenson family kept in Samoa, only recently digitised and many never seen before by the general public. You can even listen to a recording of an interview with RLS's stepdaughter Belle.

What did I like the most? The photographs, in particular one of the odd-looking child the other kids wouldn’t play with whom Frank McLynn described in his very good biography of RLS but which I'd never seen corroborated by a photograph, and the excellent  biographical section by Richard Dury, a Stevenson scholar at the University of Bergamo in Italy, of all places, who was also responsible for the original RLS website. 

Speaking of final lines, Prof. Dury's are very good:  

-- Reading this Mozartian and mercurial writer remains for many as for Borges, despite critical neglect, quite simply "a form of happiness". 

April 24, 2010

Who's your favourite fictional character?

April 23rd is World Book Day, a yearly event which UNESCO – who call it “World Book and Copyright Day” – has been organising since 1995 to promote reading (and publishing and copyright).

April 23rd was not picked by chance, of course, but for its being a venerable date for literature. It’s the day we celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday - the actual date of which is unknown, the only record being an April 26th baptism. And in Catalonia, it’s St. George’s Day, the day on which since medieval times men give roses to their lovers and, in a more recent tradition, the lovers give them a book in return. That's in honour of Miguel de Cervantes, who died on April 23rd, 1616, the same date as William Shakespeare -- who actually died 10 days after Cervantes. The reason the date is the same is because England was still on the Julian calendar, while Spain had already gone Gregorian.

Not that it's related, but the UK celebrates World Book Day on the first Thursday in March instead of with the rest of the world on April 23rd. Something about not clashing with Easter holidays; maybe that’s when all good British families head to the Dieppe hypermarkets (although I guess not this year!). And I see that just as with the day they hold their “World” Book Day, the UK is way ahead of us with their initiatives for promoting reading: this year they’re giving every schoolchild in the realm a one pound book token, with which they can buy one of six specially published one pound books, or use them against any other book they want.

But the catch of the day for me, as I’m sure it will be for you, was coming across a list of “100 favourite fictional characters as chosen by 100 literary luminaries” which The Independent put together for World Book Day a few years ago. Two books which I adore each had three different characters chosen: Great Expectations and Catch 22. There are two characters from The Magic Mountain, there are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Molly and Leopold Bloom although no Stephen Dedalus, there were the obligatory Jane Austens -- and animals make up a fantastic five percent of the choices: Toad from Frog and Toad, the Elephant’s Child, Paddington Bear, Moby Dick and Bigwig from Watership Down. Or even more than five percent, if the Cat in the Hat is an animal (is he?).

As always with these lists, of course, half the fun is asking yourself who your choice would be. For me, the image which flashed before me was The Consul, from Under the Volcano. The Consul, who didn’t want to be saved. How I loved the glimpse into the paradise of despair. How rapt was I before his lucidity, how mesmerized by his mind. And how much I laughed, too: “Just out inspecting my jungle!” he says brightly to “God”, his nosy neighbor, when he's caught red-handed at the bottom of the garden where he has gone to recover his hidden bottle of tequila.

Some highlights from the The Independent list:

William Brown
Chosen by Barbara Trapido (The Travelling Horn Player)

"William is a child rebel in stifling suburbia. His instincts are against social climbing, pseudo-intellectualism and the humdrum. He has a flair for befriending eccentric outcasts, while cutting a swathe through village fĂȘtes."

Chosen by Tim Lott (White City Blue)

"Philip Pirrip (Pip), of Great Expectations, gripped me at the earliest age. Like him, I had hopes of escaping the loving, but limited, quotidian world that surrounded me. And, like Pip, I learnt to be ashamed of those good people that I loved and then bitterly ashamed of that shame."

Joe Gargery
Chosen by Maeve Binchy (Nights of Rain and Stars)

"Joe Gargery in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations is so decent and so real that you always think you know him. Eager and ambitious for the poisonous Pip, Joe is humble and self-effacing. He makes me cry."

Miss Havisham
Chosen by John Burnside (The Good Neighbour)

"There's nothing more attractive in a character than unshakeable obsession. I love Great Expectations' Miss Havisham because she won't remove that wedding dress, even as she recognises the random nature of her revenge. I was inconsolable when she vanishes into the flames."

Philip Marlowe
Chosen by Michael Connelly (The Narrows)

"Philip Marlowe, the private detective created by Raymond Chandler, is the most inspirational and influential character I have ever met. He chimed with all my fantasies of heroism and toughness and loneliness."

Madame Bovary

Chosen by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas)

"I can't pick just one, but at the Fictional People Awards Ceremony I hope they put me on a table with Mikhail Bulgakov's Devil and Robert Bolt's Thomas More, for their erudition and conversation. The Cheshire Cat would be welcome for his humour and his knack with practical metaphysics. Finally, Madame Bovary should fumble her way to our table, flushed-looking and late, to dish some dirt on the judges."

The Cat in The Hat
Chosen by Peter Florence (the director of the Hay Festival)

"Morgan le Fay is my dream girl, Odysseus my hero guy, but the character I've really loved is Dr Seuss's the Cat in The Hat: a total anarchist getting away with it. Torturing the sanctimonious fish appealed, too."

Humbert Humbert
Chosen by Andrew Miller (Oxygen)

"There's no funnier monster in modern literature than poor, doomed Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Going to hell in his company would always be worth the ride."

Chosen by Michael Marshall (The Lonely Dead)

"Polymorphic, unpredictable, unaccountable; omnipotent yet negligent, kind yet vicious. Suitable to any genre or period. Able to hold centre stage in plot, or work subtly in deep background. Never requires a deus ex machina. A character you can immerse yourself in, forever."

Hannibal Lecter
Chosen by Pauline McLynn (comedian and author)

"Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter has exquisite taste, is well read, surrounds himself with utter beauty and is the meanest killing machine on the face of the literary earth. I wouldn't mind him eating my kidneys as long as he fed me an excellent bottle of red wine beforehand."

Moby Dick
Chosen by Robert Crais (The Forgotten Man)

"The great white whale himself. With no dialogue and damned little screen time, his presence powers a cast of unforgettable characters across a canvas as deep and wide as the sea, and has kept their quest alive in our dreams across the generations."

Sally Jay Gorce
Chosen by Alexandra Pringle, (editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury)

"Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado and Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's were both published in 1958, and perhaps there was something about post-war, pre-Sixties bohemia that produced two of the most appealing heroines ever. For me, Sally Jay is just that bit tougher, funnier and more mordant than Holly Golightly."

Chosen by William Sutcliffe (Are You Experienced?)

"Can there be a more thrilling voice in fiction than Catch-22's Yossarian? From the first page, in which he malingers in hospital with 'a pain in his liver' you feel you want to spend more time with this guy. In Yossarian, Joseph Heller minted a counter-culture Everyman for the late 20th century."

Chosen by Will Self (author and journalist)

"In Catch-22, Dunbar believes he can increase his lifespan by cultivating boredom because every hour he lives through in a state of tedium seems far, far longer than one in which he is interested. His subversive attitudes lead to him being 'disappeared' by the nebulous authorities."

Chosen by Michael Rosen (children's author)

"The portrayal of Catch-22's Milo Minderbender is a wonderful evocation of the crooks and spivs who surround any army of occupation. He is distinctive for using the abnormality of war to make money."

Dr Watson
Chosen by Judith Kerr (The Tiger Who Came to Tea)

"There is something appealing about a man who stows his stethoscope under his top hat. Modest to a degree, Watson does not bother us with facts about himself, since Sherlock Holmes is so much more important. His only irritating habit is the way he refers to some of Holmes's cases without telling us the full story."

Sherlock Holmes
Chosen by AN Wilson (Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her)

"Sherlock Holmes is a deductive genius, using his analytic mind for the good. His druggie life is both gloriously detached and also more deeply engaged with the crime-ridden, class-divided, evil world of late-Victorian London."

James Bond
Chosen by Ken Follet (White Out)

"I read Casino Royale, when I was 12. It changed my life. Bond knew about all that intrigued me: cars, cocktails, guns, and -- most of all -- girls."

(view the entire list on www.independent.co.uk )

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