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". 

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30
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