June 02, 2017

A.N. Wilson on "Resolution: a novel of the boy who sailed with Captain Cook" at AWF17

A.N. Wilson

Oh no! Not at the ASB Theatre! At the Heartland Festival Room! Run for it, Karen!

Scooting in as the Town Hall clock chimed, I felt as if I'd plunged into a revival meeting: a giant tent (later recognised as the erstwhile Spiegeltent) packed with faithful, all eyes turned to a man standing alone on a little stage, reaching up his arm, finger pointed.

Unlike the Texas tent show at the start of Blood meridian, however, these faithful were all regular bathers, so the air reeked only of the coffees being clutched at this morning session, and the man was not a reverend, although he had at one point been on his way to becoming one. I was at the Writers Festival and the man was A.N. Wilson, historian, biographer, and novelist, about whom I'd been curious for years, seeing his name come up time and time again in connection with waspish comments, contrary opinions, literary scraps.

And here he was in person, pointing to a large digital screen above him on which was written "George Forster, Librarian, World Circumnavigator and Revolutionary".

"You don't often think of librarians as revolutionaries", he was saying. And I, of course, "What?" He illustrated his point with a librarian in a Barbara Pym novel, whose most praiseworthy characteristic was being a wizard of something ineffably conservative, possibly cataloguing. I can't remember, I was too distracted by wondering if didn't he know that Audre Lorde was a librarian? that Mao was a librarian, well, not quite, but assistant to a librarian, the head librarian at the University of Beijing?

George Forster, on the other hand, was himself a head librarian, at the University of Mainz in Germany, where he was an important figure of the Enlightenment and then active in the Jacobin movement, travelling to Paris after the revolution. One of his friends there was a certain Adam Lux -- just as I was thinking, what a fine name for a revolutionary, Wilson commented "a nice name if you don't think of soap flakes" --  who unwisely wrote a poem about the death of Marat. Dryly, "We don't know what was in his head, because his head was chopped off." Forster, by now outlawed from returning to Germany, died penniless in Paris -- of pneumonia, not the Terror, aged only 40.

But the book A.N. Wilson was there to talk to us about, his new historical novel Resolution, picks up Forster at a much earlier time, a time it would be tempting to call a happier time if it weren't so hard to use the word 'happy' with George.

"One of the things you knew about George Forster if you knew him was that he was the boy who had sailed with Cook around the world" says Wilson. He was just 17 at the start of the voyage, Cook's second expedition to the Southern Hemisphere. He had been taken along as assistant to his father, Reinhold, who had landed the naturalist role on this expedition, which, Wilson was at pains to explain to us, was not about colonisation, but a hunt for knowledge.

Reinhold Forster! It was finding his journals of the voyage in a secondhand bookshop that attracted Wilson's interest. "I couldn't stop laughing!" he said. However, this infuriating and contentious man, despite his journals inspiring such laughter, seems to have had no sense of humour at all. On top of being dogmatic and pretentious.

His son revealed an immense talent for illustration (superb renderings of the flora and fauna encountered on the expedition stops), observation (of much more than just the flora and fauna), and recording: once back in England, George wrote a report of the journey, which he called A voyage round the world. It was a huge hit. Some people consider it the first work of travel literature.

Some also found some of George's descriptions somewhat erotic. Here's Wilson's comment, in full, worth every bit of space for how it captures his (to me extremely enjoyable) style:  "You probably remember if you're fond of reading Boswell's life of Johnson, as I am, that Johnson loathed George Forster. In the book there was a scene about Tahitian women swimming which Boswell read over and over again. He told Johnson he liked the style. Johnson said the book had no style."

George had little style as well, and little contentment in the rest of his life. He was ugly (and having had all his teeth fall out from scurvy on the expedition, for refusing to eat up his sauerkraut and roast penguin, didn't help), made a bad marriage, and ended his days in exile, as we have seen, and died pretty much alone.

Every step of the way, the A.N.Wilson wit was all that I had imagined, dry, unpredictable, as mischievous as needed without playing to the peanut gallery. On the occasion of the usual 'wait for the roving mike' line, we had "Roving Mike sounds like an Irish tinker".

But then, just before the end, he gave us another side of himself. One of the main reasons he decided to write the story as a novel, he said, was to explore George's relationship with his father, his shame at his father's idiotic ways.

"I was a much younger son of a father who was more than fifty when I was born, and I spent a lot of time with him. I saw that other people saw him differently than I -- I saw later that they thought he was a terrible bore, and I now see he was, among other lovable things."

And then, before anyone could descend into sentimentalism, he looked straight at us, put down the imaginary pointer he had seemed to be holding, and smiled at us. "I think we've reached the end of the Knickerbocker Glory" he said.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 17:28


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