Man’s one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality …. Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate …. The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material . . . but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant. – Robert Louis Stevenson
An interesting and slightly obscure fact about the author in this book review: Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James were friends. I know, right? As odd couples go, Stevenson, one of the greatest adventure writers and James, he of “the figure in the carpet”contemplation, make no sense. But James admired Stevenson’s style and his ability to captivate readers with intricate and engrossing plots involving pirates, smugglers, and scientists mucking about with dangerous experiments designed to separate good and evil. Stevenson admired James for his insight into character (and psychology, though perhaps he didn’t use that term) and for his ability to portray nuanced, believable female characters – a skill Stevenson never quite mastered (though he got better in his later South Seas tales).
Having long since moved past both my reading lists for 2013, I pulled a paperback copy of The Great Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson that I bought in a used book store during my undergraduate days (it’s the 1964 Washington Square edition and cost 45 cents new) from my studio book shelves. Part of my motivation was the season: I’d just finished Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the first story in this work is “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – a perfect follow up for a Halloween reading jag. Stevenson’s great classic doppelganger tale features the use of multiple narrative devices ( and p.o.v.’s). What it doesn’t contain (which may come as a shock to those only familiar with the story through the classic or contemporary films) any significant female characters. In fact, Henry James’s chief complaint against Stevenson’s work was the lack of credible female characters. (Stevenson’s chief complaint against James’s work was that there is no action. I leave it to the reader to decide which author’s criticism strikes home most truly.)
The other stories in this collection cover the range of Stevenson’s interests: “A Lodging for the Night” and “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door” offer historical fiction full of vibrant characters (the former features French poet François Villon as its protagonist); “Markheim” explores the psychology of a murderer (and another doppelganger experience); the series of interconnected tales known as “The Suicide Club” features an aristocratic crime fighter a little like Sherlock Holmes, a little like Bruce Wayne; and “The Bottle Imp” and “The Beach of Falesá” draw on Stevenson’s South Seas knowledge (and offer his most interesting and best developed female characters, both of whom are Polynesian).
There is one story not mentioned above. “The Pavilion on the Links” has a favorite Stevenson setting, the wastes of the Scottish links, features historical elements (the revenge of Italian patriots against an English banker whose bank has failed due to his reckless speculations and lost their money) and, a surprising element – a love story, indeed, a love triangle, at its center. It certainly has the Stevenson hallmarks – action, adventure, suspense – but it has something more. At the center of this story is a narrator trying to do all those things mentioned in the quote that began this review: make sense of a life full of the illogical, abrupt, poignant. It’s a lovely piece of writing, and one can see the author at work (not unlike reading Austen’s Mansfield Park). And there’s more than a touch of Henry James style psychological analysis. It is as if Stevenson tried from first to last to reach this goal he describes near his all too brief life’s end:
I cannot get used to this world, to procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest things are a burthen. The prim obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic—or maenadic—foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me.
Stevenson is a great storyteller. He’s also a great writer. The two don’t always go together. When they do, as in these stories, the result is riveting.