Apr. 16th, 2006

rfmcdonald: (Default)
Alberto Manguel's 2004 novella Stevenson Under the Palm Trees shows the evidence of Manguel's friend Jorge Louis Borges in its invocation of the sort of reality so clearly delineated as to appear hallucinatory and powerful. Manguel draws upon the malaise that Robert Louis Stevenson felt in the last months of his life, spent in residence with his family in what was then the German colony of Samoa, where he had gone to live in an effort to survive his consumption.

For a time during the summer of 1894 Stevenson felt depressed; he wondered if he had not exhausted his creative vein and completely worked himself out. He wrote that he had "overworked bitterly". He felt more clearly, with each fresh attempt, that the best he could write was "ditch water". He even feared that he might again become a helpless invalid. Against this idea he rebelled: "I wish to die in my boots; no more land of counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse - ay, to be hanged rather than pass again through that slow dissolution." Then suddenly he had a return of his old energy and he began work on Weir of Hermiston. "It's so good that it frightens me," he is reported to have exclaimed. He felt that this was the best work he had done. He was convinced, "sick and well, I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little ... take it all over, I would hardly change with any man of my time."

Without knowing it he was to have his wish fulfilled. During the morning of December 3, 1894, he had worked hard as usual on
Weir of Hermiston. During the evening while conversing with his wife and straining to open a bottle of wine, he suddenly fell to the ground, saying his face had changed to another's. He died within a few hours, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 44. The natives insisted on surrounding his body with a watch-guard during the night, and on bearing their Tusitala (Samoan language for "Teller of Tales") several miles upon their shoulders to the top of a cliff overlooking the sea, he was buried.


Stevenson Under the Palm Trees is Manguel's effort to answer the implicit question of just what was bedevilling Stevenson at the end. Though Manguel's prose shows the influence of the sort of faintly breathless Canlit that leaves me cold, it's still well-constructed enough to be an enjoyable little piece of philosophical fiction, concerned about the nature of suffering and the unequal distribution of pleasure in the lives of human beings, all in the context of the Western encounter with a Polynesia still imagined to bear the mark of Rousseau. At the risk of revealing spoilers, I can't say which of Stevenson's tropes Manguel uses; rest assured that he uses it well.
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