After a lifetime’s research, Roger Swearingen may be the man to finally do Robert Louis Stevenson justice, says Robert McCrum
Last week I had a visit from a man with whom I’ve corresponded, on and off, for about 30 years, but had never met. Our subject? The great, but neglected, author of some of the world’s most unforgettable tales: Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. For more elevated literary tastes there’s that ur-travelogue, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, an unfinished masterpiece, Weir of Hermiston, and a priceless screwball comedy, The Wrong Box, co-written with Lloyd Osbourne. Every one of these titles bears the hallmark of greatness because their author was not merely a born storyteller but also a master stylist, a literary craftsman engaged on an eternal search for the mot juste.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s life is just as fascinating – romantic, bohemian and finally tragic, cut short in 1894 at the age of 44 by a brain haemorrhage brought on by rampant tuberculosis on Samoa. In his own time, Stevenson was something of a literary celebrity, who nurtured his own legend with such deft brilliance that no one has ever completed a definitive biography. There have been several botched efforts, some inspired “homages”, notably Nick Rankin’s Dead Man’s Chest, and two or three half-good lives. But nothing on the scale of, say, Ellmann’s Joyce or Holroyd’s Shaw.
This drought may be almost over. My Californian pen pal, Roger Swearingen, has dedicated his life to researching Stevenson’s short career. That’s hardly an exaggeration. A former university teacher and now a technical writer with Hewlett-Packard, Swearingen has devoted 40-something years to scraping away the myths that have accumulated around RLS. When we finally met, he told me he is on the brink of delivering his magnum opus to the publisher. It will be interesting to see what he has come up with. One thing is certain: there will be no Stevensonian brevity. Swearingen is talking about at least 500 pages.
Perhaps that’s overdue. Stevenson’s literary afterlife is strangely interesting. His influence on writers as diverse as Graham Greene and Muriel Spark has been profound, but his reputation has suffered from the vicissitudes of fashion and been blighted by a “boys’ book” tag.
To the Edwardians, he was a god. Then came modernism. The nomadic Scots storyteller with the crystal pen got the fuzzy end of the literary critical lollypop. Taken up by Hollywood and popular culture, Stevenson the artist was trumped by Stevenson the popular entertainer. The creator of such world-class archetypes as Long John Silver distracted readers’ attention from his lambent style and faultless ear.
While postmodernism, which affected disdain for the pleasures of narrative, was the dominant orthodoxy, Stevenson was ignored. During the 1990s, a new generation of academic critics, with interests in gender studies, psychoanalysis and post-imperial culture, discovered that Stevenson is a subtle student of the divided and the outcast self. Behind the “yo ho ho” was a lyrical imagination far more radical and transgressive than had been appreciated.
Ironically, it’s Stevenson’s unwavering commitment to storytelling that makes him contemporary once more. As the wheel of literary fortune continues to spin, and narrative gets restored to its proper place, Stevenson’s insights are enjoying a new currency. Philip Pullman’s retelling of the gospels, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate £16.99), surely owes a small debt to Jekyll and Hyde.
Pullman has said, unequivocally, that “storytelling is essential to human existence”, an utterly Stevensonian sentiment. Simultaneously, there’s the news that Andrew Motion is to write a sequel to Treasure Island, something that’s been attempted two or three times before, with mixed results.
If the retired poet laureate can come up with a better first chapter than “The Old Sea-Dog at the Admiral Benbow”, or a more perfect opening line than “Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island”, etc, I will eat the Observer, with a side order of haggis and a chaser of good malt whisky. A mature Macallan will do fine.