Tag Archives: Robert Louis Stevenson

Marginalia, no.212

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers

A trick of alliteration will prevent forgetting: if the bark comes off in puzzle pieces, it’s a ponderosa pine. We camped all week in a grove of ponderosas and incense cedars, and when it wasn’t trees and mountains that distracted, it was birds: ravens, Steller’s jays, red-breasted sapsuckers, western tanagers, and black-headed grosbeaks. I’d spent an hour worrying which books to bring and settled on a Wodehouse collection, some Flann O’Brien, and Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness for the kids. The Jansson we serialized at bedtime, but I only managed half a Wodehouse story and a mere two paragraphs of O’Brien. No complaints, however. The best holidays are perfect failures.


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Marginalia, no.158

How are you, the apostle of laxity, to turn suddenly about into the rabbi of precision?

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque

I am never in a hurry to do anything but sit on the couch with a book and cup of tea. That’s not true. I hurry at everything but only in order to be done with it and sit unhurriedly on the couch with a book and cup of tea. Rising to the occasion – whatever that was – used to appeal to me, but mostly because it meant having some low den of abandon to rise from.

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Bull’s Eye

My daughter made a face and stamped her foot for every plume she missed, but my son was more stoical.  A nursing gray whale and baby were trolling northward past the point, surfacing at three-minute intervals to send up smoky puffs of vapor.  Then, backs arched, they would dive again, and while they dived we would count and re-count the harbor seals napping on a brief scalloped island below, or laugh at the oystercatchers fussing for possession of a rock.  Meanwhile long rows of cumuli boiled in from the Pacific and the sun poured between to stripe the sea in turquoise and steel.

An afternoon’s drive south of San Francisco, the lighthouse at Pigeon Point is a blanched column of masonry built in 1871, twenty years after the ship Carrier Pigeon cracked open on the rocks to christen the knob of headland.  At 115-feet, Pigeon Point matches the Point Arena Light for tallest on the Pacific coast.  The original half-million candlepower Fresnel lens still inhabits the glassy crown of the minaret.  The Coast Guard lights it only for holidays and special occasions.  The tower is in such a state of decay these days that it’s fenced off for twenty yards in all directions lest some falling piece of debris murder a tourist.

To my mind Robert Louis Stevenson could hardly have picked a more romantic occupation than to follow in the family business and become, like his father and grandfather, an architect of lighthouses.  The grandfather, after whom he was named, designed and built Scotland’s Bell Rock Lighthouse off the North Sea coast, famous at the time (1810) for being raised at a steep toll of lives and fortune on the merest scrap of a rock that spent twenty of every twenty-four hours below tide.

In a short piece written in 1887 to commemorate the death of his father, Stevenson wrote that although he had been a “convinced provincial” and was hardly known in London, his fame abroad was such that in Germany he was called “the Nestor of lighthouse illumination,” while in Peru it wasn’t the tales and essays of the son that were read and admired, but the technical volumes of the civil engineer. 

Though Stevenson disappointed his family in his choice of career, the supernatural image of the lighthouse must still have meant something to him.  I wonder if we don’t see it refracted in ‘The Lantern-Bearers,’ another of his late essays, in which he recollects a boyhood custom of tying a tin ‘bull’s-eye’ lantern to his belt on a summer’s night, then covering it with a coat and setting out for after-dark adventures.  In the following passage I can almost see the pale, lean tower of a boy like a sort of mobile human lighthouse with the windows blacked, daring collision in a sea of night – content with a secret illumination, and withholding it from the world:

The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.


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Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

Emperor Norton

One hundred and fifty years ago today Joshua Abraham Norton donned the purple robe of empire. I keep a portrait of him on the wall of my cubicle, near Cervantes, who despite the lapse of years might have been an appropriate godfather to him.

He had two mutt dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who followed him about. When Bummer died in 1865, Mark Twain wrote the dog’s obituary.

“In what other city,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “would a harmless madman who supposed himself emperor … been so fostered and encouraged?”

The Chronicle commemorates his reign today.  Wikipedia article here.

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On Children’s Books

One of the richer returns of parenthood is the welcome excuse to reacquaint oneself with children’s books. There are the old crowd-pleasers, of course, like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Kipling’s Just So Stories, Dr Seuss, Curious George, Madeline, Babar and all the wonderful little books by Beatrix Potter (my daughter sleeps with a copy of Mister Jeremy Fisher every night). There are other books too, some of which you may only vaguely recall or never read as a child, but which specially impress you now that you’ve trudged a certain distance into the long fog of adulthood.

Among these I would include Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances stories, several of Margaret Wise Brown’s books (including Little Fur Family, The Runaway Bunny, and her Noisy books), Wanda Gág’s marvelously illustrated Millions of Cats and The Funny Thing, some of Sendak’s more obscure pieces, Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, all of William Steig’s books, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, and James Marshall’s George and Martha collection.

The children’s books you are happiest to read now that you’re an adult aren’t always the books your children prefer to hear, however. Steig’s child protagonists (in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Amazing Bone, and Zeke Pippin, for example) are always being abducted by bandits or prepared for supper, or transformed unexpectedly into dumb boulders atop which the wolves howl hungrily through the winter snows. Which is scary stuff. And when it comes to books of poetry, they had better be illustrated. Luckily, my copy of Stevenson is chock-full of pictures, so that when I get to my favorite lines in ‘Travels’:

There I’ll come when I’m a man
With a camel caravan;
Light a fire in the gloom
Of some dusty dining room;
See the pictures on the walls,
Heroes, fights and festivals;
And in a corner find the toys
Of the old Egyptian boys,

they’re nicely matched with an ink line drawing of infant Victorians in dresses yanking the beard of Pharaoh and hugging a mummified cat. It’s sufficiently weird, anyway, for a three-year-old to puzzle over awhile as you appreciatively reread the lines.

James Marshall’s George and Martha books are as much fun for my son and daughter as they are for me, and they deserve to be more widely known. George and Martha are hippos named, curiously, after Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -only they get along much better. Each of the several George and Martha books contains five small vignettes, some of which are no longer than a couple pages. Each makes a fine little monument to the author/illustrator’s genius. My kids’ favorites include one in which George practices his fibbing, and another in which Martha attempts, with mixed results, to guilt George into giving up sweets by taking up cigar smoking herself. Marshall, it happens, was one of Maurice Sendak’s friends and was only fifty years old when he died of a brain tumor in 1992. I wish I had known his books when I was a kid.

I knew Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, however, and loved them as a child almost as much as I do now that I’m approaching fogeydom. When my kids were younger I had the opportunity to read Frog and Toad stories several times a week. My favorites include one in which Frog is ill in bed and Toad offers to keep him company and tell him a story. Frog likes the idea, but Toad can’t think of a story to tell. In an attempt to cure what sounds like a bad case of writer’s block, Toad walks back and forth on the porch, without any luck. Then he stands on his head, but still no luck. Then he pours cup after cup of cold water over his face. Finally, enraged, he rams his head into the wall. By now Frog is feeling better and Toad is feeling terrible. So they swap places and Frog asks if Toad would like a story. “Yes, Frog, if you know one,” says Toad. Frog then proceeds to tell him a funny story about someone who wanted to tell his friend a story but couldn’t think of one…

In another story, Frog gives Toad an envelope full of seeds so that he can plant a garden. Toad drops them into the soil and tells the seeds to start growing. He stands there awhile but the seeds don’t seem to be listening. He repeats himself, louder: “Now seeds, start growing!” Still nothing. This goes on until, his patience exhausted, Toad screams at the seeds and jumps up and down, commanding them to start growing. Frog comes running and explains that Toad’s seeds are probably too scared to grow and that he needs to give them time and let the rain and sun do their work. Toad feels wretched to think he might have scared his seeds, so he tries a different tack:

— He reads them stories and poems
— He sings to them
— He plays music for them
— He stays up with them night and day, which is hard work

and eventually his seeds begin to grow all on their own.  Which, it occurs to me, is a pretty good description of parenthood.


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The Child and the Spectacle

As I go on in this life, day by day, I become more of a bewildered child; 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 surface of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic –or maenadic– foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, in a letter to a friend

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Marginalia, no.7

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers

I like to think that I have a deep but sadly unexploited faculty for idleness (which, by the way, is something quite different than a tendency toward boredom). In fact, I could do with a lot more idleness in my life, but sometimes we choose busyness and sometimes busyness chooses us.

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