Monday, November 26, 2012

And oh, I'm ashamed.

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 12 Number 2

by Robert Louis Stevenson

I can't believe it's true, but I've never read any Robert Louis Stevenson. Well..."never read any" is a little exaggerated: I mean, I've read A Child's Garden of Verses, of course, and some of Dr. Jekyll, and I read Treasure Island as a child, but it was abridged and paraphrased and condensed and so on. You couldn't hear RLS's voice at all.

Maybe what I mean is, I've never read anything that made me appreciate Robert Louis Stevenson as he deserves to be appreciated.

I picked up "Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes" in the death throes of my bookstore, and started reading it in the bath last night. By page 20, I had to get out: I was laughing so hard I thought I might displace 40 gallons of Epsom salt solution onto the floor.

There's no point whatsoever in quoting lines from this book in the hopes of interesting you and persuading you to look it up in your library. You just wouldn't get the spirit of it from mere lines. So I'm going to not quote, but excerpt; and hope that it makes you laugh as much as it did me. And I should tell you - he goes on for 20 pages like this, and every page is funnier than the last.

The bell of Monastier was just striking nine as I got quit of these preliminary troubles and descended the hill through the common. As long as I was within sight of the windows, a secret shame and the fear of some laughable defeat withheld me from tampering with Modestine. She tripped along upon her four small hoofs with a sober daintiness of gait; from time to time she shook her ears or her tail; and she looked so small under the bundle that my mind misgave me. We got across the ford without difficulty -- there was no doubt about the matter, she was docility itself -- and once on the other bank, where the road begins to mount through pine-woods, I took in my right hand the unhallowed staff, and with a quaking spirit applied it to the donkey. Modestine brisked up her pace for perhaps three steps, and then relapsed into her former minuet. Another application had the same effect, and so with the third. I am worthy the name of an Englishman, and it goes against my conscience to lay my hand rudely on a female. I desisted, and looked her all over from head to foot; the poor brute's knees were trembling and her breathing was distressed; it was plain that she could go no faster on a hill. God forbid, thought I, that I should brutalize this innocent creature; let her go at her own pace, and let me patiently follow.
What that pace was, there is no word mean enough to describe; it was something as much slower than a walk as a walk is slower than a run; it kept me hanging on each foot for an incredible length of time; in five minutes it exhausted the spirit and set up a fever in all the muscles of the leg. And yet I had to keep close at hand and measure my advance exactly upon hers; for if I dropped a few yards into the rear, or went on a few yards ahead, Modestine came instantly to a halt and began to browse. The thought that this was to last from here to Alais nearly broke my heart. Of all conceivable journeys, this promised to be the most tedious. I tried to tell myself it was a lovely day; I tried to charm my foreboding spirit with tobacco; but I had a vision ever present to me of the long, long roads, up hill and down dale, and a pair of figures ever infinitesimally moving, foot by foot, a yard to the minute, and, like things enchanted in a nightmare, approaching no nearer to the goal.
In the meantime there came up behind us a tall peasant, perhaps forty years of age, of an ironical snuffy countenance, and arrayed in the green tail-coat of the country. He overtook us hand over hand, and stopped to consider our pitiful advance.
'Your donkey,' says he, 'is very old?"
I told him, I believed not.
Then, he supposed, we had come far.
I told him, we had but newly left Monastier.
'Et vouz marches comme ça !' cried he; and, throwing back his head, he laughed long and heartily. I watched him, half prepared to feel offended, until he had satisfied his mirth; and then, 'You must have no pity on these animals,' said he; and, plucking a switch out of a thicket, he began to lace Modestine about the stern-works, uttering a cry. The rogue pricked up her ears and broke into a good round pace, which she kept up without flagging, and without exhibiting the least symptom of distress, as long as the peasant kept beside us. Her former panting and shaking had been, I regret to say, a piece of comedy.
My deus ex machina, before he left me, supplied some excellent, if inhumane, advice; presented me with the switch, which he declared she would feel more tenderly than my cane; and finally taught me the true cry or masonic word of donkey-drivers, 'Proot!' All the time, he regarded me with a comical, incredulous air, which was embarrassing to confront; and smiled over my donkey-driving, as I might have smiled over his orthography, or his green tail-coat. But it was not my turn for the moment.
I was proud of my new lore, and thought I had learned the art to perfection. And certainly Modestine did wonders for the rest of the fore-noon, and I had a breathing space to look about me...In this pleasant humour I came down the hill to where Goudet stands...I hurried over my mid-day meal, and was early forth again. But, alas, as we climbed the interminable hill upon the other side, 'Proot!' seemed to have lost its virtue. I prooted like a lion, I prooted mellifluously like a sucking-dove; but Modestine would be neither softened nor intimidated. She held doggedly to her pace; nothing but a blow would move her, and that only for a second. I must follow at her heels, incessantly belabouring. A moment's pause in this ignoble toil, and she relapsed into her own private gait. I think I never heard of anyone in as mean a situation. I must reach the lake of Bouchet, where I meant to camp, before sundown, and, to have even a hope of this, I must instantly maltreat this uncomplaining animal. The sound of my own blows sickened me. Once, when I looked at her, she had a faint resemblance to a lady of my acquaintance who formerly loaded me with kindness; and this increased my horror of my cruelty. 
To make matters worse, we encountered another donkey, ranging at will upon the roadside; and this other donkey chanced to be a gentleman. He and Modestine met nickering for joy, and I had to separate the pair and beat down their young romance with a renewed and feverish bastinado. If the other donkey had had the heart of a male under his hide, he would have fallen upon me tooth and hoof; and this was a kind of consolation -- he was plainly unworthy of Modestine's affection. But the incident saddened me, as did everything that spoke of my donkey's sex.
It was blazing hot up the valley, windless, with vehement sun upon my shoulders; and I had to labour so consistently with my stick that the sweat ran into my eyes...A priest, with six or seven others, was examining a church in need of repair, and he and his acolytes laughed loudly as they saw my plight. I remembered having laughed myself when I had seen good men struggling with adversity in the person of a jackass, and the recollection filled me with penitence. That was in my old light days, before this trouble came upon me. God knows at least that I shall never laugh again, thought I.
-from Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes,
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Century Publishing, 1985

Not all the books I review on Erudite Mondays, and tag with "Erudition", actually constitute good reading. I use the term "Erudite", which means well-read, to cover all my reading and reviewing. This book, I'm pleased and satisfied to say, DOES qualify as good reading. It's not "good and difficult", as Dickens can sometimes be; it's not "good and pedantic", as Anne Brontë; it's just a well-written and well-paced book by a person who had a sometimes-underappreciated knack for words.

If you have read it, or if you decide to track it down after this review, let me know what you think. I'd love somebody to join in!


Annalea said...

Wonderful! It's in my Kindle app, even as I type. Just gotta finish this regency first . . . ;o) I'm always excited to get a head's up on a good, old, book.

Belinda said...

Oh,I read and laughed out loud, over and over! I imagine RLS doing this as a stand up comedy routine and having an audience in stitches, or reading over the radio like Stuart MacLean and his Vinyl Cafe. So funny! Thank you for the laughter.