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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Strange Bedfellows? Not really. Now Reading - RL Stevenson and Somerset Maugham.

the cover of dr jekyll & mr hyde, wordsworth press edition
Cover illustration on this Wordsworth Press edition by Nathan Clair
I'm presently reading Robert Louis Stevenson's tale The Merry Men.  It's in an edition that includes Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde along with some other stories.
A few thoughts occurred to me just now.  Stevenson is one of my favourite writers (one of his quotes is at the top of the blog - it's from Treasure Island).   I don't read much, if any, contemporary fiction.  There is so much to  discover in the past.   For example,  I continue to dip in and out of the massive volume of Somerset Maugham short stories that I mentioned some time ago.  There's only one out of the forty or so that I've read so far that I haven't enjoyed.
It strikes me that Stevenson and Maugham are both consummate story tellers.  That's a gift and it cannot be taught.  Rather, it can be fined to an art through practice.  I've read early Maugham and he definitely improved - like polishing good silver. Stevenson was different - he was a genius who hit the ground running.  He didn't really need to practise - it was all there.   Stevenson spins yarns. He had what I think of as a musical imagination.  It sings to you, of the sea and glinting pewter mugs and shafts of sunlight and shipwrecks and the ruby glow of claret by a driftwood fire and all manner of wondrous things, with never a jarring note.  Maugham on the other hand is a society gossip.  You can imagine sitting with him on a chintz sofa by a country house fire or in a slightly decadent art deco London flat, smoking a cigarette and sipping cocktails, riveted by his tales of this person and that. His character sketches are supreme, and his plots are elegant.  He is a master, an absolute master.
What has occurred to me through reading them is this.   One must as a writer progress from the stage of spewing forth one's own 'shit'.  If you want to produce anything decent you have to realise when you're doing that, and STOP.  You have to start Making Stuff Up.  By all means use your 'shit' as fertiliser - but that is all it should be.
I should say something about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde now, shouldn't I - although I think there's little I can add to the screeds of academic treatises and analyses, the pastiches, the parodies, the rip-offs and goodness knows what all that have spiralled out from what is a very short tale.  There's been so much written about it and so many films that it's taken me - a Stevenson fan - till middle age to actually read the actual book.
It didn't fail me.  It's a marvellous tale, different to any of the films I've seen.  Two things struck me in particular. One is that Jekyll is arguably, or on second thoughts definitely, the real villain.  Or is he?  That is something I will enjoy puzzling over. The other is the detail of the sizing of the clothes, which I don't think is mentioned in any of the films I've seen - Hyde is much smaller physically than Jekyll, and each time a transformation takes place he must change into new clothes.  Once the involuntary transformations begin to occur, he has a problem and ends up shuffling through the streets with trousers that are much too long - sort of the Incredible Hulk in reverse.

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