This morning I finished Kidnapped (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894). The tale concerns the fortunes of David Balfour, a young man who sets out to seek his fortune but soon falls afoul of his wicked uncle, Ebeneezer. David is kidnapped — sold into slavery and shipped the Carolinas — but, aided by a timely shipwreck, escapes into the heart of Highland Scotland with his companion, Alan Breck. The Jacobite backdrop is one of the elements that elevates this story above similar pot-boilers. Another is the prose: let it be said, Stevenson is one of the most formidable prose stylists you’ll ever encounter. This guy can really write. According to Wikipedia, ‘Kidnapped’ has attracted praise from writers as diverse as Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges and Seamus Heaney, and it is not difficult to see why. This is typical:
Next day (the fourth of my travels) we were up before five upon the clock; but my rascal guide got to the bottle at once, and it was three hours before I had him clear of the house, and then (as you shall hear) only for a worse disappointment.
The temptation to draw a lesson from Stevenson’s fiction is always great, and the particular message I take home from ‘Kidnapped’ is that the writer should not be afraid to wear the hat of the poet on occasion; something of a genre piece can indeed be elevated by a little ambition, even if (as is probably true in my case) that ambition might overreach the writer’s talent. But ‘Kidnapped’ proves that it is technically possible to produce a work that is (a) a genre piece and (b) held to the standards of prose and metaphor that often comes with the label ‘literary’. As I say, while this might lead to a glorious fuck-up in my case, I can continue refining my chapters — I do between six and seven drafts a day — in the knowledge that, in the hands of master like Stevenson, ‘genreness’ and ‘literariness’ are not necessarily *immiscible.
‘Kidnapped’ is available freely at Project Gutenberg.
As an aside, I can’t help but include the text of Stevenson’s poem ‘Requiem’, which went on to serve as his epitaph:
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me;
“Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
* In a charming demonstration of the limits of my own writing ability, I’ve just realised that I’ve been spelling this word wrong for years. (I just assumed that the Word spell checker didn’t know ‘immissible’. Muppet!)