Treasured island

9th December 1994 at 00:00
The Teller of Tales: In Search of Robert Louis Stevenson, By Hunter Davies Sinclair-Stevenson Pounds 17.99, 1 85619 263 6. Brian Morton follows Stevenson on the centenary of his death. They have followed Stevenson with donkeys to the Cevennes, on canoes in northern France, over the Appin heather, to Monterey and San Francisco, and beyond to Samoa, where Tusitala, the teller of tales, is lovingly buried.

Afterward have been many "quests for" and "in the steps of" RLS. Virtually all have confirmed the truth of what Norman Sherry found in his gruelling pursuit of Graham Greene: that merely to retrace a life's paths is not enough. A writer's geography is as much inward as external, and while Stevenson's were more exotic than most, certainly for his time, it was inland voyaging (in a more literal sense the subject of his first book) that yielded the most remarkable perceptions. No physical itinerary could possibly explain The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Weir of Hermiston, that brilliant torso cut short by death in 1894.

Hunter Davies's contribution to the centenary succeeds largely because it makes no great effort to explain the unexplainable. The Teller of Tales is not lit crit, but nor is it strictly biography, either. It is a much more personal engagement with an author whose readers - Scots especially, men mostly - still feel they know as a personal friend, and Davies does it in a medium at which Stevenson was also a master. Physical distance lent his letter-writing an importance it would not have had if he had merely transplanted to London, and though the correspondence has frustrating gaps (many of them dictated by late-Victorian morals), it is the key to the man.

Davies addresses "Louis" - which he chose to be called, with the s sounded - with a combination of wry camaraderie and polite reserve, describing to him the familiar round of the RLS pilgrimage. He gains entry to houses in Edinburgh's New Town, hires a donkey, jets to the last place in the world still free of Aids to see the only home RLS ever owned, and the not-quite-finished Stevenson Museum. By this stage, he is addressing him as "Boy". They are able to share a laddish giggle over Princeton professor Elaine Showalter's conviction that the "chocolate brown fog" leading to Hyde's back door, and the repeated use of "queer" somehow proved that Jekyll and Hyde was a gay romance, still in the fumey closet of experimentation. Davies knows, and Stevenson might even have conceded, though he didn't like to see sexual reductivism at play on it, that the story is big enough to sustain a multitude of interpretations.

Davies finds (research purposes only) a gay bar on Samoa and uncovers the tradition of fa'afafine, a process also familiar among Native American people - for which, see Little Big Man - whereby men can opt out of the more macho pursuits, either temporarily, for a little dressing up, or for life. In a sense that is what Stevenson did. An only son, and a cossetted one, he politely declined an engineered and engineering destiny, declined physical parenthood (if he was capable of it in any case), and found himself in his last years at the head of a motley ready-made family in which gender and generation roles seem to have been suspended.

Yet, however overstated Showalter's case, even as lit crit, it opens up an important aspect of Stevenson. More than any writer since Cooper he was able to communicate what would now be called male bonding, and to do so without an explicitly sexual component. If that makes him a "boys' writer",or reduces Treasure Island and Kidnapped to the "juvenile" shelves so much the worse.

Davies has got closer to Stevenson than most biographers and critics by allowing himself to partake of the misunderstood cathexis that binds boys and men to stories like these, and to their playful author. The Teller of Tales is worth a hundred Borgesian analyses and a hundredweight of psychoanalytic speculation.

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