One of my favorite reads from May celebrates the art of storytelling. The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle is a novel told through the voice of Robert Louis Stevenson while he was a struggling writer in San Francisco in 1879-80. During that time Stevenson was waiting for his betrothed’s divorce to come through so that she would be free to marry him. Stevenson lived in Mrs. Carson’s boardinghouse at 608 Bush Street. These real-life facts are the starting points for Doyle’s novel.
Doyle heard about a novel that Stevenson contemplated but apparently never wrote, which was to be entitled Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: “. . . ever since I read about this unwritten book of Stevenson’s, many years ago, I have dreamed about writing it for him.”
In Doyle’s novel, Stevenson takes breaks from long days of writing by relaxing in the companionship of Mrs. Carson’s husband, John. Stevenson says, “I with great pleasure and mounting amazement pry an endless series of stories from Mrs Carson’s husband John, who has been all over the world in various ships, and has had adventures of every conceivable sort, in dense jungles and remote islands and terrible battlefields, and, he says, in blazing deserts and dripping forests and under the sea . . .”
And Mr. Carson is a gifted storyteller who transports his listeners with his words alone — something quite inspiring to an aspiring writer like Stevenson. “So it was that I began to marvel not just at Mr Carson’s tumultuous adventures, but at the man himself, and at the subtle currents of his heart; and I began to wonder if he was not very consciously and deliberately choosing particular chapters of his life to tell, in order to tell me other things, perhaps — about the nature and power of stories, about how decisions not only reflect but create character, about how stories actually shape our lives; could it be that the words we choose to have resident in our mouths act as a sort of mysterious food, and soak down into our blood and bones, and form that which we wish to be?”
This is an adventure story (Mr Carson’s tales) and an ode to the joys and power of telling stories. “. . . I reveled . . . that a man could tell a tale so riveting that time and space fell away altogether, so that when the story paused or ended, the listener — or the reader! — would be snapped awake as if from the most delicious dream, and would have to shake himself or herself for a few minutes, as you shake away the bright fading threads of dreams.”
“There is a story in everything, and every being, and every moment, were we alert to catch it, were we ready with our tender nets; indeed there are a hundred, a thousand stories, uncountable stories, could they only be lured out and appreciated; and more and more now I realize that what I thought was a skill only for authors and pastors and doctors and dream-diviners is the greatest of all human skills, the one that allows us into the heart and soul and deepest layers of our companions on the brief sunlit road between great dark wildernesses. We are here to witness, to apprehend, to see and hear, to plumb, with patience and humility, the shy stories of others; and in some cases, like mine, then shape and share them; so that they might sometimes, like inky arrows, sink into the depths of other men and women and children, and cause pleasure, or empathy, or a short of delicious pain, as you realize that someone somewhere else, even perhaps a long time ago, felt just as you did.” The vice of Stevenson goes on to say, “Stories, among their many virtues, are messages from friends you did not know you had; and while you may well never meet the friend, you feel the better, with one more companion by your side, than you thought you knew.”
This book made me want to re-read Stevenson’s classics: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll and Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses.