Exploring the Extreme
400 Years of Adventure
Marilyn J. Landis
(Chicago Review Press)
There are so many warm bucolic places on earth god knows why any one would want to go on a ramble to the far south. Maybe it is a class thing. For sure, no one from the tenements of Brooklyn or Cheapside or the bowels of Calcutta is going to turn up in Antarctica, since transportation there and back is a matter of ten thousand dollars or so, plus the lack of ghetto-style hotel accommodations.
Four hundred years ago they had some reason to journey there: they went to find and murder whales, seals, walrus, otter and penguin. A hundred years ago they became more sophisticated: they went to murder themselves --- suicide in the form of turning into an ice cube while conducting scientific research.
For whatever reasons, the thought of having your nose or your ears or your rear getting frostbite as you are attending to nature's demands strikes us as about the silliest thing in the world. And to go for no other reason than, for instance, to discover the geographic South Pole, as Dumont D'Urville did in 1837, or to hunt the egg of the Emperor Penguin as did Apsley Cherry-Garrard in 1911 (which he recounted in the book The Worst Journey in the World ) seems as wasteful as it is painful.
All this frigid moving about seems particularly dumb when we could spend a nice summer month in Santa Barbara or in Avignon or (if you want cool summer weather) in Buenos Aires: to do other than this seems to us to be the essence of gentlemanly nuttiness.
Be that as it may, some of the most noted explorers have trekked to, for instance, Cape Circumcision (named after Ivar Circumcision, the famous 17th century Russian counter-tenor) including Captain James Cook, Jean-Baptiste Charcot, Ernest Shackleton, and the greatest exploring bumbler of all times, Robert Falcon Scott who, being a delusional type, single-handedly managed to pull some very brave fellows into his fantasy ice world and thereby caused them a frigid departure from (it might be called) this vale of frozen tears.
Ms. Landis has collected here 400 years of this nonsense, but she hasn't done a very interesting job of it. First off, her writing style is of the brief wooden lumpy school ("Ferdinand Magellan was a small, wiry, unassuming man with a severe limp, a permanent reminder of Portugal's war with the Moors..." "Campbell Island is untamed and timeless, a wild Scottish Brigadoon that awakens when shafts of sunlight penetrate the heavy gray mist...").
The whole mess has the feel of striving for maximum minimal comprehensiveness. Thus John Biscoe's 1830 venture "to seek new lands in the high southern latitudes" gets five pages but to what end? There was scurvy and frostbite and vessels locked in ice and terrible storms, but for all the intrepid explorers of the day there was scurvy, frostbite, etc. By trying to be all-encumbering, Ms. Landis manages only to be repetitive. If she had decided to pick four or five of the more interesting journeys --- certainly Scott's, perhaps Cook's --- it might have worked out to be more like a piece of art and less like a thesis for a class in Geography 323 at Tierra del Fuego State U.--- Violette de Mazia
H. Rider Haggard
Gerald Monsman, Editor
(Broadview Literary Texts)If I were writing about this one for the National Enquirer, I would title it:
For that's one of the many delightful literary aperçus in King Solomon's Mines. It seems that Sir Henry Curtis, Captain Good, and our narrator, Quatermain, seeking the treasure of a lifetime, are led by a wicked old lady into a mountain repository, containing "untold treasures" --- gold coins, trunks full of diamonds, elephant tusks. But as they are counting their bounty, the witch Gagool sneaks out and trips a lever that brings down the stone door guarding the treasure. Unfortunately for her, she is tripped up , falls in the doorway, and
Gagool throws herself on the ground, to twist herself like a snake through the crack of the closing stone. She is under --- ah, God! too late! too late! The stone nips her, and she yells in agony. Down, down, it comes, all the thirty tons of it, slowly pressing her old body against the rock below. Shriek upon shriek, such as we never heard, then a long sickening crunch...
We've heard about this treasure-
tale for years, and to our good fortune, and Solomon's, too, Broadview has reprinted it, with copious footnotes, most of which are more than helpful. And so we find ourselves with these three characters, trapped in the dark rooms, nothing to drink, nor to eat, except gold, and diamonds, and tusks. It's a rousing good adventure story, one which was immensely popular on its publication in 1885. It is easy to see why --- it's a story helped along by a quick cinematic plot-line, complete with great suffering, the promise of great wealth, a run-in with the wicked king Twala, who murders his subjects without regard, in his paradise located in the midst of an insufferably impossible desert --- three characters including the good and comic Captain Good, the brave and upright Sir Henry, and narrator Quatermain, who, amidst all the blood-letting in battle and impossible desert and mountain treks, admits to being a coward. Indeed, his style is more or less that of a late-Victorian Kit Marlowe.
King Solomon's Mines works on several levels, not the least is that Haggard knows not only how to tell a story, but he strings together enough facts to make his fantasy work. There is an illnesses called "lung sick" that can plague their primary beast of burden; to avoid it, one has to inoculate them
by cutting a slit in the tail of an ox, and binding in a piece of the diseased lung of an animal which has died of the sickness. The result is that the ox sickens, takes the disease in a mild form, which causes its tail to drop off, as a rule about a foot from the root, and becomes proof against future attacks.
To top off his myriad facts, he adds this artful touch of reality:
It does look odd to trek along behind twenty stumps, where there ought to be tails. It seems as though nature had made a trifling mistake, and stuck the stern ornaments of a lot of prize bulldogs on to the rumps of the oxen.
It is this endearing style of writing which captures the reader, along with an encyclopædic knowledge of the continent. Haggard knows the world of Africa --- knows the Bantu and the Afrikaans and the English alike, knows the language, and even knows how to mock his own elaborate story. When Good et al arrive in glorious Kukuanaland after a near-fatal trek across the desert, their loyal companion, Umbopa, soon-to-be-
revealed as rightful king of their newly- discovered world, engages in elaborate speech with the Kukuanalandians, which, at one point, says the narrator, one has to "adopt the language of hyperbole in which all these people seem to indulge." § § §
The joy in all this is more than the mere adventure and the precise language; there are fine undertones. Being quintessential Victorian, Haggard could not allow himself to show us the more interesting sensual aspects of life --- so he hides them in images. Good is described as having "beautiful white legs," which the natives worship. The very place they seek can be seen across the desert,
shaped exactly like a woman's breasts. Their bases swelled gently up from the plain, looking, at that distance, perfectly round and smooth; and on the top of each was a vast round hillock covered with snow, exactly corresponding to the nipple on the female breast.
Umbopa, their "kaffir" traveling companion, is suddenly revealed as royalty by means of a tattoo which can only be seen when he is buck naked --- and the tattoo itself carries an obvious implication of fellation. When he proclaims, "I am ... the rightful king of the Kukuanas!"
With a single movement he slipped off the "moocha" or girdle around his middle, and stood naked before us.
"Look," he said: "what is this?" And he pointed to the mark of a great snake tattooed in blue round his middle, its tail disappearing in its open mouth just above where the thighs are set into the body.
All the while, there are the charming touches of the colonial mind-set. All the many denizens of Kukuana are regal, as opposed to the others who live on that continent:
They are tall and graceful, and their figures are wonderfully fine. The hair, though short, is rather curly than woolly, the features are frequently aquiline, and the lips are not unpleasantly thick as is the case in most African races.
Captain Good falls in love with the lovely (and regal) Foulata, but then she dies, and Quatermain tells us,
No amount of beauty or refinement could have made an entanglement between Good and herself a desirable occurrence; for, as she herself put it, "Can the sun mate with the darkness, or the white with the black?"
Evil here is in the form of ancient women like Gagool, responsible for leading the one-eyed king to horrible acts of murder of his own people. White man comes along to overthrow evil and install a handsome and just new ruler. Africans are given to windy speech and much mayhem. Whites are --- for the most part --- their saviors, but in a wonderful turnaround, at the very end, the new king proclaims to the departing three that they will always be welcome to return, but as for other whites,
I will see no traders with their guns and rum... I will have no praying-men to put fear of death into men's hearts, to stir them up against the king, and make a path for the white men who follow to run on. If a white man comes to my gates, I will send him back; if a hundred come, I will push them back; if an army comes, I will make war on them with all my strength, and they shall not prevail against me.--- A. J. Risley, M.A.
(Villard)Writing a memoir is a tricky thing. First, there's the competition. Not even considering the likes of St. Augustine, Gladstone, and Grant, one has to compete with the 20th Century mavens: Sartre's Words, Galbraith's A Life in Our Times, Nabokov's Speak Memory, Joyce's neo-fictional Portrait, --- plus hundreds of the less well-known, some of which we have reviewed on these pages, those of Ram Dass, Margaret Oliphant, Jean-Robert Cadet, Sybille Bedford, Abbie Hoffman, Lee Stringer, Karl Shapiro.
The question of every editor and most readers is: what have you done that is so special that makes it so we should spend several hours on you and your life? If the importance is not there, the art must be. We read George Kennan's Memoirs because he was a key figure in the foreign policy of the United States for fifty years, being in the middle of some of the most scary and vital political decisions of the early years of the Cold War. It's a bonus that Kennan is a measured, careful, evocative writer.
Having said that, we would like to suggest that Ms. Fraser is a writer not without style, and she is no slouch in letting us in on her life as child of the hippie era, but it is diminished for her and for the reader by the confounding tangle of the men in her life, both fathers and lovers.
As a child, she danced free on the streets of Sausalito long before it was the home of the million-dollar houseboats. Her mother was a lady of tie-dye dresses with affection for dope, dago red, hot tubs, naked be-ins, and a startling variety of men. Joelle was able to float through those days relatively trouble-free, if relatively displaced (we count over a dozen homes before she reaches eighteen.)
Like her mother, she has this thing about men, and mountains of them pass through her days and these pages --- men with nice bodies and names like Johnny and Paul and Greg and the mythical "he" who gives her his New York apartment for two days before he arrives. It is difficult not to get all these fellows mixed up with Mother's collection --- Mac, Tom, Brad, Steve and "Father," that amiable drunk from Hawaii, always charming, filled with witty stories, able to get anything he wants with his words and nice face, one who could always be found in one bar or another. Bartenders, she tells us, were his best friends.
§ § §
Fraser is at her best taking us into the free-spirit moments of her childhood and on into her early triumphs: when she decides to become a cheerleader, much to her mother's distress, she tells us "I was wonderful!" Her recounting of her first love, Greg, is wonderful as well: we are there with her as she crawls into his bedroom window when he is at baseball practice, where "I folded his clothes, made the bed ... wrote him love letters and hid them in his shoes." They parked at the beach, where "we explored each other, our pale limbs tumbling." The rain would "lash the car, startling us, making us even more urgent, as if the world itself were about to lose control."
We'd hold each other, listening to the ocean, and what I felt with him was wonderful not for its newness but for its familiarity. In those moments I returned to an intimacy I'd known long ago, as if what I had wanted all along was that feeling of refuge and comfort that I had known ... with my mother and father.
Perhaps this is Fraser's forte --- the quick summary that rings true. When she flies to Las Vegas, it's "over an ocean of reddish desert, of craggy sand, rock and alkaline dirt; it was the surface of a ruined planet." Or her vision of the barfly in Spokane, who "was handsome a hundred years ago,"
but now the capillaries in his skin have assembled into maps, and if you follow one of those trails, you'll end up somewhere in Utah or the Dakotas or one of your bad dreams.
She is less successful wrestling with the big ghost of her father. She keeps returning to him again and again, but is never quite able to bring it off. She says he was a wonderful story teller, but she tells us none of his stories. He is a drunk, she thinks, because his father had a thirty-year extra-martial affair. Maybe, but for that theory to make sense we would have to know more of him and his mother and father than she is able to muster. Indeed, she worries the bone of him so long, so futilely, that we end up suspecting that, in the same way that she never got him. she will never get him right.--- Lolita Lark