Tusitala*, Kepler, and Doctor Copernicus

August 5, 2012

If you live in Edinburgh and you like books, there are four altars you must kneel before : Jo Rowling, Ian Rankin, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are of course other demi-gods – Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Banks, Muriel Spark – and we will ignore the poets, and the Weegie pretenders. It seems that JK, The Rankin, Scott and RLS get the great majority of the burnt offerings.

I won’t pontificate about Rowling and Rankin because even though I don’t know them, there is a finite chance of bumping into a friend of a colleague of a friend and somehow it doesn’t feel right. Edinbrr is a small town. Suffice it to say that their fame is richly deserved.

Scott is something else. He used to be so popular that the city built him a huge monument on Princes Street. Its the one that looks like Thunderbird Three.  Even Jakey doesn’t have a monument yet. But now almost nobody reads Scott, and I am one of those nobodies. Somehow I am not even tempted to pick up some Walter Scott. Nobody now is discovering his books and having their lives changed; he is just a kind of strange ghostly Edinburgh resonance, hovering over everything but devoid of substance.

So what of RLS ? Is he just another Edinburgh pet, or a force in literature, and an enduring marvel ? Ripping Yarns or Psychological Master ?  I really can’t decide. I just finished reading “The Master of Ballantrae” and I think it is his best. But I still can’t decide.

This next bit is in danger of sounding pompous, so forgive me because I am just trying to be honest. I do have a distinction in my head between certainly deeply affecting books/authors and other entertaining, possibly important, but not so affecting books. I won’t use the dreaded word “literature” as I don’t want to say that Group A is definitely “better”; just that some books shake me up and some don’t. Mostly the difference, and the intention of the author, is obvious. After reading Milan Kundera, my life had changed; when I read Dan Brown, I pass a very pleasant few hours – and unlike many, I do think that Brown is a very skilled writer. He does exactly what he means to do.

There is whole class of British Novelists who are very famous, and generally classed as “literature” but who just don’t mess with my head – Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley. I love reading their books but my jaw never drops.  Most days RLS feels like he belongs in this band. But I just don’t know. Jekyll and Hyde speaks to something deep, and by the end of The Master of Ballantrae I wasn’t quite sure who I liked or believed.

I can’t resist a little astro-literature example. (There aren’t many !) I read  The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth  by Stuart Clark, a fictionalised biography of Kepler. Well I thought this was a jolly fine book. An excellent read, real fun, and a good exposition of the historical setting. Then I read Doctor Copernicus by John Banville. At the end of this book I felt utterly drained. There are in fact some similarities with The Master of Ballantrae; a tale of two brothers, the distortions of bitterness, and the use of unreliable narrators. But the insights are more shattering.

Read it.

* Tusitala = Teller of Tales; what the Samoans called RLS during his final days