20 Books of Summer, #16–17: Classics by R.L. Stevenson and N. West

Doing double duty this month as my classics and two of my last few animal-themed summer reading choices are a record of a trek in France and a sleazy novella set in 1930s Hollywood.


Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

I think I decided this was a must-read because I so love Christopher Rush’s recreation of the journey in To Travel Hopefully. The problem with the original is that there doesn’t seem to have been any particular reason for walking 120 miles in 12 days with a donkey as one’s pack animal and traveling companion. “I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventurer, such as befell early and heroic voyagers,” Stevenson writes, but of all the options before him this must surely have been one of the safer choices.

As autumn comes on, Stevenson keeps being mistaken for a peddler and meeting religious extremists of various stripes, from Trappist monks to a Plymouth Brother. He stays in shared inn rooms or sleeps outdoors. He learns about the history of religious wars and martyrdom in the region. It’s the sort of material that might have inspired Guy Stagg in writing The Crossway, his account of a secular pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem. But it’s, for the most part, awfully boring. Rush at least had a good reason for undertaking his journey: after his wife’s death from breast cancer he needed a quest to take his mind off his grief.

But anyway, the donkey. Stevenson buys Modestine for 65 francs and she quickly proves to be a typical stubborn-as creature. Passersby encourage him to find an effective goad and show the beast who’s in charge.

They told me when I left, and I was ready to believe it, that before a few days I should come to love Modestine like a dog. Three days had passed, we had shared some misadventures, and my heart was still as cold as a potato towards my beast of burden. She was pretty enough to look at; but then she had given proof of dead stupidity

Between the early entries and the final ones, though, she is mostly invisible. And, regretfully, Stevenson then has to sell the poor beast again – and for only 35 francs with her saddle. That represents quite a financial loss after less than two weeks!

Ultimately, I prefer reading about Stevenson to reading his actual work. (Other examples: Nancy Horan’s novel Under the Wide and Starry Sky; the chapter of Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer in which he recreates the Cévennes trek.) My next Stevenson-themed reading will be The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst.

A lovely line: “to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden”

Wigtown gets a random mention! As he’s musing on the controversial religious history of the area: “If you met a mixed company in the King’s Arms at Wigton, it is not likely that the talk would run on Covenanters.”

(The e-book is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg, though I read a secondhand copy I’d had for ages.)

See also Kaggsy’s review: it’s more positive and includes helpful background information.

My rating:


The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939)

Boy oh boy, this is one weird and sordid little book. Like The Great Gatsby, which had been published 14 years before, it shows the seamy underbelly of a glittering American city. Here the setting is Hollywood, where Tod Hackett is a set and costume designer. He’s smitten with his neighbor, Faye Greener, a 17-year-old aspiring actress (“taut and vibrant … shiny as a new spoon”) who’s not above taking a few shifts at the brothel to make ends meet.

Tod is not the only one obsessed with Faye, though; her other suitors include Homer Simpson (so hard to take him seriously because of that name!), a sad sack from Iowa who moved to the California desert for his respiratory health; Earle Shoop the cowboy; and Miguel, a Mexican cock-fighter. Comic relief is provided by Abe Kusich, a gambling dwarf whose slang includes “lard-ass” and “punkola.” The novella opens and ends with mob scenes, but while the first takes place on a studio lot the last is dangerously real.

There are some fairly disturbing elements here. The casual racism is probably to be expected, but the violence of Tod’s fantasies about Faye startled me: “If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” But like Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby, Faye is the sort of careless person who will always come out on top – “Nothing could hurt her. She was like a cork.”

West portrays Hollywood as a wasteland of broken dreams: “the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn upon it, having first been made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath, and paint.” This was his final work before he died in a car accident in 1940. I got more out of Miss Lonelyhearts, but I’m still glad I read this Wigtown purchase. I have no idea what the title refers to, though it sounds like it might be a biblical reference.

My rating:


I’m still plugging away at my last few #20BooksofSummer and plan to write them up for the last day, September 3rd.

15 responses

  1. Ah well. Here’s some books not to add to the growing pile. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Understandable! Though West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is well worth it — in the Gatsby vein but a little bit nastier. If you ever hear of a Stevenson work that is unmissable, let me know.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the link! I did indeed get a lot out of Stevenon’s travels with Modestine, although I did benefit from the supporting material which I think adds a lot. I’m assuming you’ve read Jekyll and Hyde? Probably his most essential book to my mind, but I still have much of his work to explore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nope, I’ve not read Jekyll and Hyde! One to download from Project Gutenberg for Halloween, perhaps.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think so! I loved it (it was my first Stevenson!)

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I read Treasure Island when I was eight (perhaps it was an abridged version; I can’t recall).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I intend to read that sooner rather than later, I hope – I have a nice edition illustrated by Mervyn Peake that’s been sitting on my shelves for over 35 years!!!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. West is an author I’ve been meaning to read for ages. I have Day of the Locust – but I’m not in any hurry! I thoroughly second Jekyll and Hyde, and when I re-read Treasure Island as an adult, it was a totally different book and still super! I’ve given up on my 20 books this year, only managing 8, although I have a few days to squeeze another in perhaps, but that challenge aside, I’ve had a good reading month in August.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe there was also a 1970s-era film of The Day of the Locust, which would be interesting to try!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How odd, I was sure I’d read a book by West but it doesn’t sound like what I read. My American boyfriend sent me a load of American novels at one point but most are by now long gone. Oh well – and well done for getting your 20 in. I had to cap mine at 10, though I suspect I’ll have finished 20 by the end of Sept 03, just not the 20 I originally wrote down!


    1. N. West is getting into pretty obscure territory! I have one more novella by him (included in this same volume) that I’ll read in November, and after that I’ll only be missing one of his books, so I’ll try to complete the set.

      With the substitutions, I’d say that counts as you completing your 20!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t officially substitute them, though, and I’d purposely left out my Iris Murdochs and any review copies, so I think I’ll leave the list as it was. Weird, I know, but that’s how I feel I should leave it. I had fun with the books I did read, though!


    2. Fair enough! You and I know that you more than made your 20 😉


  5. I had mixed feelings about the RLS travelogue, too, but he’s always interesting, despite the slow bits. The religious aspects were revealing – my OWC edition had useful notes. It’s so long since I read the N West I recall little about it, except for some biting satire.


    1. I could have done with some notes, I think, but I had a 1909 edition bound with An Inland Voyage. I did look back over the chapter in the Richard Holmes, which was helpful.

      Miss Lonelyhearts was fairly similar in tone but thematically that little bit stronger.


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