Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Boxes of Our Lives and Deaths

Anyone who's read Robert Lewis Stevenson's best known novels, Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, would have nothing to prepare them for The Wrong Box. Co-written by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, and published in 1889, The Wrong Box is as different from Stevenson's best known two works as those two works are from each other, eschewing scientific horror and pirate adventure for a comedy of misunderstandings involving a now obscure legal scheme known as a tontine. It's a really funny, slightly confusing book.

A tontine must have already been somewhat rarely heard of the time of the book's development because the first chapter includes a definition:

A number of sprightly youths (the more the merrier) put up a certain sum of money, which is then funded in a pool under trustees; coming on for a century later, the proceeds are fluttered for a moment in the face of the last survivor, who is probably deaf, so that he cannot even hear of his success—and who is certainly dying, so that he might just as well have lost. The peculiar poetry and even humour of the scheme is now apparent, since it is one by which nobody concerned can possibly profit; but its fine, sportsmanlike character endeared it to our grandparents.

The more I read this description, the funnier it gets and the novel is filled with this same kind of arch, indirect humour that gently plants an absurd image in the mind that seems to blossom into a fine shrub of ludicrousness feeding on the fertile soil of the reader's imagination. As a book about misunderstandings, it's a story very much about the involuntary workings of imagination, too. The temporary figure of a baffled old man having a fortune waved in front of him he can't understand conjures the cloud of foolishness under which the book's characters operate. An old man named Joseph Finsbury is part of a tonine and his affairs are looked after by his adopted son, Morris, who's described as a sensible fellow meekly trying to crawl out from under a variety of absurdities that attend Joseph's existence. Eventually, there's a train accident, a corpse, a box for it, and another box containing a marble statue. Someone receives The Wrong Box. It becomes more and more wrong as the plot develops.

I was already enjoying the book but it really took off for me when the boxes reached their recipients, each an amusing double act. The statue goes to a young woman named Julia, who's assisted by Gideon, who's in love with her, while the corpse winds up at the rooms of an artist named Pitman (whose name reminded me of Lovecraft's Pickman), who was expecting the statue. Pitman turns out to be friends with Michael Finsbury, Joseph's nephew, and a lawyer. I loved the dynamic between the guilelessly panicked Pitman and the arrogant, carefree Michael.

‘Since, in short,’ continued the lawyer, ‘you had no possible interest in the crime, we have a perfectly free field before us and a safe game to play. Indeed, the problem is really entertaining; it is one I have long contemplated in the light of an A. B. case; here it is at last under my hand in specie; and I mean to pull you through. Do you hear that?—I mean to pull you through. Let me see: it’s a long time since I have had what I call a genuine holiday; I’ll send an excuse tomorrow to the office. We had best be lively,’ he added significantly; ‘for we must not spoil the market for the other man.’

‘What do you mean?’ enquired Pitman. ‘What other man? The inspector of police?’

‘Damn the inspector of police!’ remarked his companion. ‘If you won’t take the short cut and bury this in your back garden, we must find some one who will bury it in his. We must place the affair, in short, in the hands of some one with fewer scruples and more resources.’

‘A private detective, perhaps?’ suggested Pitman.

‘There are times when you fill me with pity,’ observed the lawyer. ‘By the way, Pitman,’ he added in another key, ‘I have always regretted that you have no piano in this den of yours. Even if you don’t play yourself, your friends might like to entertain themselves with a little music while you were mudding.’

‘I shall get one at once if you like,’ said Pitman nervously, anxious to please. ‘I play the fiddle a little as it is.’

‘I know you do,’ said Michael; ‘but what’s the fiddle—above all as you play it? What you want is polyphonic music. And I’ll tell you what it is—since it’s too late for you to buy a piano I’ll give you mine.’

‘Thank you,’ said the artist blankly. ‘You will give me yours? I am sure it’s very good in you.’

‘Yes, I’ll give you mine,’ continued Michael, ‘for the inspector of police to play on while his men are digging up your back garden.’ Pitman stared at him in pained amazement.

It's a book about schemes in which no-one seems to have any actual control over anything, it's a book about terrible events that only under a certain light actually occur. It's really good. I got a really nice 1909 edition off Amazon for a low price due to the continued purging of libraries of decent literary content throughout the U.S., a volume that also contains Stevenson and Osbourne's The Ebb Tide.

Twitter Sonnet #1234

Caffeine remembered fondly conjures might.
Tobacco signs inform the passing crowd.
A stack of boxes wait to hold the light.
A slowly gathered flock impressed a cloud.
Suspended flour bakes the oven back.
A washer full of watches tells no time.
The stringless shoes would take no straightened track.
A train began a slowly curving climb.
A hundred words expressed a hundred things.
Explaining hands resort to thumbless nails.
With lightning paint the rusted buggy hangs.
A storm condensed between the metal pails.
Assumptions sharpen sticks and candy teeth.
Corrected boxes fix a vague bequeath.

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