Starting on Erewhon

The trouble with reading great big books is that they are often heavy and unweildy, making them impractical for days you spend reading by the pool or at the beach. And pretty much for that reason alone, I have started reading Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, which is a slim little paperback that easy to bring on the go. Which hasn’t stopped me from picking it up on the couch after starting at the lake last weekend. It’s good!

44 pages in it reminds me heavily of Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart Of Darkness some 20 years later, partly as both are focused on men going on an adventure into the inland unknown, but also because the narrative style has much the same sort of earnest reportage and the worlds they inhabit reflect a distinctly victorian sense of duty and adventure. In both cases we seem to be at the far reaches of the empire.

Erewhon has surprised me by how spooky it is. His plan is to explore inland past a mountain range, and he forces one of the local savages to tell him what’s beyond them, and the man doesn’t want to for a long while, and must be coerced because he is so frightened and filled with dread on the subject. But then ultimately, he does some sort of impression with horrid wailing, that communicates to the author no real specifics but instead a glimpse of something both unrecognizable and frightening. And then much later, when this man has abandoned him, and he’s descending the far side, he hears this wailing upon the wind, and I found my stomach tighten as I read.

Not much later, the narrator reports on his increasingly fragmented mental state:

Each moment I felt increasing upon me that dreadful doubt as to my own identity—as to the continuity of my past and present existence—which is the first sign of that distraction which comes on those who have lost themselves in the bush. I had fought against this feeling hitherto, and had conquered it; but the intense silence and gloom of this rocky wilderness were too much for me, and I felt that my power of collecting myself was beginning to be impaired.

I have no idea where he is headed, but this is the sort of thing that makes me feel like I’m in the hands of someone who knows what business he is about, and I am pleased to be coming along with him.

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