I was going to write about Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey on foot through the very real Cévennes Mountains of France; instead I found myself in a dark and fabulous Danish forest. Stevenson is one of the writers I thought I’d left behind forever, choosing to overlook the fact that as a girl I’d been madly in love with Alan Breck, hero of Kidnapped. But because the route Stevenson traveled crisscrosses Le Chemin — the French part of the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle that I walked on last summer with my friends Steve and Sabrina — they sent me a copy of Travels with a Donkey for my birthday (which also used to be the same as Stevenson’s until he “gave it away” to a little girl whose birthday, to her chagrin, fell on February 29.)
Too circuitous, you say? But that’s my point.
Stevenson’s book is a pure pleasure to read — a surprise to me though I shouldn’t have been surprised — the light touch of his prose, so vivid, conjuring my own very recent memories of the landscape. It was only while rereading the book, though, coming upon his description of the landscape of the Velay, that I knew where I’d been headed all along.
Although there were still a few strands of gold far off to the east on the hills and the black fir-woods, all was cold and gray about our onward path. An infinity of little country by-roads led hither and thither among the fields. It was the most pointless labyrinth. I could see my destination overhead, or rather the peak that dominates it; but choose as I pleased, the roads always ended by turning away from it, and sneaking back towards the valley, or northward along the margin of the hills…
“The roads always ended by turning away from it” — a perfect description of the Alice in Wonderland-like experience of hiking a trail when you don’t know where it’s going to take you. We’d even been warned that a man or woman would appear as we were about to begin our ascent of a punishingly steep hill, and, in the guise of suggesting a shortcut, give us misdirections — this was part of the culture of Le Chemin, simultaneously perverse and mystical, two qualities I associate with another writer, one whose work I know I’d never dream of leaving behind forever.
When you first enter “The Monkey,” that most delectable of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, you are given information that appears as reliable as what you’d expect to find on a trail map. “In a few of the Lutheran countries of northern Europe there are still in existence places which make use of the name convent, and are governed by a prioress or chanoiness, although they are of no religious nature.” So, perversely, begins a tale that immediately sprouts “an infinity of by-roads:” the disappearance of the prioress’s monkey into the forests surrounding the convent; the almost simultaneous appearance in her salon of her handsome young nephew; the prioress’s plan to marry him to the neighbor’s strapping daughter, Athena Hopballehus, in order to save him from his “Greek” tendencies; the inescapable presence of the forest, its trees with “their roots deep in the earth, their crowns moving in the dark;” the nephew’s memory of a lighted candle in a looking glass on Walpurgis Night revealing the naked bodies of two comely maidens; the Prioress’s “gentle melancholy” as she nibbles the cloves in her pudding that have come — like her monkey — all the way from Zanzibar.
So Isak Dinesen sends you on your way to wherever you are going to end up, though who knows where that might be. Better yet, once you finally arrive where you’ve been headed all along, you can’t exactly say how you got there. And when (not if, for there is never any if about the desire to re-enter one of Dinesen’s shrewd and soulful tales) you decide to follow the path one more time, you will find that you are tracking an entirely new course through the story, as if it contains, indeed, so many possible roads through it they are truly beyond measure.
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