Friday, March 04, 2011

Jack London: Before Adam

If you had asked me three weeks ago whether I'd ever read anything by Jack London I'd have looked you straight in the eye and with complete assurance said no, definitely not, I'm sure I haven't. Yet I've surely read this book about a dozen times as a child and loved it. And I've always avoided Jack London's books, with their aura of manly maleness, chapped skin, doggy smell and antiquated frontier spirit. That aura is of course based solely on my prejudices. Jack London wrote, I was convinced,  adventure and hunting books for boys; for boys who grew into the sort of man my (paternal) grandfather was (a house tyrant who bullied his sons a fair bit, hunted, and expected the sort of respect one is due as Head of a Household). He, of course, owned a complete set of London's novels.

This must have been one of them, because I read it on holiday visiting my grandparents as a child. Yet I can remember not going near his set of London novels, with their covers with artwork of snowy plains and dogs and horses and boys and wolves. I remember this book as something else, maybe with a plain green cloth cover? (a bit like the one scanned into the Aldiko edition but green then obviously). It can't have been part of the rest of the set, I don't think. Maybe an older edition?

I read lots of things from their bookshelves, in addition to all the women's magazines my grandmother subscribed to and hoarded, and you know how it is - you're a child, you devour loads of books on holiday, then you go home and a year passes, and the next time you visit you've forgotten what you've read and re-discover it anew, and with each yearly reading it becomes more and more fixed in your subconscious and actively remembered. It becomes a ritual - you visit, you read. The visit isn't completed until you've read those books or plowed through the entire stack of magazines. Some year or other though I stopped reading this book. Maybe I couldn't find it? Or maybe I found something else to obsess about. I do however distinctly remember (now!) that I had memorised the title one year (I've always had trouble remembering titles and authors) and that I told people about this great book I read called Before Adam yada yada yada  - but the author never seems to have lodged at all in my mind. Bizarre.

So how come I found it now, you may ask. Well, pure chance. I was browsing the Aldiko looking for detective fiction, and since they've changed the cathegories and general layout it's much harder to find what you want so the list I perused included adventure books. I.e. i.a. Jack London. The title jumped out at me and triggered that memory of chiselling the title into my brain matter so I could tell others about it. When I read the synopsis I knew I'd hit gold. This book, in fact, is going to be the first in the new cathegory that I've promised since the dawn of the blog - the cathegory for books that have meant heaps to me (I'm still pondering what to call it. By the end of the post I'm sure I'll have settled on something). I'd never have guessed that this would be the first book to get that gilded label! I was sure it'd be Austen or Jane Eyre or Tolkien. Goes to show, doesn't it. (My husband just suggested I could call the label "The Dog's Bollocks, by the way. I won't, but it was funny.)

The narrator of Before Adam is a modern man, and by modern we mean late 19th century (the book is from 1907). All his life he is plagued by terrible and extremely realistic dreams. As an adult, after learning about evolution and psychology (interesting that London uses the word psychologist and not alienist, although probably the latter was someone who dealt specifically with mental health, wheras the former had a broader area of expertise?) he realises that they are not only dreams but memories of a prehistoric life, passed down through history to him. He gives a scientific reasoning for how this happened, but has to admit that there is no explanation for why the memories are so complete - the only explanation is that he is some sort of freak.

Now a terrible fall, averted in such fashion, was productive of shock. Such shock was productive of molecular changes in the cerebral cells. These molecular changes were transmitted to the cerebral cells of progeny, became, in short, racial memories. Thus, when you and I, asleep or dozing off to sleep, fall through space and awake to sickening consciousness just before we strike, we are merely remembering what happened to our arboreal ancestors, and which has been stamped by cerebral changes into the heredity of the race.

There is nothing strange in this, any more than there is anything strange in an instinct. An instinct is merely a habit that is stamped into the stuff of our heredity, that is all. It will be noted, in passing, that in this falling dream which is so familiar to you and me and all of us, we never strike bottom. To strike bottom would be destruction. Those of our arboreal ancestors who struck bottom died forthwith. True, the shock of their fall was communicated to the cerebral cells, but they died immediately, before they could have progeny. You and I are descended from those that did not strike bottom; that is why you and I, in our dreams, never strike bottom.

And now we come to disassociation of personality. We never have this sense of falling when we are wide awake. Our wake-a-day personality has no experience of it. Then—and here the argument is irresistible—it must be another and distinct personality that falls when we are asleep, and that has had experience of such falling—that has, in short, a memory of past-day race experiences, just as our wake-a-day personality has a memory of our wake-a-day experiences.

It was at this stage in my reasoning that I began to see the light. And quickly the light burst upon me with dazzling brightness, illuminating and explaining all that had been weird and uncanny and unnaturally impossible in my dream experiences. In my sleep it was not my wake-a-day personality that took charge of me; it was another and distinct personality, possessing a new and totally different fund of experiences, and, to the point of my dreaming, possessing memories of those totally different experiences.

What was this personality? When had it itself lived a wake-a-day life on this planet in order to collect this fund of strange experiences? These were questions that my dreams themselves answered. He lived in the long ago, when the world was young, in that period that we call the Mid-Pleistocene. He fell from the trees but did not strike bottom. He gibbered with fear at the roaring of the lions. He was pursued by beasts of prey, struck at by deadly snakes. He chattered with his kind in council, and he received rough usage at the hands of the Fire People in the day that he fled before them.

But, I hear you objecting, why is it that these racial memories are not ours as well, seeing that we have a vague other-personality that falls through space while we sleep?

And I may answer with another question. Why is a two-headed calf? And my own answer to this is that it is a freak. And so I answer your question. I have this other-personality and these complete racial memories because I am a freak.
I read this as a child, and I believed it was true. To this day I am uncertain if what he says about falling is something I've read from some other source, because I feel as though this is a theory I've heard often and that is commonly accepted. That last paragraph - that is irresistible that is. That bald conclusion. I am a freak.

Funnily enough we never learn the name of our modern narrator, but his prehistoric personality is called Big-Tooth. Not that they are advanced enough for names, the names are given by the narrator for the sake of convenience. They really are primitive, just one step away from monkeys like. Alongside Big-Tooth's people live the slightly more advanced Fire People, and the Tree People, who are more ape-ish. The Fire People are very cunning, they can plan and form strategies, and become the most dangerous enemy of the Folk, as Big-tooth-the-modern-man calls them. The Folk are aimless and can't communicate with each other beyond expressing emotions (I'm angry! I'm scared! Look out! That's funny!), so they can't even work together to oust the frightening Red-Eye, an atavism as London calls him, a more primitive creature who has latched on to the tribe. He is, in effect, a sort of live-in serial killer, working his way through the women by first killing their mates (if they have any).

It is an amazingly gory book really, although I don't remember it as such. I think maybe we are less sensitized to a sparse description of a bloody event these days, I can't remember even reacting to the gore. Maybe I wasn't imaginative enough as a child? But the idea of a small child dreaming vividly of such horrors is very effective.

After a short interval his howling grew muffled. He must have crawled into a hollow in the trunk. But his wife did not win this shelter. An arrow brought her to the ground. She was severely hurt, for she made no effort to get away. She crouched in a sheltering way over her baby (which clung tightly to her), and made pleading signs and sounds to the Fire-Men. They gathered about her and laughed at her—even as Lop-Ear and I had laughed at the old Tree-Man. And even as we had poked him with twigs and sticks, so did the Fire-Men with Red-Eye's wife. They poked her with the ends of their bows, and prodded her in the ribs. But she was poor fun. She would not fight. Nor, for that matter, would she get angry. She continued to crouch over her baby and to plead. One of the Fire-Men stepped close to her. In his hand was a club. She saw and understood, but she made only the pleading sounds until the blow fell.
We saw them suddenly swerve back from the tree. They were not quick enough. Red-Eye's flying body landed in the midst of them. He was in a frightful rage, smashing about with his long arms right and left. He pulled the face off one of them, literally pulled it off with those gnarly fingers of his and those tremendous muscles. He bit another through the neck. The Fire-Men fell back with wild fierce yells, then rushed upon him. He managed to get hold of a club and began crushing heads like eggshells.

The whole book just evokes in me a powerful sense of a dense green world, barely understood, claustrophobic in its terrors. The novel isn't long, and doesn't waste time on analysis beyond the bit I quoted first. You're thrust into the story, if you can call it that, so it's not hard to read or understand.
It seemed I was lying on the ground. I was somewhat older than during the nest days, but still helpless. I rolled about in the dry leaves, playing with them and making crooning, rasping noises in my throat. The sun shone warmly and I was happy, and comfortable. I was in a little open space. Around me, on all sides, were bushes and fern-like growths, and overhead and all about were the trunks and branches of forest trees.

Suddenly I heard a sound. I sat upright and listened. I made no movement. The little noises died down in my throat, and I sat as one petrified. The sound drew closer. It was like the grunt of a pig. Then I began to hear the sounds caused by the moving of a body through the brush. Next
I saw the ferns agitated by the passage of the body. Then the ferns parted, and I saw gleaming eyes, a long snout, and white tusks.

The story ends openly, there is no big conclusion or anything. It's just a collection of some events from pre-history, which sounds vague and pointless but doesn't feel like it. I'm sitting here trying to find the words to explain how powerful it was for me as a child ... but I do think one major reason was that I bought it, I thought this was a true story, that the author/narrator really had those dreams that were actually a pre-historic reality. It was like time travel. The slightly old-fashioned way of writing must have made this even more intense. Also, the book blends in my memory with a book for kids about a boy in the Stone Age, this one by a Swedish author. I do not at all remember the name of it, and I do not remember the author, and the book really is not very much like Before Adam at all - but I suppose the combined effect might have led to an even stronger impression. (The other book is about a happy family living together in a cave. The baby son has just been born. One day when Daddy comes home from the hunt, Mummy has been stolen away by the leader of the village not far away. The baby is left, and Daddy raises the baby - most memorably, by feeding it fresh blood in lieu of milk. I mean, really. When Baby becomes A Man he goes off to rescue Mummy. It was probably a bit awful, I think.)

So how does Before Adam measure up now? Very well, I think. And it has changed my view on Jack London. I'll read something else of his before I venture a final-ish opinion, but I'm fairly impressed I have to say. It may be a little dated as to facts, but it has a great ring of sincerity and lack of falseness about it, a certain sparsity that adds realism and honesty to the narrative. It's exciting and engrossing. In other words, London stands the test of time better than many of his contemporaries (including, but not limited to, an utterly dire book I'm reading at the moment called The House of the Vampire,  from the same year - more on this later). This is one book that has remained with me all my life. I've been able to conjure up the atmosphere of it for what feels like forever, and I'm thrilled to have re-found it. Time to start looking for a nice old edition so I can own it properly, I think.

No comments: