Book review / In the company of wolves

Jack London: a life by Alex Kershaw HarperCollins, pounds 20
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Jack London: a life by Alex Kershaw

HarperCollins, pounds 20

When a man (not necessarily a woman) is tired of Jack London, he is tired of life. Alas, nobody proved that better than the writer of White Fang and The Call of the Wild himself in his last months. He alleviated them by a fan letter to Joseph Conrad in 1915. Conrad, London's lifelong inspiration, replied in admiration for "the vehemence of your strength and the delicacy of your perceptions".

In 1924, the dying Lenin thrilled to his wife's reading of one of London's strongest Klondike stories, "Love of Life". In it, a man struggles with a wolf as both die of starvation. The man's victory comes in drinking blood from the wolf's throat, which he has bitten open. The sheer vitality of London's tales, and their glory in human survival by a hair, carry their own hard and grimly enjoyable lessons on the folly of being tired of life.

Alex Kershaw includes the Conrad letters and Lenin's last rites in his own first book; and it is his love of London that gives it strength and value. He has nothing much to add to the existing important studies, although the eagerness with which he litanises his predecessors makes his first conquest of his readers' affections. His style makes him an easier, milder companion than his hard-biting subject.

But Kershaw infects us with his own delight in London's terrific struggle from apparently hopeless poverty in the Oakland of the 1880s. Rejected by both parents (with a denial of paternity by his father), London later turned a succession of painful pilgrimages - from the Far North to the South Pacific - into gritty, throat-grabbing prose.

Kershaw's lack of sophistication is a welcome relief, as is London's. Admittedly, it ensures that when Kershaw tells of London's plagiarism from Frank Harris (a writer of force as well as a pioneer pornographer and biographical liar without peer) he misses a link by only knowing the theft as being from a newspaper. Again, he notices London's lifelong debt to a novel by the passionate Victorian Ouida (an amusing alternative guru to Conrad) but cites only her forgotten actual surname, Ramee.

The book's strength lies in its dedication. Like London, Kershaw can be careless. London avoided finery of style, but he had a certain poetry in his prose and Kershaw's lazy omission of the odd "the" or "a" loses the force of some quotations. In London's epic fragment from 1908 on future class conflict in America, The Iron Heel - which ferociously dominated Orwell's conception of Nineteen Eighty-Four - the hero tells his wealthy inamorata that "The gown you wear is stained with blood. The food you eat is a bloody stew". Unfortunately, Kershaw's text reproaches her "The food you eat is bloody stew" - which sounds vaguely like a demand for her to up- market her cuisine.

The youth of Kershaw's book is symbolic as well as syntactic. Teaching American literature, I find that students may come fresh from schooldays having murdered in the Rue Morgue with Poe, been little women if not good wives with Alcott, adventured in Twain with Tom and Huck or even harpooned the occasional Moby-Dick with Melville. Yet for every one such I meet a hundred who heard the wild calling in London and sank into his tales many a white fang.

If literature works, you must be there. And with London, the "you" must be prepared for some pretty drastic metamorphoses. Buck in The Call of the Wild being drawn from dog to wolf, or White Fang making what Kershaw rightly finds a more laboured (if still terrific) progress from wolf to dog: these are works of instinctive genius partly because of the streak of savagery in London himself. ("I have sometimes wished you would call me `Wolf' more often", he mused to his mate.) And partly they succeed because the reader is werewolved as s/he observes the movement of dog- into-wolf, wolf-into-dog. "S/he" is correct here: girls and boys alike follow that trail. London's literary misogyny is hurtful only when human beings are central.

Kershaw is a decent if tenderfoot guide, unhappy but not sanctimonious about London's sometimes generous but also hideous treatment of his first wife and children. We might conclude that their own suffering under his tumultuous expressions and withdrawals of love was as bad as his own early privations at its absence. When he made his money, which he then showed extraordinary genius in losing, he reproduced many of the worst features of the wealthy Socialist. He fired the Korean who had served him for two years for inquiring, with all too much justification, "Will God have some beer?" Atheists often resent jokes about apotheosis. Shelley's Irish servant had a comparable fate.

Our own next journey must be back from here to London. We need to turn back from the life that lost its own self-love to the Klondike stories, to the South Sea tales which climb to Stevenson's grave and embody something of his literary spirit, to the terrible invocation of the savour of power in The Iron Heel - or to the horrors of human degradation reported in The People of the Abyss (1903), in which London talked of London and of why many of its inhabitants were all too naturally tired of life. For Jack London is no escapist writer. He is as necessary now as he was then.

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