Book Review: ‘The Moth and the Mountain,’ by Ed Caesar

THE MOTH AND THE MOUNTAIN A True Story of Love, War, and Everest By Ed Caesar In the summer of 1932, an Englishman named Maurice Wilso...


THE MOTH AND THE MOUNTAIN
A True Story of Love, War, and Everest
By Ed Caesar

In the summer of 1932, an Englishman named Maurice Wilson decided he was going to be the first person to climb Mount Everest. His friends Len and Enid were surprised. Nothing in his recent life as a traveling salesman and occasional boulevardier suggested much taste for hearty adventure. But, apparently inspired by a mystical revelation, and a recent course of rigorous fasting, he was in a hurry to bag the summit. He spent a few weeks in the Lake District to learn something about climbing, took flying lessons and, in May 1933, after a noisy news conference, flew to India.

Having survived the long solo flight, and outwitted the bureaucrats of the British Empire, he spent the winter in Darjeeling. Then, dressing himself in a shimmering silk costume, which he thought made him look like a holy man, he entered Tibet with the assistance of Bhutia guides and approached Everest. He left the guides before the first significant climbing obstacle — a 1,000-foot ice cliff — and died soon after, not far from the Bhutias’ camp, having failed (in part because he had no equipment for ice-climbing) to climb beyond the base of the cliff.

Ed Caesar, the author of a fine book on the quest to run a two-hour marathon, has long been captivated by Wilson, and in “The Moth and the Mountain” he writes beautifully about the attractions and problems of researching his life. Caesar’s fundamental challenge is that very little survives about Wilson beyond official registers, ships’ passenger manifests and some brief diary entries and letters, written in a bland, cheery London slang. (“Another couple of days and it will be 12 months since I said cheerio to you all. How time flies. Suppose it only feels like yesterday since you and Len were married.”) We know more about some figures from the late Roman Empire than we do about Wilson.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of November. See the full list. ]

A historian might try to construct a biography of such a figure through a deep analysis of the surrounding culture — using it to inform speculation on the hero’s worldview. (This is the approach Peter Brown used to write his magnificent 1967 biography of St. Augustine.) But Caesar — bred in the fact-checking tradition of The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer — will not be drawn into speculation. He insists that we cannot know what Wilson really believed, and that much of what Wilson says about his spiritual conversion may be untrue. He does not try to explore the varieties of turn-of-the-century mysticism, including Madame Blavatsky (whose “golden precepts” Wilson carried to Everest), or the English fascination with dangerous climbs. Instead, having recorded the few definitive facts, Caesar fills much of the book with a general summary of World War I, and an overlong digression on Wilson’s brother’s better-documented experience of fighting in a different battalion.

Other climbers of his generation such as George Mallory (who died 10 years before Wilson, at least 3,500 feet higher up Everest) had highly literate friends who wrote beautifully and preserved what they wrote. Their records allow us to admire not only the technical skill of these other climbers but also their capacity for friendship, and their profound insights into death and mountains. We know much less about Wilson — and what we know suggests his career was rickety, his personal life unedifying, his writing awful and his plan insane. But should this make us admire him less? Or should we, like the great climber Reinhold Messner, who was also fascinated by Wilson, ignore the banal evidence that survives and try instead to imagine his soul: the toughness and courage of this man of many fasts, setting off, dazed by pain, alone, to try to complete the first solo ascent of Everest? Caesar is a fine writer, but he has not managed to find the art to resurrect a man whose final act is so bereft of context or explanation.

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Newsrust: Book Review: ‘The Moth and the Mountain,’ by Ed Caesar
Book Review: ‘The Moth and the Mountain,’ by Ed Caesar
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