Robinson Crusoe's Creator. (Reviews)

Article excerpt

Seeking Robinson Crusoe. Tim Severin. Macmillan. [pounds sterling]18.99. 353 pages. ISBN 0-333-90555-5.

Travel writing has always been something of a generic mixture. The travel writer is neither novelist nor historian, but he has a crack at both: really he is something like an old-fashioned man of letters, resisting more recent tendencies towards specialisation. Writers of Tim Severin's stripe have added extra ingredients: an increase in historical thoroughness, and a greater awareness of literary genre. Neither addition has entirely removed the sense of amateurism, but perhaps this word need not always be derogatory, if we retain primarily its connotations of enthusiasm and resistance to dry professionalism or academicism.

For some time now, Tim Severin has been doing good business following the trail of other adventurers and writers, with subjects ranging from Sinbad to Moby Dick. His books all share a mixture of 'fact' and 'fiction'. He has an awareness of the interrelatedness of narrative and reality, of myth and history, but he still asks the fundamentally journalistic question: 'Who is the man (or whale) behind the myth?' 'Journalistic' is another term that has accumulated derogatory connotations, but once again, one means no harm: Mr Severin's willingness to dedicate his evidently considerable talents for investigation and coherent re-presentation to an essentially populist project produces books that may not appear on college reading lists, but may, in fact, be read.

For Tim Severin is a storyteller first, an historian second. A certain amount of narratorial omnipotence has to be practised if absorbing stories are to be created. His account of Defoe's popular success is a clue to his own writerly ambitions. Readers 'relished the practical details of how Robinson Crusoe, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, manages ... Defoe had a genius for describing his hero's thoughts and worries, and he made Crusoe so plausible that many of his readers empathized with his hero in his predicament'. …