“Adventure books are dangerous” (22).
Pierre Mac Orlan
My spouse and I adventured to Boston last summer and visited the Institute of Contemporary Art with family. (It’s a beautiful museum in terms of both architecture and exhibits if you ever get a chance to go.) When we were browsing the museum store, my husband pointed out a book, “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” knowing that I love adventure stories, writing, and learning about writing craft.
The book by Pierre Mac Orlan is short, only 73 pages including the notes, but I savored it over many nights at bedtime. It’s translated from French by Napoleon Jeffries. Mac Orlan was a prolific writer, although I hadn’t heard of him before, likely due to how few of his books have been translated to English.
Although the book made many references, often to French literature that I wasn’t aware of, I loved the book, especially its dramatic flair. The tone cracked me up at points. It seemed tongue-in-cheek, silly, etc. Mac Orlan was a pithy writer, and I enjoyed his turns of phrase.
While it’s entitled “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” it raises the question of what exactly an adventurer is. The book explored the idea of active and passive adventurers but is written for the passive adventurer to assist in writing. Mac Orlan’s premise is that behind every passive adventurer (e.g., writer) there is usually an active adventurer. The active adventurers are often have sociopathic tendencies while the passive adventurer merely watches the raucous adventures of others and then writes about it. He states with considerable disdain that parents often say of the active adventurers, “[t]hat child will end up on the scaffold” (12). Often, the active adventurer’s life does end in punishment. I loved this line about the active adventurer:
But his good luck, his health, and the guardian demon that watches over bad boys guide him with impunity through this torture garden which he adapts to his own size (12).
Orlean notes that passive adventurers rely on the imagination to create narrative and atmosphere rather than their lived experience. It wouldn’t do for a passive adventurer to actually describe real, distant locales, for example. Rather, the setting must be imbued with the right atmosphere. Instead of traveling as an active adventure to actual culturally distant places, a passive adventurer needs a bit of travel like to Holland, rather than America. Also, the passive adventurer needs to be an avid reader, as well as learning slang. This helps the fostering of his imagination. He further points out:
And never forget, you other passive adventurers, companions of the ink bottle, that a crime perpetuated in a tavern has a fantastical flavor to it that a crime committed on a public thoroughfare does not (47).
(I definitely want to use the phrase “companions of the ink bottle” for some creative endeavor in the future. Perhaps, it could be the name of a writing or gaming group. And I do feel that certain taverns do work well in many adventure stories.)
In the end, the passive adventures dies as most people do, unlike the demise of the active adventurer. Therefore, they often have time to consider the ending of their lives. As Mac Orlean notes:
At that moment when each of us considers his share of responsibility, they can take the liberty of writing a novel that will be read by no one. It is at that moment, I fear, that the passive adventurer creates his most beautiful work, this time by not withdrawing from the game (62).
The book ends with the possibility of the active adventurer returning to beat up the man who exploited his life in tales. The active adventurer doesn’t spend much time evaluating his actions; whereas, the passive adventurer spends too much time in reflection.
After reading the book, I decided that Mac Orlan was actually saying that there is no such thing as a perfect adventurer, only maybe a good enough one. The passive adventure is superior to the active one, if flawed. Mac Orlan states, “[t]he passive adventurer generally feeds on corpses” (18). (Although apparently a rare person such as Jack London can do both so perhaps balance is actually the recommendation. Being an active adventurer doesn’t have to mean that someone is wicked but rather experienced and skilled. And some books are about a character attempting to transition from one to the other.)
How does this apply to writing and life today, particularly mine? I’d suggest that, as in most things, a balance is needed between living and writing. It isn’t beneficial to get stuck solely in action or reflection. An excellent writer of adventures (or anything really), and perhaps an excellent person, needs both. If forced to choose, I’d side with Pierre Mac Orlan and the passive adventurer.