E-book Evaluation: ‘The Moth and the Mountain,’ by Ed Caesar

The True Story of Love, War, and Everest
Author Ed Caesar

In the summer of 1932, an Englishman named Maurice Wilson decided that he would be the first to climb Mount Everest. His friends Len and Enid were surprised. There is nothing in his recent life as a traveling merchant and sometimes a boulevardier that gives him a lot of interest in entertainment. But, apparently motivated by a mysterious revelation, as well as a recent fast, he was quick to take the meeting. He spent a few weeks in Lake District to learn about climbing, took flying courses and, in May 1933, after a press conference, traveled to India.

After surviving a tourist trip, and torturing British government officials, he spent the winter in Darjeeling. Then, wearing a shiny silk dress, which he thought made him look like a white man, he entered Tibet with the help of Bhutian officials and approached Everest. He left the tunnels before reaching the first peak – 1,000 feet – and died recently, near the Bhutias camp, when he failed (among other things, because he had no equipment to climb the ice) to climb further down the cliff.

Ed Caesar, author of a good book about running a two-hour race, was impressed by Wilson, and in “The Moth and the Mountain” he writes well about the attractions and complexities of exploring his life. Caesar’s main problem is that there are few survivors of Wilson beyond government documents, public transport and display short, informative, humorous London slang. (“Some days and there will be 12 months from when I said cheerio to you all. How time is it. Suppose it’s just like yesterday since you got married to Len.”) We know more about some of those who came from the Last Roman Empire than we do about Wilson .

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

A historian may attempt to establish the character of such a person by examining in detail the surrounding cultures – and using them to justify the hero’s views. (This is how Peter Brown wrote his excellent 1967 Augustine biography.) But Caesar – who adopted the traditions of the New Yorker, where he is an employer – is unthinkable. He asserts that we do not know what Wilson believes, and much of what Wilson says about her spiritual conversion is probably not. They are not trying to explore the types of beliefs of this century, including Madame Blavatsky (whose “golden instructions” Wilson took with him to Everest), or the English interest in escalating danger. Instead, after writing a few notes, Caesar summarized the book in World War I, as well as summarizing what Wilson’s brother had done in connection with the war.

Some of his contemporaries such as George Mallory (who died 10 years before Wilson, at least 3,500 at the height of Everest) had well-known friends who wrote well and kept his writings. Their writings allow us to admire not only the technical skills of the others but also their social skills, but also their deep knowledge of the dead and the mountains. We know very little about Wilson – and what we do know shows that his work was complex, his life was unpredictable, his writings were ugly and his mindset crazy. But should this make us feel a little jealous of him? Or are we, like the great rider Reinhold Messner, who was also fascinated by Wilson, ignoring the banal evidence of survival and trying to think about his life: the stubbornness and courage of this man who eats too much, left, frustrated, alone, trying to finish his first climb Everest? Caesar is a good writer, but he did not have the ability to resurrect someone whose last deeds are not well explained.

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