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

A true story of love, war and Everest
By Ed Caesar

In the summer of 1932, an Englishman named Maurice Wilson decided to be the first to climb Mount Everest. His friends Len and Enid were surprised. Nothing in his last life as a traveling salesman and the occasional boulevardier indicated much taste for hearty adventure. But apparently inspired by a mystical revelation and a recent strict fast, he was in a hurry to climb the summit. He spent a few weeks in the Lake District learning about climbing, took flight lessons, and flew to India in May 1933 after a loud press conference.

After surviving the long solo flight and outwitting the bureaucrats of the British Empire, he spent the winter in Darjeeling. Then, with the help of Bhutia guides, he dressed in Tibet and approached Everest. He put on a shimmering silk suit that he believed made him look like a holy man. He left the guides before the first significant climbing obstacle – a 1,000-foot ice cliff – and died shortly after, not far from the Bhutian camp, after failing to make it (in part because he had no ice climbing equipment) over the too climb base of the cliff.

Ed Caesar, the author of a beautiful book about finding a two-hour marathon, has long been fascinated by Wilson, and in The Moth and the Mountain writes beautifully about the attractions and problems of exploring his life. Caesar’s fundamental challenge is that very little survives about Wilson through official registers, ship passenger manifestos, and a few brief diary entries and letters written in mild, cheerful London slang. (“A few more days and it will be 12 months since I told all of you Cheerio. How time goes by. Suppose it only feels like yesterday since you and Len were married.”) We know more about some characters from the late Roman Empire as we do about Wilson.

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

A historian might try to create a biography of such a figure through a thorough analysis of the surrounding culture – to inform speculations about the hero’s worldview. (This is the approach Peter Brown used to write his great 1967 biography of St. Augustine.) But Caesar – bred in the fact-checking tradition of The New Yorker, where he is a collaborator – doesn’t get into Speculation involved. He insists that we cannot know what Wilson really believed, and that much of what Wilson says about his spiritual conversion may not be true. He does not seek to explore the variety of turn-of-the-century mysticism, including Madame Blavatsky (whose “golden commandments” Wilson carried to Everest) or the English fascination with dangerous climbs. Instead, after recording the few definitive facts, Caesar fills much of the book with a general summary of World War I and an overly lengthy digression into Wilson’s better-documented experience of fighting in another battalion.

Other climbers of his generation like George Mallory (who died 10 years before Wilson, at least 300 meters higher on Everest) had highly qualified friends who wrote beautifully and kept what they wrote. Their records allow us to admire not only the technical skills of these other climbers, but also their ability to be friends and their deep insights into death and mountains. We know a lot less about Wilson – and what we do know suggests his career has been shaky, his personal life incorrigible, his writing horrible, and his plan insane. But should we thereby admire him less? Or should we, like the great climber Reinhold Messner, who was also fascinated by Wilson, ignore the surviving banal evidence and instead try to imagine his soul: the tenacity and courage of this man with many fasts who is on his way, dazed in pain, alone trying to complete the first ever solo ascent of Everest? Caesar is a good writer, but he failed to find the art of resuscitating a man whose final story is so without context or explanation.

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