The Moth and the Mountain.By Ed Caesar. Avid Reader Press; 288 pages; $28.
IN MAY 1933 Maurice Wilson, a first-world-war veteran, took off from Stag Lane aerodrome in north London. He had resolved to fly his Gipsy Moth, a single-engine biplane, 6,000 miles to Mount Everest, crash-land on its lower slopes and ascend the then-unconquered mountain—alone. He had only 19 hours of flight-training under his belt, and “had hardly climbed anything more challenging than a flight of stairs”.
Ed Caesar tells this irresistibly quixotic tale in “The Moth and the Mountain”—a rollicking biography of an eccentric adventurer, and a sensitive study of the pressures that drove him. War was the defining fact of Wilson’s life. As Wade Davis argued in “Into the Silence”, his account of the early Everest expeditions, for the men involved the perils of high-altitude climbing paled beside the carnage of the Western Front. They were a generation inoculated by trauma. On average, a second lieutenant (Wilson’s rank) survived for about six weeks; his battalion lost over 400 men in a single night. At 20 he won the Military Cross for bravery, but was shot in 1918 and repatriated.
In the “topsy turvy” world of peace he was shell-shocked and rootless. He “lost the thread of his own story”, writes Mr Caesar. Everest promised to give Wilson’s life a new plot. He was enthralled by previous British attempts on the mountain, the best known of which, in 1924, led to the death of George Mallory, the era’s finest alpinist, high on its slopes. Those early climbers saw in the “third pole” of Everest a kind of vindication for the empire; to Wilson it suggested a more personal deliverance.
Unlike the airy and ill-prepared Wilson, Mr Caesar, a journalist at the New Yorker, grounds his story in patient archival sleuthing. Marrying extracts from Wilson’s letters and diaries with lively prose, he winningly conveys the glamour and contradictions of this outlandish figure, bringing cinematic vividness to his escapades. The maximum range of Wilson’s aeroplane was 750 miles, so he was forced to hopscotch between scrubby imperial outposts as Whitehall pen-pushers—fearing the “loud-mouthed aviator” would cause a diplomatic incident—tried to stop him. But his cunning and ironclad jauntiness delivered him to the foot of the mountain, and his inevitable fate.
Despite these enticing details, Wilson’s motivations remain obscure. As Mr Caesar admits, the “slippery rock face” of his life shrugs off the most agile biographer. Apart from a few telling cracks of introspection and self-doubt, his writings are a smooth wall of what-ho bravado. Evidently he was damaged by his military service, but the deeper principles which guided him are a blur. Mr Caesar tentatively points to the influence of esoteric religious beliefs that flourished in the turbulence of the post-war era. An unusual relationship with a married woman, Enid Evans, was clearly important, too. He even touches on the somewhat shaky rumours that Wilson was a secret transvestite.
Yet these speculations bring readers no closer to the man himself. “You imagine”, “you can almost see”: Mr Caesar increasingly resorts to these hopeful conjectures. “Sometimes, Wilson seems distant and ancient,” he writes towards the end. “At others, he is so close that you can hear him.” Hypothermic and huddling in a tent blasted by icy winds, Wilson signed off his final letter with a characteristic “Cheerio”.