Occasionally, a popular book permeates the public consciousness so thoroughly that it remains long after the initial book is forgotten (or at least, before the current American kakistocracy, this used to happen). It imparts from itself to the language one or two key concepts or phrases which were never present before. Most people understand the concept of “the three musketeers”, inseparable, fast friends who stick by one another through anything, whether they’ve read Dumas’ novels or not. Or, to dip again into Dumas’ prolific well of ideas, the concept of a prisoner in an iron masque is familiar, even routine. And everyone knows phrases from Sherlock Holmes, even if they are wrong: “elementary,” “the dog in the night-time,” “my dear Watson.” For that matter, few people have read Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., but everyone knows what a robot is, whether it is Rossum’s, or Universal, or not (I’m told by family lore that Capek is a distant relative on one side, but that’s probably its own baroque fantasy). And to this list, which is obviously grossly incomplete, we may add one other: James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Do you refer to a distant, mythical, regenerative refuge as a “Shangri-La?” Are your ideas of Buddhist monasteries, or rather lamaseries, thoughts of tranquil repose among books and music in a secluded, unreachable mountain retreat? Then you have Hilton to thank. Or Hilton and one other, as we shall see.
Hilton was the textbook definition of a struggling novelist, even after the first publication of Lost Horizon in Britain in the spring of 1933. It wasn’t until the publication of a further novel, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, later that same year, that he became established as a novelist and his future in posterity was secured. In the U.S., Lost Horizon was the subject of favourable review by critic and Algonquin Round-Table member Alexander Woollcott (himself later best known for founding and editing the first volume of the Viking Portable Library); Woollcott went “quietly mad” over Lost Horizon, and soon the book stretched into multiple hardcover editions, and eventually, it became the first volume in a new series of paperbound “Pocket Books,” an influential American publisher.
Hilton’s novel, to give the plot in short, is the story of four people who are fleeing unrest in the Kashmiri town of Baskul. Conway is an unambitious member of the Foreign Service, a veteran of the Great War who has not been the same since that terrible conflict. He is accompanied by Mallinson, Barnard, an American oil-man, and Miss Brinklow, a missionary. Their flight, one of many leaving Baskul at the same time, is diverted by the pilot, who flies deep into the mountains, eventually crashing the plane at the foot of a high mountain valley. They are quickly rescued, however, by a party from the local lamasery, who lead them deeper into the valley, where the four discover a hidden world.
Mallinson is eager to depart; he is young and excitable. Barnard is ambivalent; for the truth of his identity means that a return to “civilisation” will mean prison for him. Miss Brinklow wants to arrange to bring missionaries to attempt to established a beachhead for her particular missionary brand of Christianity. But Conway is most taken with the monastery of Shangri-La, and seems to be most deeply impacted by the combined offers of Chang, the factotum for the High Lama, who offers Conway the chance to live several lifetimes in study and quiet amusements of the mind, much, it occurs to Conway, like his time as a don at Oxford (but presumably with fewer bicycles). For the truth is that Conway genuinely was wounded by the War, but as with so many of his generation, the wounds did not manifest themselves on his skin, and his passionlessness and quiet indifference to anything in his life which requires concerted effort is a result of seeing the utter futility of so-called civilised life. When the High Lama offers Conway the chance to remain in Shangri-La, and explains the benefits of an extended life there, the temptation to Conway is great.
But the High Lama’s explanation of the true purpose of Shangri-La is, as the Lama sees it, the intent to preserve the rudiments of human culture and civilisation in the face of an oncoming storm. One of the most chilling parts to readers of Lost Horizon in the 2010s must have seemed equally prescient in 1939, on the eve of war. As a storm springs up on the mountain above Shangri-La, Conway asks about the other storm, one against civilisation, which the High Lama has told him of, and in reply:
“It will be such a one, my son, as the world has not seen before. There will be no safety in arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos. Such was my vision when Napoleon was still a name unknown; and I see it now, more clearly with each hour. Do you say I am mistaken?” (p. 186)
In view of current events, who wouldn’t want to retreat to a lamasery, removed from the rest of the world?
Lost Horizon is a tremendous book, and deserving of its continued status as a classic.
Reviewed 21 October 2017.