Wilson’s story is bonkers, but also beautiful. The profile Caesar builds is compelling, colourful and warm – of a complex, contradictory man with admirable self-belief and a healthy disregard for class boundaries and national borders. The boy from Bradford for whom Mount Everest’s icy peak was a shining light, the flame to which the Moth was inexorably drawn. And that’s a story that rarely ends well.
Caesar makes something of this costume. Previous commentators — Caesar is not the first to tell this story — have claimed that Wilson was in some way sexually “deviant”. There was that ménage à trois, and talk of a woman’s shoe found on the mountain; Wilson also took a curious treatise, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, all the way to Everest. Caesar tracks down a great-nephew, who claims to be taking a secret to his grave, while insisting “he weren’t queer”. Caesar’s tentative conclusion — which is not new and not entirely convincing — is that Wilson was a cross-dresser. Was the whole story, he wonders, “born out of an unsettled sense of his true self”?
Was he a naive climbing legend, a mystical sage, a disturbed war veteran or even someone running from his gender fluidity, so unacceptable at the time? Or possibly all four of these things? Caesar does not fully answer these questions, but he has delivered a lovely book despite the paucity of some source material. The backdrop, as with so many things in the 1930s, was the legacy of savage trench warfare that tore apart a continent. Wilson fought with distinction, winning a Military Cross, but lost the use of an arm and saw one of his three brothers turned into a shambling wreck. His own efforts to win compensation were repeatedly rebuffed, leaving him with a loathing of officialdom.
This bonkers ripping yarn of derring-don’t is a hell of a ride. It is an eye-opener into the mind of a daredevil for those of us whose idea of risky business would be, as Victoria Wood put it, to step on to an escalator in a soft-soled shoe. A Mancunian writer for The New Yorker, Ed Caesar has followed his debut book about marathon runners, Two Hours, with the tale of a much greater magnitude of endurance.... Maurice Wilson was a one-off, quite outside the ordinary run of people, and The Moth and the Mountain is a “sorry, beautiful, melancholy, crazy” tribute to a man who, like a leaf in autumn, burnt brightest just before he fell.
Caesar is a journalist foremost, rather than a historian, yet the book has been meticulously researched. The principal primary sources are Wilson’s diary and his letters, which provide an incomplete and, at times, unreliable picture: Wilson was, as Caesar notes, a dreamer, a chancer, and a man adept at varnishing the truth. To add historical backbone to the protagonist’s own narrative “forged in private trauma”, the author hunted through history society collections, ships’ manifests, accounts of expeditions to Everest, National Archives, India Office Archives and the Alpine Club collection.