Frankenstein: I Have Suffered Great and Unparalleled Misfortunes

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While in the midst of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, and discussing bits of it on Twitter, I mentioned to Frances and Thomas that the first time I read Frankenstein I was much more sympathetic to the monster. Now, at this rereading, I seem to have lost my patience with him. For it is not just the monster who endures terrible suffering due to a lack of human connection.

From the very beginning, Captain Walton expresses  in a letter to his sister “one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy…”: that of a friend.

You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans.

This longing for connection, and the suffering that ensues from the lack thereof, dwells in all of the main characters: Captain Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and especially the daemon himself.

“Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me…Shall I not then hate them who abhor me?

Does being hurt, being an outcast, being angry at one’s creator, warrant hate or consequent murder?

The monster tries to explain his position:

“My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and when wrenched to misery by vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of change, without torture such as you cannot even imagine.”  

The violence of change. Changing from innocence to knowledge, from love to hate, from man to monster. Surely change has been an unsettling constant for centuries.

Mary Shelley includes a few lines from her husband’s poem in this novel, without giving him credit, yet these lines bring an insight into the concepts she is trying to express about the power of change; about our lack of control:

We rest.—A dream has power to poison sleep;

We rise.—One wandering thought pollutes the day;

We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;

Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,

The path of its departure still is free:

Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;

Nought may endure but mutability!

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

But, the insight which I like best of all is how Henry Clerval reminds his friend Victor Frankenstein, “Those maxims of the Stoics, that death was no evil, and that the mind of man ought to be superior to despair on the eternal absence of a beloved object, ought not to be urged. Even Cato wept over the dead body of his brother.”

And what might Cato himself say to the suffering monster? Perhaps this couplet would have offered a piece of important wisdom:

If you can, even remember to help people you don’t know.
More precious than a kingdom it is to gain friends by kindness.

(From the publisher: “A towering masterpiece of Gothic fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein birthed the horror and science-fiction genres and spawned countless cultural offspring. In fact, its cultural progeny is so pervasive that we forget how radical, insightful – and, yes, terrifying- it is. In our Restless Classics edition, award-winning novelist and critic Francine Prose breathes new life into the book with a brilliant new introduction, Mexican artist Eko offers twenty-six harrowing full-page illustrations, and University of Pennsylvania English professor Wendy Steiner presents insightful online videos. Find out more about the series here.”)

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Happy Birthday, Charlotte! And, Thanks For Writing Jane Eyre

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When I revisited this post today, with a picture taken in the bleakest days of February when I reread Jane Eyre, I thought the photo a little dark. Yet, it is perfect for much of the novel. So many parts of it are almost hopeless, and yet we read on encouraged by Jane’s courage and strength; the very moral fiber of her being sustains her. And, me.

We know the story, or at least are familiar with most of it. In the very first chapter, Jane is locked into a room, much like how her lover’s mad wife, Berthe, is locked into a room of her own. How can these two women be compared?

One is innocent and young, the other has gone mad. But they both love Rochester, and no story is as compelling, to me, as a love story. Combine that with the search for home, not only in the physical sense, but in a place to really belong, and you have a book which endures time as Jane Eyre does.

I was struck by the similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca this time around. Both of them have:

  • a dashing, dissatisfied husband looking for a tranquil wife
  • a mild mannered, soft-spoken, gentle new wife lacking confidence
  • a wild, bold, daring wife who’s no longer loved
  • a manor home with a stately name: Thornfield and Manderly, respectively

And, here are some favorite quotes:

“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs.” (p. 82)

“But what is so headstrong as youth? What so blind as inexperience?” (p. 363)

“Thank you Mr Rochester; for your great kindness. I am strangely glad to get back again to you; and wherever you are is my home-my only home.” (p. 367)

Charlotte’s birthday was 200 years ago today, April 21. How well do you know her? Take a quiz here to find out.

 

 

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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But even before she’d got the cigarette lit, she closed her eyes, leaned back into her pillow–and suddenly she found herself in an unfamiliar house with crumbling walls. How had she got there? She had no idea. She knew only that she had to keep the place from collapsing. But the task was like torture. The moment she got one wall upright, the next would start to tilt; soon she was rushing from room to room, propping up sagging ceilings, hauling back the slithering treads of tumbling staircases. On and on she went, through all the hours of the night; on and on, without pause, staving off one impossible catastrophe after another. p. 383

The paying guests is a term for lodgers, those who come to rent a home from a landlord. But it’s an ironic term in this case, because Lilian and Leonard Barber will pay in many ways for coming to the home of Miss Wray and her mother. At first I suspected a story resembling Arsenic and Old Lace. “They’ll be poisoned,” I thought, “this unsuspecting couple coming to a perfectly presentable house.”

But there are many ways to be poisoned besides arsenic.

How about love as a deadly poison? Could we substitute the fallout of a scandalous love affair for a fatal draught?

Delicious tensions abound in this novel, between husband and wife, mother and daughter, lover and lover, police and the accused. There is an underlying assumption, that Mrs. Barber’s dalliance could only ever involve a male. How shocking in the 1920’s, how virtually unknown, the fact that lesbian relationship exist.

It wasn’t what I expected, to read of a love affair between two women. It wasn’t even something I enjoyed, compared to the shivers I got while reading The Little Stranger. But if a novel reflects the writer’s soul, it would be unfair to expect something different than a lesbian theme from Sarah Waters.

I wondered if the two women in The Paying Guests would destroy each other as the deed they committed in secret threatened to expose more than their romance. And while their story vacillated between clinging to each other and separating, between innocence and guilt, I compulsively turned the pages to learn of its conclusion.

For what does all of Miss Wray’s cleaning mean? The day in, day out tasks of polishing the floor on her hands and knees, drawing water from a rumbling heater for baths and clearing up, dusting knick-knacks in the parlour while her mother naps? She will be forever scrubbing, but never spotless.

Lost For Words by Edward St. Aubyn

Sometimes you have to read the judges rather than the books.

I used to believe that doctors cured you, Presidents led you, and book awards went to the book best written.

Not anymore. (Especially since the IFFP went to The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim.)

In his inimitable style, a blend of the most delicious sarcasm and facetiousness, Edward Sr. Aubyn describes the farce involved with a prestigious literary award. Neither writers nor judges are spared so much as a scratch from his sythe.

The Elysian Prize, more than vaguely resembling the Man Booker prize, is chaired by Malcolm Craig. It is a prize “confined to the Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth.

Judges on the committee include Jo Cross, a well-known columnist and media personality; Vanessa Shaw, who is interested in “especially good writing”; Penny feathers, who is the Secretary of the Foreign Office’s old girlfriend. “The point was to build a consensus and come up with a vision of the sort of Britain they all wanted to project with the help of this prize: diverse, multi-cultural, devolutionary, and of course, encouraging to writers.

Some of the writers are Sam Black, preoccupied by psychological contracts, writing The Frozen Torrents; Katherine Burns, a lady novelist who surrounds herself with artists, thinkers, scientists and writers, as well as multiple lovers; Sonny Badanpur, who could trace his ancestry to Krishna and wrote The Mulberry Elephant; Penny who is a judge, but also the author of the thriller Roger and Out.

Halfway through the novel we find that some assistant sent Sonny’s auntie’s cookbook, instead of Katherine’s novel, to the judges. The cookbook finds its way to the long list and subsequently the short list. I could not stop laughing at the utter absurdity, which plausibly smacks of truth, in this situation. No one seems able to admit that the cookery book is not a splendid piece of fiction.  (John Elton, the American literary agent says, “Playing with textuality can be dangerous, but the audacity of putting it in a “cookbook” is sheer genius.”)

I curiously awaited the disclosure of the Short List, as if it was something real, just to read the following titles:

The Frozen Torrent by Sam Black
The Enigma Conundrum by Tim Wentworth
All The World’s A Stage by Hermione Fade
wot u starin at by Hugh Macdonald
The Palace Cookbook by Lakshmi Badanpur
The Greasy Pole by Alistair Mackintosh

Really, it’s enough to make me laugh out loud. Or, vomit violently into a sink. Or, as one of participants says, to “go to one of the nearby bookshops to buy something good to read on the way home, to…remind him what literature was before he went to the Elysian Prize dinner the next night.”

The Patrick Melrose novels are my very favorite works of Edward St. Aubyn’s, for the raw emotion they so powerfully convey; enough to make this American woman feel she had experienced the life of a British man.

Lost For Words is an entirely different kind of novel, as it points to a gigantic literary farce rather than a grim childhood and it’s subsequent effects. While St. Aubyn’s satire in the novel may seem like a touch of sour grapes to some, to me it seems to more closely resemble Shakespeare’s line in King Lear: “Many a true word hath been spoken in jest.”

(Find Victoria’s excellent review here.)