Friday, June 17, 2016

in the light of my own vampire - Frankenstein as doppelganger novel

Shelley’s lack of narrative sophistication drove me crazy, as it always has.  I mean the times when Shelley loses control of her three-level narrative frame, when she forgets Victor Frankenstein is not English (II, 6), or inserts pointless digressions, like the digression on farming (I, 5, “A farmer’s is a very healthy happy life,” etc.), or travelogues, like the idyll in Oxford (II, 5, “The colleges are ancient and picturesque; the streets are almost magnificent,” blah blah blah).

But who is in charge here, Shelley or me?  I’m the reader; I’m in charge.  It took some work, but I found the novel I enjoyed more.  It’s Frankenstein as a doppelganger story, the cousin of what E. T. A. Hoffmann had recently written in The Devil’s Elixir (1815-6) and other stories.

Victor is insane and a) there is no monster, or no monster besides himself, or else b) the monster he creates is somehow a version of himself.  He has imprinted his brain patterns on it, or split his personality, or something like that.  Like when the Hulk and Bruce Banner are split apart.  Like in the Buffy episode where Xander is separated into Strong Xander and Weak Xander.  The Victor who narrates is the weak version of himself.  This explains why when his experiment succeeds he immediately freaks out and abandons his poor monster, who could use some guidance and training at that point.  They need to practice their act (that’s a video link).

Here is the first place I noticed Victor stating this idea directly.  His younger brother has just been murdered by the monster – by some monster:

I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind, and endowed with the will and power to effect such purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose form the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.  (I, 6)

Victor becomes more openly insane as the novel progresses:

All pleasures of earth and sky passed before me like a dream, and that thought only had to me the reality of life.  Can you wonder, that sometimes a kind of insanity possessed me, or that I saw continually about me a multitude of filthy animals inflicting on me incessant torture, that often extorted screams and bitter groans?  (II, 6)

The cemetery scene near the novel’s end, which is also the beginning of the final chase, (II, 12) is pure Hoffmann.

I was answered through the stillness of night by a loud and fiendish laugh.  It rung on my ears long and heavily; the mountains re-echoed it, and I felt as if all hell surrounded me with mockery and laughter.

Perhaps Victor did build a corpse-monster, but is that what he is pursuing now?  The novel turns into a fantasia of motion, a blur of geography and dream.

At the end, as Shelley shifts back to the basic frame, both Victor and the monster, a few pages apart, compare themselves to Milton’s Satan.  Victor hoped to be God, but “’like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in eternal hell.’”  The monster merely hoped to be Adam:

“I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness.  But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.”

The novel I read is even farther from the novel James Whale filmed, but it solves, or eludes, the problems with the narration.  It is not quite as funny as the more literal Frankenstein.

14 comments:

  1. The novel you’re describing here is pretty close the one I remember from my initial reading of Frankenstein many years ago, though mine was perhaps a little bit more Freud-inflected. It struck me that the creature kills those closest to Victor, individuals he consciously loves, but against whom he might harbor an unconscious death-wish; the creature, whether real or not, embodies Victor’s unconscious desires and acts on them. One of the recurrent themes of SF which this novel anticipates, and which probably helped influence Brian Aldiss to consider it the first true work of SF, is the danger inherent in our inventions embodying the un-mastered and unconscious desires of the inventor.

    On my recent re-reading of Frankenstein, I tried to see it as part of the sequence of late 18th, early 19th century Gothic novels, in which it is often included (my first reading was in the Penguin anthology “Three Gothic Novels”), but it really didn’t seem to me to be part of that tradition at all, at least as practiced in England.

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  2. I am not too ignorant about Freud to use his language comfortably, but some of that language, and more of the ideas, are heavily influenced by or even borrowed from E. T. A. Hoffmann, so, there we go. Aldiss has it right.

    Previously, I had only read Frankenstein in that Three Gothic Novels edition. It has the 1831 version of the novel, and this time I read the 1818 just to see what was different. The problem, just like you saw, is that Vathek is off in its own Orientalist world.

    I don't know how that tradition works, myself. Frankenstein has some strong contemporaries, though - Charles Maturin's insane Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and James Hogg's insaner Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justifed Sinner (1824) both do wonderful things with the doubling and especially the narrative frames.

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    1. I thought of the Hogg with its doubling; both the Hogg and Maturin novels came after Shelley, so she may be seen as influencing the Gothic tradition, but she seems to me to have taken little from it as it existed up to Frankenstein (Walpole, Reeve, Radcliffe, Lewis, Dacre; Beckford does seem a real outlier).
      I, too, chose the 1818 text for my second reading, but it’s been so long since I read the Penguin edition, I need to return soon to 1831 to see the differences. I think that there was some difference in the situation of the family from whom the creature acquired his language.

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    2. I reread the 1831 edition, but would be especially curious to know about any changes that might reflect the deaths of Shelley's children between 1818 and the revised version.

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  3. Look at that hilarious Freudian typo. I am too ignorant about Freud to use his language, far too ignorant. Yet I typed the opposite.

    My guess - a pretty pure guess - is that Frankenstein has stronger ties to the German Gothic literary tradition - to German literature more generally. I don't really know that. But, for example, it's a Faust story, it's blatantly a Faust story.

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  4. The monster he creates is the "Abby Normal" version of himself.

    I still would like to know what German tales they read that night.

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    1. According to the notes in my old Oxford Press edition, it was J. B. B. Eyriès' Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d'Histories d'Apparitions de Spectres, Revenans, Fantômes, etc., traduit d'allemand par un Amateur - Paris, 1812 - though I'm afraid that doesn't shed much light on what the volume contained.

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  5. Frankenstein has similarities to Faust in his striving for knowledge, but where is the Mephistopheles figure? In some ways he’s more like the Wagner figure in the Faust stories – willing to use the power of magic, but not to engage in or honor any bargain with the forces of darkness.

    Supposedly the French collection Fantasmagoriana is the book read by Shelley, Byron, et. al. I have not encountered any of the stories in my own reading.

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    1. I posted above before reading your comment about Fantasmagoriana - sorry!

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  6. Bill, how helpful. I have only even heard of one of the authors. I wonder to what extent they are worth reading?

    "Abby Normal" version - the more Young Frankenstein references the better, although I will caution anyone trying to write about Frankenstein that looking up Youtube clips from the Brooks movie does not get the piece written faster, but rather the opposite.

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  7. There is an Apel story (not one from Fantasmagoriana ) in the old Penguin anthology Gothic Tales of Terror Volume 2 (Peter Haining, ed.), about a marksman’s deal with the devil. I didn’t find it particularly well done; it’s the story that is the basis of the opera Der Freischütz, but unlike the opera, has an unhappy ending, death and presumed damnation.

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  8. Basis for Der Freischütz, how interesting.

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  9. One thing I found curious on this reread is the almost complete absence of attention paid to the reanimation process, which almost forms the centerpiece of the story in James Whale's and other versions (including in the hilarious Mad Monster Party, the beginning scene of which cracks me up every time). Shelley didn't seem quite to know what to do with that; her monster's creation is like God touching Adam's finger on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, without all the fuss about how it all might have come to be.

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  10. The vagueness fits well with the "Victor is a psycho / no monster" reading. Who knows what Victor has been doing out in those graveyards. Shudder.

    The James Whale idea of Frankenstein narrows the concept but solves a lot of problems.

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