Friday, January 17, 2014

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: InAudio (now apparently out of business)
Rating: WARTY

This is read by Ralph Cosham, who does the absolute most deadened and boring narration job of any audio production I've ever heard in any context anywhere! It's awful.

This is a movie/novel tie-in. The Movie: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is reviewed here. The Dracula novel by Bram Stoker is reviewed here. The Francis Ford Coppola produced movie based quite closely on this novel is reviewed in my movie review section.

The problem with reviewing this novel today is that it was written two hundred years ago; yet I've seen many negative reviews that regard it and treat it no differently than they would a new YA novel. It isn't. The crucial thing which these rather blind reviewers are missing is that this novel is a time machine directly into the mind of an educated and capable young adult writer and avid reader, an 18-year-old girl who was a rebel and radical even for modern times, let alone for 1816. How rare and precious is it then? How many opportunities do we have to pick the mind even of a young man from two centuries ago, let alone a teen-aged girl?

Mary was not Shelley in 1816. She was Mary Godwin, who had the year before lost her prematurely born daughter less than two weeks after she was born. She was 'living in sin' with poet Percy Shelley, whom she was shortly to marry and who himself had only six more years to live. They were on vacation with him and their newborn son (who was to die before he turned four), along with poet Lord Byron (who had only eight years more to live) in a cottage called Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Also there were Byron's personal physician, John Polidori (who was to die before he turned 26), and Claire Clairmont, Mary's stepsister and the only one of the group who lived to a ripe old age. It was June, 1816, 'the year without a summer' and the climate was proving wet and miserable, so when it wasn't fine enough to go boating on the lake, these people were confined to the cottage, talking long into the night, their time spent wholly in conversation and immersion in literature.

There were no phones, let alone cell phones. There was no television, no moving pictures. Photography as we know it (or as we knew it before digitization!) was still a decade away. There was no email, nor even the concept of it. Computing wasn't even in the air, nor would it be until Byron's daughter, commonly referred to as Ada Lovelace, got together with the brilliant Charles Babbage, and offered some assistance to him in his creation of what has come to be recognized as the world's first real computer. Ada is commonly viewed as the first programmer, but it would be probably more accurate to see her as the world's first computer hacker.

The cottage in which the group of friends resided had no running water, no central heating, no air conditioning. They had no servants. In some ways a bit reminiscent of the Bonnie and Clyde gang of the 1930s, with Mary and Percy on the run with 'their gang', but in their case running from family and Percy's creditors. Byron was on the run from slanderous accusations of incest which he denied vehemently. It was he who, after they'd read ghost stories to each other, suggested that they each write one in competition. Mary had no ideas, but she was able to dream up one. Bryon wrote a fragment of a story which Polidori later turned into the first vampire story to be published in English. Percy started one and gave up.

Mary was the only one to finish hers, and what began as a short story turned into one of the most famous novels ever written. Nothing had come to her at all until she had a 'waking nightmare' in the early hours of the morning, when she envisioned the creation of a creature, re-animated from a dead state by a man with delusions of divinity. Mary herself was horrified by it and this reaction was imprinted upon her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, who was by all accounts quite heavily modeled on Percy Shelley.

Of all people, he had indulged in scientific experiments in Galvanism as a student! Some critics have argued that Shelley wrote this novel in part at least to work through the grief she felt at the loss of her child, but that doesn't seem to me to be the case. She'd had another child by then, a child who was with her when she created Frankenstein, and I suspect she was rather more focused on her new baby than on the one she lost. I'm not saying she wasn't moved by her loss - a loss she was to see repeated uncomfortably often - just that she seemed to be much more self-possessed than was her famous fictional character Victor Frankenstein. Victor's middle name was never given, but I can reveal it to you here for the first time ever in print; it was: "Irresponsible". And did I mention that Cosham's narration sucks green wieners?

Having said all that, I have to agree with some critics on the tedious factor inherent in this story! The most monstrous thing about Frankenstein's monster is how god-awfully verbose he is! He drones on and on and frickstein on! At one point he actually says, "You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being". I guess no one jumped anybody's bones in those days when the term 'making love' quite literally meant talking each other into delirium. If Victor wanted revenge on the "Fiend", all he had to do was to create him a woman who was, like, totally tedious the the max. None of this is helped by the monotonous, and thoroughly unimaginative and uninventive tone employed by narrator Cosham in the audio book. His narration is unspeakably boring in the extreme. He could completely ruin the most exciting novel ever written. He's awful. And did I mention how nauseatingly bad he was? It's no wonder the audio company went out of business.

The story begins as a series of letters written by the rather delusional Captain Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. Walton's life is miserable and he believes his only salvation is to create fame for himself. He selects as his goal, the task of discovering a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. One indicator of his cluelessness is that he fails to launch his expedition until winter is just around the corner... As he becomes ever more pressed in and surrounded by the northern ice floes, he espies a very tall man racing across the frozen ocean on a sled in the far distance. Note here how distinctive the figure is, because this is vitally important later. The next day his crew discovers another man, sickly and wasted, who turns out to be Victor Frankenstein. He's in pursuit of the first man they saw. As Frankenstein recovers his health, he sees something of his own blind, misguided ambition in Walton, and as a caution, he relates his story.

It starts with a somewhat unnecessary history of Victor's parents, but a lot of the text is somewhat unnecessary. It would seem that Shelley fleshed out her short story by the simple expedient of filling it with every detail of the city in which all the main protagonists grew up: verbosity. Victor is the first-born, and rather confused even then, it would seem, describing himself as "Genovese by birth" and then as being born in Napoli, Italy! Evidently he's talking rather loosely of his heritage in the former, and his actual birth in the latter. And the afterbirth is Cosham's narration.

During a time when he was at the age of four and traveling with his parents, they came across an orphan, Elizabeth Lavenza, who was well-born, but who had been left with a family for nursing after her mother died in childbirth. Her father also died, and now that family had many children and few resources, Victor's parents moved to adopt Elizabeth. Her importance is that she's to become Victor's love-interest later in life and an ill-fated pawn in the battle between Victor and the demon he creates. This brings me to the creature's name. Shelley uses the term "dæmon" to describe over twenty times, monster over thirty times, and "fiend" nearly forty times, so I'll go with the latter. Fiendish, aren't i?

She writes of Victor's losses in his life, and of his determination, once his mother dies, to find a way to beat death. He spends his college career single-mindedly pursuing his goal, forsaking his friends and family, and even his beloved Elizabeth. Victor is very selfish. Over the length of a year he makes himself almost ill, blinded by his psychosis. In the end, he succeeds in imbuing life into this savagely stitched-together corpse, but even in his moment of triumph, he's so far gone down his lonely road to hellish insanity that he's repulsed by his creation and takes to his bed, ill with fatigue and from an overworked mind. When he recovers, he discovers that the Fiend he created has gone, and he foolishly decides to leave it at that, turning back to family and friends and generally behaving like nothing has happened! As Hermione Granger would put it: "What an idiot!" She could also have been describing Cosham's atrocious narration.

When he returns to his home four months after his creation and subsequent illness, he learns that his younger brother William has been murdered. Even though he strongly suspects that his creation is responsible, he fails to bring this to the attention of the magistrates, although even that probably would not have changed the single-minded bloody determination of this kangaroo court to take the life of the child's nanny. The Fiend corners Victor and they have a long discussion. All he wants is to be loved, yet he's failed to find it in anyone he has met. He tells Victor that what he wants is a bride, and if Vic will grant this one thing, the Fiend and his bride will quit Europe and head into the wilds of South America, never been seen or heard from again.

Mary Shelley was never to know of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" which stood the science of biology on its end and which would have given her a solid scientific idea of how life in all its variety arose and spread. She did know, however, along with the work of many other scientists, the work of Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, inventor of the rocket engine. In particular she mentioned his experiments with vermicelli which Lord Byron and Percy Shelley had discussed within her attentive earshot. She dealt rather cavalierly with death in her fiction, not having anything even remotely approaching our modern understanding that death is a process, not an event. She could not know how cells function, nor how rapidly that function deteriorates irreversibly once life has left a body. There is no way in which several day old corpses - or even fresh ones, for that matter, since no corpse is ever fresh once death has took hold of it - can ever be "reanimated" as she portrays Frankenstein doing.

Victor initially agrees to his creation's request that he create a bride (after swearing flatly that he would never accede!), but this vacillating spineless wastrel reneges on his solemn promise. You know, none of the Fiend's victims deserved what they got, but Vic earned every whimper of his punishment. It's ironic in the extreme that the one who lost everything was named Victor, isn't it? For the flimsiest of reasons, he retreats this time to the Orkneys, just off the north east coast of Scotland, to embark upon this new creation, but Victor is still sick, and is still infected by the horror and regret of his previous escapade. He cannot complete his work, and one day he destroys the woman he was in process of creating. Incensed by this, the Fiend vows that he will see Victor on his wedding night. Victor, moron that he is, essentially blows off this threat with all the passion of an audio-book narrated by Ralph Cosham. Did I ever mention how much the name 'Ralph' sounds like the noise made when someone throws up?

Several people who have reviewed this novel negatively have mentioned Frankenstein's spinelessness, and I agree whole-heartedly on that. Not only was he spineless, he was of the most absurdly fragile constitution of any character in any novel anywhere if we're to note how frequently he's overcome by almost paralyzing fevers in this caper. This is a huge mistake by Shelley, because it flies completely in the face of the massive Europe-wide manhunt which Victor pursues at the end of the novel. If he was as weak as Shelley portrays him, how did he ever grow to manhood, let alone manage to chase the Fiend for months all over Europe before his death in the frozen north at the end of the story?

Hopefully those critics I mentioned are not the same people who complain that Shelley was writing about how a woman copes with adversity, rather than a man! Unlike Shelley herself, Frankenstein is a self-obsessed, cowardly loser, short-sighted and moronic despite his supposed brilliance in biochemistry. He was pretty much willing to sacrifice any thing and any one to his own purposes, but his critics have done him a disservice with regard to Justine's hanging for the death of his brother William. That isn’t on Frankenstein, but on the incompetence and intransigence of the magistrates who found her guilty. Having said that, in the final analysis, the real monster in this story is Victor Frankenstein, with his creation coming in a close second.

Frankenstein's only failure in that regard was his irrational protection of the Fiend, and this was done from pure cowardice on his part. When he learns of his younger brother's death and returns home, he visits the place where the body was discovered (although how he knew where that was, since he hadn't, at that time, yet been home is a mystery). There, he catches sight of the Fiend, yet he fails to alert anyone to its presence. Indeed, contrary to the traditional movie portrayal, the Fiend is never harried by a howling hoard armed with pitchforks. He's protected by his creator, and he acts in secret, stealthily manipulating events behind the scenes. In this regard, Frankenstein's creation was indeed a "monster"; he was a Moriarty before Doyle ever dreamed one up! If Frankenstein had done even that small thing - reporting his suspicion that a rogue and vagabond was guilty of that first murder - it would have at least cast some doubt upon Justine's culpability. The problem, as I said, was that no one would have believed him. He had no evidence to implicate the Fiend.

Here's one thing which too many negative reviewers have rather dishonestly excluded: Justine confessed to the crime! She didn’t do it, but she fogged the air with her confession, and made things far worse for herself than she should have. Shelley did her job here. I think that Branagh (or rather, the writers, Steph Lady and Frank Darabont) did this better in the movie version, but Shelley got it done in her own way. She did not fail. In the novel, both Victor and Elizabeth petition for Justine's release, but their pleas are stubbornly ignored by magistrates who are dead-set upon seeing her - and no one else - punished capitally for this murder, and thus she dies. So yes, he's guilty in that he didn’t do everything he could, but nowhere near as guilty as his critics have portrayed him.

The worst aspect of his conduct here is his self-obsession. He truly believes, self-centered as he is, that he's suffering more than Justine! How sick is that? But this is not an indictment of the author! On the contrary: this is completely in keeping with Shelley's story. She's telling a warning tale of the pitfalls of obsession and blind addiction to a course of action even when it becomes increasingly apparent that the course is a doomed one. In this Shelley stays true to her aim, unlike Cosham the narrator, who is all over the place save where he should be.

Eventually, inevitably, Frankenstein and the Fiend meet in the mountains and finally have the talk they should have had immediately after life was imbued into this creature. It becomes clear that lack of parental love set the creation upon a road which could lead to the monstrous, but there is more to it than that. This is where Frankenstein's culpability truly lies. How many times have we seen that a serial killer's childhood was ruined by abusive parenting? Frankenstein abandoned his "child" and even though the child tried to learn and to integrate, he was denied and rejected at every turn. This does not excuse his psychopathic behavior, however. At this point, before he had ever met young William, the Fiend had been given the opportunity to learn how to conduct itself in society. While he learned of literature and poetry, music and family, he made a conscious choice not to take the high road. He chose the path of vicious vendetta instead. For this the Fiend is entirely responsible, because he is indeed the one with his hands on the reins. At one point, he tells Frankenstein "You are my creator, but I am your master."

It’s at this point that Frankenstein's culpability morphs. It’s not at his door that the Fiend has become a killer. It is his fault as well as his problem that the killing continues unabated. Where he fails now is in his continued blinkered focus on himself, to the exclusion of all others. It’s in his repeated failure to grasp the true nature of the Fiend's vendetta that results in death after death, and it’s in his failure to keep his promise to this creation that Elizabeth dies. In the end, it all rests on selfishness and stupid short-sightedness, which were the very traits which got Frankenstein to this sorry impasse in the first place! It's an interesting parallel that the novel is titled in part, "Or, the Modern Prometheus" and here we have Frankenstein, like Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods (in Frankenstein's case, his mature and respected professors) and creating a man.

Don't let's get into the sheer improbability of Frankenstein's (unintended) voyage around Scotland's north coast to Ireland, and the unlikelihood of his being mistaken for his eight-foot tall creation who has, inanely absurd though it is, somehow managed to go from the Orkneys to the Scots mainland, all the hell the way down to Perth, locate Henry Clerval in the city, strangle him, drag his dead body all the way across Scotland to Glasgow, sail to Ireland, and dump the rotting corpse at very nearly the exact spot where Frankenstein lands a day later. Recall how easily the Fiend was identified as being of super-human size by Walton and his crew, and contrast that with the villagers comprehensive inability to discern that Victor and the Fiend were not one and the same! Is Shelley saying here that the Irish are stupid?! And after that let's definitely not get into the contrast of the injustice of the magistrates here taking an amazingly benign attitude towards Frankenstein (even before he's proven innocent) and with somewhat more reason to suspect him, with the blood-thirsty attitude of the magistrates in Justine's case!

Let's not dwell on the fact that Victor shows no anger at his wife's death in the novel. Le;ts not ponder why only now does he report the Fiend to the authorities, never once grasping that he could have reported him long ago without saying a word about how the Fiend came to be! Even when his wife is dead Victor cannot think of anything save himself. That's how big of a jerk he is.

The bottom line is that this novel isn't well written. For example, Victor is supposed to be pretty much on his deathbed, yet he launches into this endless monologue. So long is it that Shelley forgets exactly what her fiction is and she has Victor quote a letter, verbatim, from his wife as though he has it in his hands and reads it to us! That one event alone kicks a reader right out of suspension of disbelief. This is the fatal weakness of first person PoV stories. No one's memory is that good, and Victor is no eidetic. On a more humorous note, I can credit Mary Shelley with authorship of the first novel to allude to zombies! At one point she writes of Elizabeth's body as being "Lifeless and inanimate" - why specify both if she did not believe it possible to have the one without the other?!

More seriously, this reveals another weakness in the story-telling. Frankenstein has already animated a corpse made from body parts long, long dead. In the novel, unlike in Branagh's movie, it never even crosses his mind to reanimate his wife, killed right there and then, although he had both the equipment and the expertise to do it. You can argue that he was too distraught or too revolted by his experiments to consider doing it, but you cannot call upon Mary Shelley to support you in your conjecture, because she does not even mention the possibility. Either it never occurred to her when she wrote this and later revised it, or it never occurred to her to expressly eliminate that option and so clear the air in the matter.

This novel is not great literature; it's monotonous even without Cosham's vile narration. Shelley herself seems to have realized its limitations: she revised the novel more than once. For example, in the original version, Elizabeth was not an adoptee, but a cousin of Frankenstein's. The term 'cousin' is employed some thirty times in the novel not because it was merely an endearment but because Shelley never removed her original explicit references when she made Elizabeth unrelated (a move she undertook, it's suspected, in response to the calumny haunting Byron over his relationship with his step-sister Augusta Leigh - who actually did marry a cousin!).

In the end, Shelley's novel is quite simply bloated and tedious, and it's florid in the extreme. Perhaps that is entirely in keeping with the period and the romantic movement, but in modern times the word 'movement' has more than one meaning and the other isn't even remotely romantic. Shelley's writing is interesting for the reasons I mentioned when I began this essay, but it's far from brilliant and it certainly does not merit the approbation it's received. By all means let us credit her for producing a novel at such a young age which contained some brilliant ideas, but let's not pretend that those ideas were executed by a literary great. They were merely executed. Read that how you will.

Now on to Dracula!

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