The most perfect book

Signe Hammarsten with Sophia Jansson, around 1968 (image: Margareta Ströšmstedt)

Tove Jansson: The Summer Book
Sommarboken (1972) translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (1974)
Foreword by Esther Freud
Sort Of Books 2003

This is just the most perfect book; so perfect that I can scarcely bear to discuss it for fear of spoiling it. But I shall try; if at times I appear to be threading my way lightly round and through it, it’s because I fear my clumsy tread will destroy its sublime delicacy.

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Literary influences

As some of you know, I don’t as a matter of principle get involved in blogging awards because, being a bit of a maverick, I’d much rather be composing an original post than feeling constrained by the questions that inevitably accompany these awards.

But a recent literature-based question posted by Ola on receiving a blogging award for the Re-enchantment of the World blog rather appealed to me and had me scurrying to my bookshelves. Here then is the question, followed by my answer — even if I have no intention of nominating anybody else as I’m invited to do by the rules of the award:

Name (and, if you wish, describe) up to 11 books which influenced you the most.

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Altered state alter ego

Houses in Moray Place, Edinburgh (“Auld Reekie”), in 2018. Stevenson lived for nearly three decades in Heriot Row, just off Moray Place

Robert Louis Stevenson:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896, 1885)

My memory of reading this as a teenager focuses almost entirely on the one shockingly violent scene in this novella, the one where Edward Hyde viciously attacks a prominent Parliamentarian in a London street. In my immature haste to get to the action I had clearly bypassed all the diversions — the discussions, the dialogues and the descriptions — as irrelevant waffle. For years I laboured under the impression that Hyde continued to roam the back alleys of the capital after story’s end, causing mayhem and fear. I long wondered if I’d confused elements of this tale with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (which was in fact published five years after this, in 1890) or a title by Arthur Machen concerning flâneurs in London (such as The Hill of Dreams, 1907).

In truth, Jekyll and Hyde plays on the meme of a dismal, foggy London in which dark deeds occur in side streets, a meme which every fin de siècle and early 20th-century novel exhibits, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and beyond. It is the epitome of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, the notion that nature echoes the human spirit when it is actually the reverse: London’s habitual murky darkness is merely a metaphor for human depravity, if anything the cause not the effect.

My younger self then was not in sympathy with how atmosphere was created and developed in a novel; but I hoped the passage of years would allow me now to enjoy the slow build-up to a dénouement that only a reader reared in complete isolation could be in ignorance of.

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“My hideous progeny”

Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare (1828) in Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (March 2018)

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

“His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.

“He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”


— Mary Shelley’s walking dream, from her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

If Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) can truly be said to concern life and death, the afterlife of the Creature is one that continues to affect us two centuries later. For us moderns the Creature impacts as much as that of that waking dream she was later to describe. She’d been trying to think up a ghost story to rival those of Byron, Shelley and Polidori:

One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

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Snowflakes and the Sun

On March 5th 2018 the so-called newspaper called The Sun made a rare foray into the literary world, only to shoot itself in the foot.

Writers Gary O’Shea and Thea Jacobs quoted a couple of academics who’d suggested — unsurprisingly to anybody who’d read Frankenstein — that the Creature was a victim whose actions could be understood even if not condoned.

According to the journalists (is that the correct description?) students who expressed sympathy for the Creature’s plight were to be dubbed ‘snowflakes’; for anyone not au fait with this term of opprobrium it means anyone who is, frankly, not a rabid gun-toting neoliberal who thinks the poor, the disabled, LGBTI campaigners, women and ethnics have only themselves to blame for being victims.

Sadly, it’s not at all obvious that the writers have read either the 1818 text or the 1831 edition, in which it’s abundantly clear that the Creature is the one who’s been wronged.

“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

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Return of the shadow

Still from Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

“[The] shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors. [It] can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities …” — Carl Jung (1963)

Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
in The Earthsea Quartet, Puffin Books 1993

When I first read A Wizard of Earthsea (this is now my third read) I almost believed magic could exist, just as I had when I was a child. Le Guin’s words themselves wove a spell — it takes a special skill to make such art appear artless — and I could credit an adept affecting local weather, imagine I, shaman-like, could transform into a bird of prey, even converse with dragons … if they existed. Yet the magic that gripped me most was the terrifying moment when the newly apprenticed wizard conjured up a nameless shadow. Nameless, shadow — what else speaks to our most basic fears than something we can’t identify that manifests in our peripheral vision?

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