Wise but not preachy

Image of laboratory mouse by Pixabay (Pexels)

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes.
SF Masterworks, Gollancz 2000 (1966)

We all want you to remember that you got friends here and dont you ever forget it. I said thanks Gimpy. That makes me feel good.

Its good to have friends . . .

This SF classic has lost none of its power in the sixty-odd years since its first incarnation as an award-winning short story, followed a few years later by this novel, before being adapted for television and film. Knowing that some of the science of its ‘hard SF’ approach may have dated badly I approached it with some trepidation, but I needn’t have worried because the science really was incidental to the psychological and moral aspects of this absorbing tale.

Charlie Gordon’s story, told as a series of self-penned progress reports, may form a perfect bell curve in its year-long trajectory, but rather than simply seeing its progress as triumph followed by tragedy one could argue that it works as a meditation on what constitutes the essence of being human. Whether or not Flowers for Algernon was deliberately planned to echo certain other literary classics it does share their lofty themes and ideals, posing some universal questions which continue to linger in my mind.

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The Alps, the Arctic and the Creature

Aurora Borealis (WordPress Free Media Library)

John Sutherland: Frankenstein’s Brain,
Puzzles and Conundrums in Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Masterpiece
(including John Crace’s ‘Frankenstein Digested’)
Icon Books 2018

Frankenstein is, despite its iconic status, so full of inconsistencies and plot holes that it’s a wonder it holds together at all. In fact, those weaknesses have meant that subsequent treatments of the narrative — in film, on stage, in comics, in parodies and retellings — have tried to gloss over, patch up or even reconfigure Mary Godwin Shelley’s story, with the result that those reading the novel for the first time are often confused, their expectations confounded. Where is the laboratory? Why are we caught up in Arctic ice? How come the monster isn’t called Frankenstein?

Literary critics of course have the answers, editors give lengthy details of history, chronology, context, differences in text and so on, but usually in academic language buttressed by obscure scholarly papers and archived documents. Up steps John Sutherland, an academic with a light touch making the inaccessible accessible with bite-size chapters, contemporary references and online links, and using humour to demystify a two-centuries-old classic.

Add to that an appendix with one of Guardian writer John Crace’s digested reads, meaning that if you’re still resistant to Mary Shelley’s original you can pretend you know all about it with a handy (and very funny) cheat.

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“A healthy, thoughtless child”

Aurora borealis seen from the island of Kvaløya in Norway 23.01.2011 (credit: Lars Tiede)

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights
Illustrations by Philip Pullman, cover alethiometer illustration by David Scutt
His Dark Materials: Book One
Alethiometer edition, with additional text by the author
Scholastic Press 2007 (1995)

It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger; or, having thought it, an imaginative child would immediately have come up with several ways in which it was impossible. Being a practised liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.

Northern Lights is the first, and in some ways the best, of Pullman’s imaginative and innovative His Dark Materials trilogy. Crammed full of ideas and yet never tripped up by them, this starts in lively fashion with a mystery and a murder attempt, then turns into a rollercoaster ride that gets more and more intense, eventually ending with the enigmatic words “and walked into the sky”. Pullman’s skill is that even a sceptical reader can accept cliff-ghasts, speaking polar bears and a sky full of witches at the same time as scientific terms such as elementary particles and technology such as gas balloons.

In fact, the world that’s described sounds so often like something out of a Victorian steampunk vision that it’s often hard to recall that this is also a world with modern concrete structures and even atomic power stations. It is, in fact, a little like the world the author was himself brought up in: born in 1946, Pullman grew up in a postwar England struggling with rationing (which only ended in 1954), a drear world which saw smog frequently devastate London (until the 1956 Clean Air Act began to tackle it, in the same year as the first civil nuclear power station become operational) and during which a paternalistic Conservative government were to be in power for some thirteen of the nineteen years after peace had been declared.

It is into a world like this, then, that we become aware of Lyra Belacqua, a “healthy, thoughtless child” (according to some Oxford scholars), a girl who unbeknown to herself is destined to initiate great and permanent change. The first indication that this is not our world is the mention of her daemon, Pantalaimon, an alter ego who appears in animal form and speaks.

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Bad and dangerous

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

John Polidori: The Vampyre: a Tale (1819)
and a Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron (1816)
in Three Gothic Novels (edited by E F Bleiler)
Dover 1966

Buttressed by an editor’s introduction, the author’s own introduction, an extract from a later letter to Polidori’s publisher, and Byron’s original vampire tale fragment, this — the first completed modern vampire story in English — already contains many of the clichés now expected from the genre. Here is the pale nobleman with a dark secret, and here the young female victims; not unexpected is the vampire’s resurrection after death and the connection with Eastern Europe and the Levant.

But you can forget any mentions of bats, sinister castles or pointy teeth, though there are allusions to stakes, peasant huts, antiquarian structures and blood all over a victim’s neck and breast. Whether these are enough to summon up a vicarious thrill in the reader will really depend on how much one empathises with the characters depicted and the degree to which one is susceptible or immune to High Gothick style and sensibility.

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Gormenghast reimagined

John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey (1823)

William Beckford (born 1st October 1760, dying in 1844 at Bath) is a truly quixotic character, notorious in the Georgian period and worth more than the brief notice I am giving of him now. I find however that he and I have, in a manner of speaking, crossed paths in the past, and you might be interested in the context of our latest encounter.

I have been making my slow and steady way through Elizabeth Mavor’s The Grand Tour of William Beckford preparatory to reading Beckford’s own novel Vathek (1782). I’ve had the novel in a compendium of three Gothic novels for a while, though had read only Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) up to now.¹

However, with Halloween and Christmas coming up I thought I might tackle at least one of the remaining two complete novels, Vathek of course and John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). This last, as some of you may know, was Polidori’s plagiarising of Lord Byron’s tale which itself had emerged from the ghost story challenge — which had already culminated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Vathek, however, was different from the other stories, modelled as it was on the tales in the collection we know as The Arabian Nights.

But I also knew that William Beckford was as famous for another enterprise he’d indulged in, and the arrival of the September issue of the magazine Current Archaeology was a timely reminder.

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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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Monstrous

I wonder how the young Mary Shelley would have reacted to the knowledge that her novel Frankenstein would still be attracting interest two centuries after its first appearance. Would she have been amused or bemused to see a report like this?

You will remember the social media frenzy after The Sun accused students sympathising with Frankenstein’s Creature as ‘snowflakes’. The paper was rightly ridiculed for its anti-intellectual stance and apparent misunderstanding of Mary Shelley’s intentions. The story refused to be a 24-hour flash in the pan, however, as the paper tried to mount an indefensible rearguard action.

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Promethean fire

Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

One can never say enough about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published just two hundred years ago — certainly a short review can never do it justice. Those with an academic background will be in a position to expound at length about the many aspects of this superb Gothic novel. I’m not an academic, however, so I can only talk about what strikes me most after a reading of the first edition of 1818. And what better place to start than the frontispiece to the 1831 edition, an engraving heavily influenced by Gothick sensibilities and based on an illustration by the remarkable Theodor Von Holst.

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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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“Kind to his fellow creatures”

Andrew Crosse and his drawing of an acarus he noted during experiments on minerals

Peter Haining: The Man Who Was Frankenstein
Frederick Muller 1979

A review I read nearly forty years ago of Peter Dickinson’s The Flight of Dragons mentioned how the author used scholasticism, biology and chemistry “to prove how dragons could have physically existed, breathed fire, and flown.” This put me in mind of a discussion of dragon legends in the Quantock Hills of Somerset where, of at least nine dragons mentioned, only one breathed fire: the dragon of Kingston St Mary. Peter Haining’s The Man Who Was Frankenstein suggested to me why this might be so.

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A witch’s trial

The Uffington White Horse (as it appeared in 1892)

Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky
Corgi 2012 (2004)

We’re all familiar with Alice going through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world, a world where she is able to look at things in a different way. Unexpectedly, Alice makes no attempt to find her own reflection: “The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one.” For a child who could make the observation “Curiouser and curiouser!” she is singularly incurious about her own reflection; perhaps she is not as prone to self-reflection as we have thought.

This is not the case however with the heroine of this Terry Pratchett novel when she finds that she has no mirror in which to check her appearance, for when she devises a way to observe herself without one she finds she has to indulge in self-reflection of a different kind. A Hat Full of Sky is the second of the Tiffany Aching novels, set on Discworld. We not only get to meet the Nac Mac Feegles, Granny Weatherwax and lesser witch Miss Tick all over again but also to encounter new characters, especially Miss Level and her neighbours. But really the focus is Tiffany herself, how she is growing into her powers and how she’s becoming more mature (although, to be sure, she has already shown herself to the equal of many adults in maturity).

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Heart and soul

Philip Pullman: Clockwork, or All Wound Up
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Corgi Yearling Books 2004 (1996)

Delicious fun is how best to describe this tale within tales. Here we find Pullman telling a story, in which a storyteller tells a story, out of which frame a character steps into life. Like an old-fashioned clock the mechanism of Pullman’s fairytale fantasy gets wound up and “no matter how much the characters would like to change their fate, they can’t.” And by story’s end we find out exactly how the characters all, literally, “wound up”.

This story is set one winter’s evening in a German town called Glockenheim (“home of the bells”). Glockenheim has a great clock overseen by the town’s clockmaker Herr Ringelmann (“ringing man”), whose apprentice Karl is supposed to be installing a mechanical figure for the clock on the morrow. On the eve of the installation worthies and others gather in a tavern to hear the traditional ghost story told by Fritz the local author. Unfortunately neither apprentice nor writer has completed his creation. Can lowly serving girl Gretl provide the key to completing the tale?

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