Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, By Peter Ackroyd

His was the most beautiful corpse I had ever seen.  It seemed that the flush had not left the cheeks, and that the mouth was curved in the semblance of a smile.  There was no expression of sadness or of horror upon the face but, rather, one of sublime resignation.  The body itself was muscular and firmly knit; the phthisis had removed any trace of superfluous fat, and the chest, abdomen and thighs were perfectly formed.  The legs were fine and muscular, the arms most elegantly proportioned.  The hair was full and thick, curling at the back and sides, and I noticed that there was a small scar above the left eyebrow.  That was the only defect I could find.

Well, there’s a dainty dish for Halloween day, served up by novelist Peter Ackroyd (born 1949).  Ackroyd is one of our most celebrated novelists and essayists.  His gathered criticism, The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (2001), reflects a lively and opinionated intelligence; these little gems are among the finest things he’s written.

Ackroyd’s biographies are justly famous, and his monumental Dickens (1990) may be the last word on the subject.  Written in the manner of a Victorian novel, Dickens demonstrates the importance of form matched to content.  He has also produced excellent biographies of Turner (2005), Blake (1995) and Thomas More (1998).

Most of his novels are equally distinguished, especially to this reader The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) and our subject today, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008).  Readers expecting the usual hugger-mugger of less accomplished supernatural novelists, turn elsewhere.  But … if you are interested in a novel of ideas that is equal parts chiller and historical novel, then this book is for you.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is a wonderful mix of fact and fancy.  Ackroyd’s conceit is that Victor Frankenstein himself was a friend of Percy and Mary Shelley, and was there for that storm-driven evening in Switzerland when the Shelleys, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori sat around, telling ghost stories.  That evening led Mary, then 18 years old, to later write the novel Frankenstein (1818).

The novel includes a great deal of actual historical incident (Shelley sent down from school, the drowning death of his first wife, Byron’s friendship with Polidori), while skillfully inserting into it the story of Frankenstein and his monster.  But, more than anything, what Ackroyd is playing with is the Romantic novel of ideas, and the notion that Olympian notions of transcendence and heightened sensibility can be very dangerous things.  Frankenstein – himself neither poet nor artist and, perhaps, an indifferent scientist – dreams of lofty achievement and elevated sensations.  Does that drive him to commit horrible acts … or, worse yet, to create life in a mad ambition to usurp the powers of God, and then refuse responsibility for the life he has created?

More importantly, does Frankenstein’s Monster truly exist, or is it an extension of his own fears, evil ambitions, or, perhaps, a suppressed homosexual desire for Percy Shelley?

Like Dracula, the “meaning” of the Frankenstein Monster has altered with each decade since first created by Mary Shelley – the book can be interpreted as everything from a female-free reproductive paradigm to a socialist tract.  If succeeding generations have grappled with the overarching meaning of the Monster, why should Victor Frankenstein himself be exempt?

Ackroy’ds Monster – like that of Mary Shelley – is no mute, shambling zombie, but, rather, an articulate and vengeful revenant.  He did not ask to be brought into this world and, cannot understand human cruelty and apathy.  Eventually, like Milton’s Satan, he believes that it is perhaps better to do evil than to do nothing at all.  That, perhaps more than anything else, is the true meaning of Halloween.

Here’s another snippet, where the Monster confronts Frankenstein after murdering Shelley’s first wife, Harriet:

“I wished you to notice me.”


“I wished you to think of me.  To consider my plight.”

“By killing Harriet?”

“I knew then that you would not be able to throw me off.  To disdain me.”

“Have you no conscience?”

“I have heard the word.”  He smiled, or what I took to be a smile passed across his face.  “I have heard many words for which I do not feel the sentiment here.”  He tapped his breast.  “But you understand that, do you not, sir?”

“I cannot understand anything so devoid of principle, so utterly malicious.”

“Oh, surely you have some inkling?  I am hardly unknown to you.”  I realized then that that his was the voice of youth – of the youth he had once been – and that a cause of horror lay in the disparity between the mellifluous expression and the distorted appearance of the creature.  “You have not lost your memory, I trust?”

“I wish to God I had.”

“God?  That is another word I have heard. Are you my God?”

I must have given an expression of disdain, or disgust, because he gave out a howl of anguish in a manner very different from the way he had conversed.  With one sudden movement he picked up the great oaken table, lying damaged upon the floor, and set it upright.  “You will remember this.  This was my cradle, was it not?  Here was I rocked.  Or will you pretend that the river gave me birth?”  He took a step towards me.  “You were the first thing that I saw upon this earth.  Is it any wonder that your form is more real to me than that of any other living creature?”

I turned away, in disgust at myself for having created this being.  But he misunderstood my movement.  He sprang in front of me, with a celerity unparalleled.  “You cannot leave me.  You cannot shut out my words, however distasteful they may be to you.  Were you covered by oceans, or buried in mountains, you would still hear me.”

We hear him still, nearly 200 years after his conception.  Frankenstein’s Monster is that which in each of us is both abject and terrible.

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