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May. 10th, 2006 09:47 am
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I was watching this gripping TV show about two psychics investigating a real-life cold-case murder in New Zealand (didn't they do well?) and the adverts came on (they last for ever on Living TV) so I reached for the book case and pulled out...

Dag Hammarskjold's Markings.

My copy was discarded from the public library in Elizabethtown, Kentucky in 1973. I picked it out of the bin myself. Apart from having DISCARD stamped on it in a couple of places it's in pretty good shape.

Hammarskjold was Secretary General of the UN from 1953 to 1961, when he was killed (assassinated?) in an air crash. He was obviously a good man. Austere, driven, brilliant. Markings is his private diary or commonplace book.

The translation is by W.H. Auden (which speaks for itself.)

It's a spiritual diary. No "Tonight we dined with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; The Duchess's taste in jewellery is atrocious; the Duke spilled soup all down his shirt front" but breast-beating aphorisms and haiku.

He never speaks directly about his oh-so-important work.


Open it at any page and there's something quotable.

"The lap dog disguised himself as a lamb, but tried to hunt with the wolves."

"Acts of violence- whether on a large or a small scale, the bitter paradox: the meaningfulness of death- and the meaninglessness of killing."

"Courage? On the level where the only thing that counts is a man's loyalty to himself, the word has no meaning. -"Was he brave?"- "No, just logical."

Actually, If I'm honest, half the time I've no idea what he's on about. It crosses my mind that this is a book that my grandfather (a man of Hammnarskjold's generation) would have liked.

They were a serious lot, those post-Victorians.

If there are jokes, they have been lost in translation.

The haiku, which have passed through the mind of a greater poet than Hammarsjkold ever pretended to be, are lovely- and probably better in English than in the original.

"Midges dance. Blast-furnace smoke.
Adder asleep
Near the wild strawberry patch."

One remembers that Hammarskjold was a fellow countryman of Ingmar Bergman's.

He makes me want to be profound. He makes me want to examine my life.


Apr. 11th, 2006 05:19 pm
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Thomas Middleton is the man!

I just added him to my list of interests and thought, as a wheeze, I'd go visit the rest of you who list him.

And guess what? You're all of you brilliant!

So, if I've just friended you out of nowhere, blame Tom.

P.S. Hengist, King of Kent features political cynicism to die for, some very off-colour sex, a lot of murder, some ripe low comedy (and puritan-baiting) and winds up with the anti-heroine getting burned to death on stage. I'd love to see it acted.
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Rot Hattersley has an article about Look Back in Anger, saying what a crap play it is.

Well, yes: historical importance doesn't always coincide with artistic excellence.

Gammer Gurton's Needle is an important play. So is Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (the template for Hamlet.) I wouldn't pay good money to see either of them.

I might pay good money to see Middleton's A Game of Chess- the most popular and controversial play of the Jacobean period- so popular and controversial it got the theatres closed down- but I suspect I would be fidgeting in the stalls.

John Osborne changed the English theatre, but he wasn't a great dramatist. The only thing of his that I've sat through is his supposed "masterpiece" the Entertainer and you can see better crafted work on TV any night of the week.
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I know a lot of people out there are fond of Lord Peter Wimsey, but here's what I think.

A fictional detective shouldn't be lovable, or cute or (God help us) sexy.

A fictional detective stands for Justice. And justice is cold and harsh and no respecter of persons.

Which is why Sherlock Holmes is the business.

You want warmly human? You want touchy-feely? Then give your detective a Watson. A Watson can be as cuddly as a cuddly thing with fluff all over it.

But your detective must be cold, hard, inhuman. (An odd glint of buried fires- a tenderness for some unattainable, long lost love- an Irene Adler- is permissible- but let it be only a glint.)

And let him/her be weird. The weirder the better!

Agatha Christie loved Miss Marple but came to hate Poirot.

Horrid, prissy little man!

Which is why I find Miss Marple tiresome, but can never get enough of David Suchet's Poirot.
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BBC 4 gave us a short history of the ghost story last night. They started with The descent of Inanna and wound up with Robert Aickman- and all in half an hour- whee!

But they got it right. At least I thought they did. They paused on Sheridan le Fanu and M.R. James and Aickman- and that's as it should be. These are the masters. And they didn't bother with the Turn of the Screw (which I consider over-rated.) I'd have liked a nod in the direction of Margaret Oliphant, but you can't have everything and there were an awful lot of Victorian and early 20th century writers who knocked out a ghost story or two.

Ooh, and Jackie, you'd have liked this- they fished out a clip of Algernon Blackwood talking to camera in 1951- and he was everything you could have wished- long-nosed and gaunt with an avuncular twinkle in his eye.

I'm crazy for ghost stories. Here's my personal top ten.

An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street- Sheridan le Fanu
The Signalman- Charles Dickens
The Library Window- Margaret Oliphant
Thrawn Janet- Robert Louis Stevenson
Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance- M.R. James
The Room in the Tower- E.F. Benson
The Dog Hervey- Rudyard Kipling
The Wendigo- Algernon Blackwood
Seaton's Aunt- Walter de la Mare
The Houses of the Russians- Robert Aickman
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I'm between two fires. There's death metal pounding out of Joe's bedroom and Mozart wafting up from downstairs, where Ailz is watching a DVD of Don Giovanni.

Don Giovanni is the first text in the first unit of her Open University course. The other texts are short pieces by Hume, Rousseau and de Sade.

I read the Rousseau and de Sade yesterday. Rousseau is a soppy date. Sade is much more bracing. Amusing too.

The de Sade isn't one of his sexual marathons but a cute little piece in which a dying man persuades his confessor to embrace the libertine life-style. At the end, after he has won the priest round to his way of thinking, the dying man announces, "Six women more beautiful than sunlight are in the room adjoining. I was keeping them all for this moment. Take your share of them and, pillowed on their bosoms, try to forget, as I do, the vain sophisms of superstition and the stupid errors of hypocrisy."

(Don't you just love that idea of saving up women for a special occasion? I wonder what they were doing out there in the ante-room- reading lifestyle magazines?)

The death metal has stopped and Joe has left the building. Donna Anna has the field to herself.

I took my new found knowledge to the tutorial this morning, but found I didn't need it. Instead of looking at the texts, our tutor decided we'd have fun with syllogisms. "All dogs have four legs. This table has four legs. Therefore this table is a dog." That kind of thing. I guess the idea was to get us thinking like philosophes.

Then, when we'd finished with syllogisms, we looked at pictures of Napoleon. He's unit 2. Apparently Napoleon crossed the Alps on a mule- which the painter David turned into an Arab stallion. If it had really been a stallion and it had really reared up on its hindlegs as David has it doing, Napoleon (who was a poor rider) would have fallen off into a crevasse.


Nov. 2nd, 2005 10:43 am
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I don't possess a logical mind.

I know because I was trying to read Hume last night and I was slip-sliding all over the place like it was my first outing on the ice.

Ailz says Hume is easy.

Ailz has a logical mind.

The two essays we're studying for her course are the ones on The Immortality of the Soul and Suicide. As far as I can make out Hume is saying, in both of them, that human beings suffer from an inflated idea of their own importance. Also he gets in some sly digs at the clergy.

I enjoyed the sly digs.

Neither essay was published in Hume's lifetime. They were considered too inflammatory. Too dangerous to their author. When they finally saw the light of day (at the end of the 18th century) the editor surrounded them with dark matter of his own "intended as an antidote to the poison contained in these performances".

A little clear thinking and Authority throws a hissy fit.
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There's a passable movie version of the Devil Rides Out. Christopher Lee v Charles Gray. Lee as the good guy for once.

The Goat of Mendes puts in an appearance, sitting on a rock. What I want to know is why, if he's so fearful and awful and horrid, you can make him bugger off by merely shining a light at him and chucking a crucifix?

When I was a kid I wanted to spend my birthday money on a copy of the Devil Rides Out. There was a hell-horse on the cover and the barrier between its dimension and ours was about to tear apart under the pawing of its steely hooves. Scary. My mother put her head on one side and looked forlorn and said, "well, if that's what you really want..." so I bought The Three Musketeers instead. I don't suppose I regret it.

Actually Wheatley might have approved. Dumas was his hero.

The BBC ran a sort of expose of Wheatley last night. Guess what- he was a fascist. He thought the Attlee government was the thin end of a red wedge that would drive true-born Englishmen into the sea...

Clutching their jars of Brycreem to their manly chests.

By the time I arrived on the scene with my birthday money, Wheatley's star was fading. He'd been the ultimate in raffishness- the silk scarves, the smoking jackets, the whisper of a friendship with Aleister Crowley- but now the slabby cheeks were crazed with broken blood vessels and the hooded eyes of Ian Fleming (a newer breed of bounder) were staring out from a million back covers through a haze of Balkan Sobranie.


Oct. 26th, 2005 11:17 am
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The trailer for The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe makes it look just like LOTR.

Same gorgeous New Zealand landscapes.

I used to want to visit New Zealand. I don't any more. It's so fuckin' empty.

Somehow or other I've managed not to read the Narnia books. I don't quite understand how this happened. But I've dipped into them in adulthood and not noticed any stardust. Lewis talks down to kids, he's so goddam preachy...

...And he's very 1950s (see last entry.)

I've read other books by Lewis. I enjoyed The Great Divorce. But, as with other "religious" writers, he leaves me with a taste in my mouth like I've been sucking on a horseshoe- a sour, metallic taste. He doesn't trust his own perceptions and feelings, but dresses up in pretty images the cold, nasty, unfelt doctrines he's been showered with from some Northern Irish pulpit.

He says in his Autobiography that his favourite mythology was the Norse, followed by the Greek, with the Judaeo-Christian coming in a poor third, but because he believed, against his aesthetic instincts, that the Judaeo-Christian mythology was true, he opted to become a believer.

Keats would have set him right on that- "Beauty is truth, truth beauty...."

But Lewis was an establishment man through and through. He went where he perceived the power to be.



Oct. 22nd, 2005 09:53 am
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There was a meme going round the other day (it's probably still going round) which presented us with some officially-arrived-at list of great 20th century novels and invited us to highlight the ones we'd read.

I like to think of myself as well-read, but I backed away from this one in shame and confusion. I'd read the two Evelyn Waughs, the two Woolfs, one of the Nabokovs (not the obvious one) and Lord of the Rings and that was about it. Oh and the Faulkner- but only because it was a compulsory text for one of my university courses.

Some of the novels on the list I'd never heard of. Others I feel I've read even though I haven't (Animal Farm for instance.)

And am I going to go away and put things right? No, I'm afraid not. The thought of all those big, fat, worthy tomes stretching into the far distance like tombstones inspires in me nothing but lethargy.

I think the novel was a 19th century form and the 20th century form is the movie. I can't think of any 20th century novelist as good as Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Stendhal. Or, alternatively, as good as Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Welles or Powell. For me Lolita isn't a novel by Nabokov, but a movie by Stanley Kubrick with towering performances from James Mason and Peter Sellers.

I read novels systematically in my teens. Since then I've been more picky. Now, like Charlie Chaplin in old age, I find the only novelist I can really be doing with is Dickens. He's bigger, funnier, darker, more inventive and involving than anyone else. You've read the best, why bother with the rest? This year I've already re-read Bleak House and Little Dorrit and, with a fair wind behind me, intend to polish off Our Mutual Friend by Christmas.
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Ailz is revising for her Open University exam (tomorrow) and I've been helping out by reading poems onto tape for her.

Great chunks of Wordsworth and Coleridge and other romantics.

There's an almost sensual pleasure to be had from reading poetry aloud.

Bunny enjoys listening. He went wild over Tintern Abbey- racing round the room and jumping about like a march hare.

But he doesn't like Kubla Khan. First time I read it he bit through the microphone lead. Second time he ran away and hid.

The Rover

Sep. 13th, 2005 10:45 am
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Ailz is writing an essay on Aphra Behn's The Rover.

I suffer alongside.

Aphra Behn was the first Englishwoman to earn her living as a writer. She's a hero, no doubt about it.

But the Rover is a problematic text. It's a comedy about a group of Englishmen behaving badly in Naples in the 1650s. It's as blokey as all hell and it climaxes with a couple of scenes of attempted rape.

Ho ho ho.

One guy in one of Ailz's discussion groups suggests it should be played as if it were the Benny Hill Show.

Perhaps, but most of us these days don't find Benny all that funny either.

It's a play without heart. I tell myself that Behn's England of the 1670s was a society brutalised by the experience of civil war followed by Puritan theocracy- a society in post-traumatic shock. This makes the play easier to understand, but not to like.

It's elbowed its way into the canon because a woman wrote it (there are better Restoration plays) but there's nothing feminist about it.
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Another film version of Pride and Prejudice?

Actually there haven't been that many. If you set aside the adaptions that translate Austen's themes to other cultures- Clueless, Bride and Prejudice- the last full-blown big screen version (correct me if I'm wrong) was the 1940 production with Larry Olivier and Greer Garson (and a script- how very weird- by Aldous Huxley.)

Of course we're still in thrall to the BBC film with Colin Firth all dripping wet- but that was made for television.

And it's already ten years old.

No, it's all the other Austen novels that have been filmed for the big screen recently. Producers have been tip-toeing round P & P. It's the big one, it's the Eiger, it's the one you'll never be forgiven for getting wrong.

I like the idea of Sutherland and Blethyn as Mr and Mrs Bennett, but do Knightley and Macfadyen have what it takes to be the Elizabeth and Darcy of their generation? Well, we'll see.

It's odd how much we love Austen. She's one of those very rare authors who have never gone out of favour- either critical or popular- and her reputation has never stood higher than it does now.

And yet her society could hardly be more different from our own. It's as strange and fanatastical- in it's own buttoned-up way- as Middle Earth. But actually that answers the implied question. One reason we enjoy her is that she lets us escape into Another World.

But that's not it. No. The chief reason we return to her, generation after generation, is that she writes such great love stories. Pride and Prejudice is Romeo and Juliet- only for adults. Most love stories are quest stories. The loved object- male or female- is a grail, an all but unattainable object of desire. But Austen gives us both sides of the story- not one grail seeker, but two grail seekers groping towards each another though the mephitic glooms and smokes of the Wasteland. In most love stories one lover is analysed to death and the other is a dummy, but Elizabeth and Darcy are equally real.

Austen is our greatest psychologist of love.


Jul. 27th, 2005 10:30 am
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[livejournal.com profile] methexis has been posting extracts from Epictetus. Epictetus is cool. He argued that we shouldn't worry about things that are beyond our control, only about things we are directly responsible for- like our moods and actions. Disease, poverty, death? There's nothing we can do about any of these, so why worry? He was a bit Zen, a bit Spock, a bit Alfred E Neumann.

I remembered that I had a volume of Epictetus on my shelves. It's one of the books I inherited from my grandfather.  I went and got it and opened it up and received a mellow blast of my grandfather's tobacco. Dead for 25 years and the reek of his cigars is still with us!

It's an old Everyman edition. Everyman was a cut-price brand. They didn't/couldn't/wouldn't pay translators, instead they reprinted "classic" translations from the 18th and 19th centuries. This then is Elizabeth Carter's translation from 1758-9. It comes with an Editor's Note (c. 1920) which informs us that "Miss Carter's own style is not the style of Epictetus; but it is a style, which is more than can be said of most writers at this time."

How's that for a sale's pitch?

OK, this book is pretty rubbish, but it's the best we can do, so be grateful.

Miss Carter's own Introduction gets very worried about whether Epictetus was aware of Christianity or not. She fears he may have stolen ideas from the Gospels and considers it very much to the discredit of his judgement if, knowing them well, he didn't convert. The idea that the influence might have run the other way- from the Stoic tradition to Christianity- doesn't cross her mind- is, in fact, literally unthinkable. That some Greek philosopher might have anticipated the Son of God- no, banish the thought!

We forget how positively Stalinist the grip of Christianity used to be.

So Carter's Epictetus joins the pile of books on the table beside my armchair. I like how Epictetus writes in short discreet paragraphs- not developing an argument but distilling wisdom- like Nietzsche, like the Reader's Digest. You can take him like a pill. So when there's a commercial break in the middle of the Simpsons there's time for a quick, uplifting dose of stoic wisdom.

"Require not things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well."

Thank you, [livejournal.com profile] methexis

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We were talking about The Color Purple (the book not the film.) How it begins in realism and ends in fairytale. All Celie's dreams come true.

Alice Walker believes that people can be redeemed- even out-and-out bastards. This is heartwarming, but is it likely? One woman in the group said she found Mr- so hateful that she wasn't interested in him becoming a pipe-smoking, trouser-sewing old sweetheart. It offended her.

It strikes me, having just read Bleak House, that Celie is a Dickens heroine. She's brutalised and downtrodden but remains unscarred. She's Esther Summerson, she's Little Dorrit. Like them she works out her salvation with needlework.

I was re-reading the Preface. Walker says the book is theology. Pagan theology.
Oddly enough, I'd entirely forgotten that aspect- which suggests to me that it's less essential than Walker thinks and more grafted on. For me The Color Purple is a humanist text. It's about people saving one another and themselves. For it to be truly theological God would have to be an actor in it- and She's not.
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Richard and Judy's novel-writing competition (which I didn't win) drew 46,000 entries.

46,000 novels. Think of it. You'd need a lifetime to read them all.

46,000 novels. And one has been selected for publication.

According to the Economist something like 10,000 novels are published in the UK each year.

Of that 10,000, how many will be remembered?

In a good year- one, two, three? In many years none at all.

And how many classic novels are there altogether? Count up the novels that really matter- the novels that form the Western canon, from Don Quixote to Catcher in the Rye- and I doubt if they number more than 1,000.

The novels that matter are a tiny proportion of the novels that have been published and the novels that have been published are a tiny proportion of the novels that have been written.

It makes me feel sick and giddy.

And small....
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During the week the postman arrives round about mid-day. On Saturday he knocks on the door at 7.40. How is that acceptable?

Gah, I know; I'm being petit-bourgeois. And if there's one thing I try to steer clear of it's that. I will NOT whinge about minor inconveniences. I will NOT be one of those old bores who writes to the newspapers about litter in the streets and the youth of today. It's not even as if I really mind the postman calling early on a Saturday. He's a man and a brother and I guess he starts early in the hope of finishing early and getting to the football match. Actually I find it mildly amusing. Look at me, I'm being all Zen about it. Observe my smile of detachment.

I persevere with The Mysteries of Udolfo. It's the late 18th century equivalent of Lord Of The Rings- a massive wodge of escapist fantasy, with creepy things happening in a beautifully realised romantic landscape. Oh the umbrageous shades, the hoary headed mountains, the far-sounding torrents! For me it's a time machine. Jane Austen is for all time and takes me into the human condition rather than times past, but Radcliffe has nothing to say about people and everything to say about a very particular, time-coded sensibility. I like being in her company. She soothes my fevered brow.

Right now my gal Emily St Aubert has just returned home from a pointless excursion through the Pyrenees, in the course of which her nobly sententious daddy took ill and died. She is understandably weepy and faints a lot. As she ponders her future she is comforted and disturbed in equal measure by the attentions of that noble youth Valancourt, a man unspoiled by any contact with the sink-hole of corruption and false values that is Paris. She has assured him of her regard and he has departed a happy man. Meanwhile the mysteries thicken round her and she keeps thinking she sees ghostly figures gliding about in shadows of her country estate.

And now I'm going into Manchester to eat curry.
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I don't normally do this, but I guess I've raised expectations, so here's what I finally wrote about the Elias book.

THE PAGAN ELLIPSIS by CHE ELIAS. Six Gallery Press, 2255 Tilbury Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15217. ISBN 0-9746033-8-4.

It took me a long time to read this book. It's a work of fiction (I guess) but it doesn't use any of the traditional hooks. There's no plot. There are no characters to speak of. It kicks off, it continues for 300 pages, it ends.

But I stayed with it. At times I got really cross, but something about it- its chutzpah, its unpredicability- kept me turning the pages. I didn't think I was going to understand it any better by the end than I did after 20 pages (and I was right) but I still didn't want to miss any of Elias's tricks.

It reads like automatic writing. Maybe this effect is precisely calculated, intensely laboured, but I doubt it. The randomness feels too real to be faked. The way I imagine it, Elias charges at the narrative, fingers dashing across the keyboard, not pausing for thought, accepting whatever word his subconscious tosses up, capitalising at random, switching tenses and narrative voice, dropping one story before it's finished and picking up another. Sometimes he sounds like James Joyce, other times he's more like Daisy Ashford (9 year old author of The Young Visitors.) Occasionally he becomes completely incoherent. Dreams, fantasies, self-analysis, fragments of verse are tumbled together like clothes in a washer.

Picasso said he'd spent a lifetime learning to paint like a child. Elias seems to be on a similar jag. By writing fast he by-passes the inner censor, the inner critic, the inner grammarian. Nothing is too filthy, nonsensical or stupid to be said. Awkwardness equals innocence equals beauty. The result is an extended portrait of consciousness, of a particular consciousness, more daring, careless and tripped out than anything I have ever read.

P.S. This will eventually appear at New Hope International Review On Line
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I have a book review to write and I don't want to write it. The book has taken me weeks to read. It's an experimental novel. It doesn't have a plot or characters or even grammar.

Of course I'm work-shy. But more than that, I'm afraid of looking a fool.

The history of modern art- going back to the beginning of the 19th century- is full of examples of often distinguished critics coming a cropper over work they didn't understand. There is the chap from the Edinburgh Review who rubbished Keats, there is Dickens coming out of the first pre-Raphaelite exhibition overwhelmed by the depravity of it all, there is Ruskin accusing Whistler of "throwing a pot of paint in the public's face" and getting sued by his victim.

Poor Ruskin. He was an intellectual giant and what are the two best known facts about him? (a.) He was so horrified by the discovery that his wife had pubic hair that he was unable to consummate his marriage, and, (b.) Whistler made him look like a twat.

And when you get to the 20th century there's this running battle going on between the cool guys who get it and the silly old noddies who don't. I've always been mortally afeared of being thought a noddy. It has led me, in the past, to embrace experimental work (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, anyone?) which on cooler reflection I think overcooked and silly.

So this is a day for procrastination. Obviously I have to read my LJ Friends list first. And Ailz has just marched in and asked me to type up the notes I took at the Frankenstein tutorial last weekend. Hooray, that will eat up another half hour.

But the moment will finally come. Judgement hour. I will be judged for my judgement. I will walk into the panelled examination room with the grim-faced spectres of modernist heroes- Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Picasso- lined up around the walls and the judge will slap Che Elias' The Pagan Ellipsis on the table and say with an ill-disguised sneer, "well, what do you make of this lot then?"
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Frankenstein is a great book. But it's not a good book.

It's a living force in our culture, but when you go back to the original it's bad in all sorts of ways- badly written, badly constructed, badly plotted. It's a great idea indifferently executed.

Mary Shelley was still in her teens when she wrote it.

I think it's disguised autobiography. Shelley was married to a monster- the supremely egotistical, self-pitying, self-exiled, womanising, junkie poet, Percy Bysshe. Read "Epipsychidion"- in which he openly disses Mary- to discover the full extent of his mawkish, adolescent shittiness. Frankenstein is a depressed and depressing book and no wonder.

Maybe it would be forgotten, or at least pushed to one side, if it hadn't been for James Whale's classic movie (or brace of movies.) The Frankenstein franchise continues to run and run because the movie monster- as created by make-up artist Jack Pierce and actor Boris Karloff- is so compelling- at once terrifying and pathetic. Shelley's conception of the monster (a seven foot, murdering version of her husband) was very different and much less interesting.

We're studying Frankenstein for an Open University course. If I had had to choose a "Gothick" text for study I'd have settled on Beckford's Vathek- stylistically sure-footed and delightfully camp and decadent- or a set of stories by Poe.


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