Book Notes: Dracula – Bram Stoker


Classics are a bugger to write about. One can either be refractorily contrarian or fawn and fall in line with the rest of the admiring hordes. That Dracula is accorded ‘classic’ status in the/a ‘canon’ is attested by its inclusion in Penguin’s project of 2012, the issuing of a hundred ‘of the best novels in the English language’. Late last year they were kind enough to send me a few of the Penguin English Library which I comprehensively failed to read. At all. (Actually, I did write about the PEL edition of Dubliners, but that wasn’t part of this batch, so I’m not letting myself off that easily). I’m now aiming to remedy that failure, beginning with Dracula. Now, there is a third way of approaching a classic, of course, which is to use one’s canonical text as the jumping off point for some ill-assorted and likely irrelevant reflections. You might wish I’d left it on the shelf.

Although by no means the first vampire novel, Dracula is the oft ill-attributed locus classicus of all that followed in 20th Century film and literature. The short essay that follows the main text (which is a nice feature of PEL editions) by John Sutherland does a good job of sorting the vampires of Stoker from later accretions. It was only with nosferatu, for example, that the sunlight-solubility of vampires was introduced. It might also come as a surprise to any unfortunate who has seen Van Helsing to learn that the eponymous professor is, in Stoker, a slightly-older-than-middle-aged Dutch professor of curious speech patterns. I’m not really going to talk about the plot, I’m afraid. If you want a summary, click here with all possible dispatch and enjoy Wikipedia.

Two elements struck me most about Dracula: its intense modernity and the possibility of writing an epistolary novel with some claim to realism in methodology if not in subject matter. These two go hand-in-hand to some extent. The propagation of information by the central characters is done not only by the time-honoured journal, diary, and letter, but by telegram, phonograph, type-writer, and camera. Novels which are necessarily written in recollection can suffer from an odd pacing, but Dracula, for all that it is often dense to modern eyes, does not suffer from this because it makes use of what were, in 1897, cutting edge developments. The arrival of a telegram bearing some key piece of information has something of the email or text about it, for all that they differ in so many other ways. What is so interesting about Stoker’s style is that he mixes the 18th and 19th Century staple of the epistolary novel with the turn of the century developments in communication as well as introducing modern weaponry (Winchester rifles), transport, and science which forms a marked contrast with the old world preferences of the Count. It’s a more refreshing mix than any found in Blade.

So what of the epistolary novel in the early 21st Century? It’s fair to say that few people write letters with any regularity. Yet it isn’t simply the medium of expression that has altered, we also write with greater brevity in most exchanges, be they by email, Facebook, instant messenger, Twitter, text message, or anything else. Technology has undoubtedly altered our language and the writer who wishes to write in this mode has to be aware of that. I know that there are books around which do make use of emails, tweets, messages, and so on; but I haven’t really read any, and I wonder if the necessary fragmentation which I feel would result from such approach would be the kind we occasionally laud for being so refreshing in the face of conservative narrative.

So, somewhat ironically, I asked Twitter. Suggestions included: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, several by Tao Lin, Eleven by David Llewellyn, The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, and Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave. I’ve read none of these, but several have made it on to my wish list. (Thanks to everyone who replied). There are, of course, several stories written either in a single tweet or composed of tweets strung together, but these are not, for the most part, messages as messages, but as shorter forms of composition. That is, people are writing stories with tweets, rather than stories of tweets. (See, for example, Jennifer Egan’s Black Box).

What is interesting is whether we adopt different voices for different platforms. Do I write differently on Twitter than I do on Facebook? I think I post pictures of cats equally. I certainly write differently when blogging about art or books than when I write philosophy, but it seems a different kind of difference from that which different platforms might engender: in one my subject matter drives my style, but in the other the constraint is of the nature of the platform and social convention surrounding its use. At the very least, I tend not to think in hashtags most of the time.

I think it could be interesting to try and write a novel that moves amongst all of these different media. That’s what Stoker did and he’s stood the test of time. One worry might be the transience of social media and the various forms of communication we use at the moment. I’m unlikely to try and write anything involving Myspace, for example; but should I involve Reddit? Does the furniture I post for sale on Gumtree drive my narrative forward? And so on. Of course, we don’t use telegrams and more and that hasn’t harmed Dracula at all. Which means, I suppose, that whatever style one adopts, one has to write a good novel at the same time. Which, by the way, Stoker seems to have done.


Book Plans

So, this pretty poorly photographed pile of books represents my reading plan for the next few weeks and months. I’ve already started Parade’s End and will be reviewing each of the four novels separately before summing up at the end. The Garden of Evening Mists and Narcopolis are the last of the Booker Longlist books which I have. I’m as yet undecided as to whether I will buy the remaining four novels to round out my Booker Series. The White Goddess, Alif the Unseen, NW, and The Yellow Birds all come out around the end of August and the beginning of September, so those are fairly high up the list as well. As is Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? and The Forbidden Kingdom from Salt and Pushkin Press respectively. I’m also continuing my reading of the Penguin English Library so as to bolster my woeful acquaintance with ‘classic’ literature – whatever that means. The mammoth The Children’s Hospital, which was released a few years ago in the US, looks very interesting (as well as having a great cover). Finally, My Life in France by Julia Child should make me both pretty hungry and yearn to wander some Left Bank book-haunted alley-ways in a dependably clichéd manner.

Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

I really wanted to love Toby’s Room – released 16th August – because, whilst it is not in any way a bad book, I had not enjoyed Life Class, the book whose events are sandwiched by those in Toby’s Room, as much as I had hoped. Toby’s Room was going to bring me back to Barker. However, I found it oddly unsatisfactory despite, or perhaps because of, its thoroughly competent and occasionally powerful character. Toby’s Room returns to the young Slade-trained artists of Life Class, Elinor Brooke, her ex-lover Paul Tarrant, and Kit Neville, as well as their artist-surgeon teacher Henry Tonks by whom Barker was clearly fascinated and who plays a larger part in Toby’s Room as the portraitist of disfigured servicemen. At the heart of everything is Elinor’s brother Toby whose presence haunts the novel. Their complex relationship of desire and dependence, and his apparent disappearance and death on the battlefield set her on an obsessive mission to discover what happened to him. So close growing up, one day is enough to derail their relationship.

Toby had been right all along. Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.

After he is reported ‘Missing: Believed Killed’ Toby’s bedroom becomes the repository of guilt and longing, but most of all the signifier of the empty space inside Elinor. It is the space she needs to fill, to exorcise, before any resolution becomes possible. His ghost is everywhere, not least in the person of Elinor herself, who bears such a resemblance to Toby. Following his disappearance her work becomes inspired, she paints landscapes each of which contains the diffuse shadow of her brother. Indeed, Toby is only ever seen through the eyes of others, all artists, which is fitting as the analysis and deconstruction of the War, and of Toby in particular, by each of them seems to be Barker’s key concern. In the pre-War section Tonks enrols Elinor in an anatomy class where she dissects an unknown man and is repelled by so clinical an approach to the human form: she cannot see the life in such an artistic programme.

 Churned-up flesh; churned-up landscape.

The ordered and disordered in the analysis and destruction of flesh underpins the novel and probes the artist’s role and aims in the body’s depiction. As Paul Tarrant puts it when describing his Nash-echoing landscapes, ‘The point is, the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.’ This affinity between ruined earth and ruined flesh can be seen in Kit Neville, who returns from France with an awful facial injury and is sent to the specialist facial reconstruction hospital at which Tonks works to record the progress, or lack thereof, of the patients’ recoveries. Neville is an unflinching, unsympathetic Modernist, all hard edges and machined parts, all of which make him ideal both as an observer in France, and as the individual whose facial disfigurement both challenges his Futurist aesthetic and leads to his being, in turn, subject to another’s analytic gaze.

The northern light flooding in through the high windows was pitiless, but not more so that Tonk’s gaze. He was still at the table selecting pastels from a tray, but now and then he stopped to look at Neville, who felt his injuries had never been more cruelly exposed than in this glaring light.

The ambivalence of the artistic response to disfigurement and ruin is well played-out in Elinor’s response to an injured patient.

He had been a remarkably handsome man; still was, on one side of his face. If anything, his injuries threw the beauty of his remaining features into sharper relief. He reminded her of some of the ‘fragments’ they used to draw at the Slade where so often a chipped nose or broken lip seemed to give the face a poignancy that the undamaged original might have lacked. It disturbed her, this aesthetic response to wounds that should have inspired nothing but pity.

This marks the beginning of a more sophisticated response both to the war and to artistic practice on the part of Elinor. So what is it that fails to satisfy? Part of the problem may well be that this is well-trodden ground for Barker and, indeed, for many others. She has spoken of the First World War as our myth, our Illiad: a set of events which can be endlessly reinterpreted and represented as a means of exploring human nature and action. This is a valid position, as the wealth of good Great War literature attests, but new ground should be broken each time and supported by the particular characters and narrative presented, and this is where Toby’s Room becomes unsatisfying. As a study of differing reactions to service, grief, and injury, Toby’s Room is fairly compelling, particularly in Neville’s brooding and occasionally explosive recuperation, whose morphine dreams transport him back to the Front, and to Toby. However, the whole book feels curiously unmotivated, and the figure of Elinor is partly to blame.

The paradox of Elinor is that she so resembles her brother as to become unconvincing as a woman. She is curiously unsympathetic in her pursuit of the truth of Toby’s fate, simultaneously passive and aggressive and oddly opaque despite our access to her mind. Without the violence of the Front to fall back on – something Elinor’s political stance precludes – the normal centrifugal force of Barker’s men is missing, despite the attempt to supply that founding injury in another form in 1912.

One also has to question whether Toby’s Room works as a stand-alone novel given its oddly bracketed structure. As far I can tell it is not presented as a sequel to Life Class whose narrative, for all that I was not bowled over by it, at least had the virtue of cohesion and a quality of concentration.  Toby’s Room is dark, disturbing, and, in certain respects, acutely insightful; and yet it refuses to cohere as it should in order for its aims to be fulfilled. In that sense it is frustrating, but certain passages stand out as impressive, in particular those about art: those focused on the artists are less compelling in general, and suffer from a lack of weight. This is a good book, but it’s not the return to form I was hoping for. Essentially, the problem is that it’s all been done before. It’s no Regeneration.

Book Post

So, this happened:

I have a lot of reading to do! I’m very excited to have Zadie Smith’s NW before it comes out next month. I’ve read a couple of these in non-Penguin English Library editions, but in a pretty teenagerish way, so it will be lovely to revisit them, and to read some new things I really should have read already. I’m also soldiering through the Booker Prize longlist at a fairly leisurely pace. I’m very excited to have Parade’s End, which I started once, but didn’t have the time to read properly. PhD work is fairly heavy at the moment, so I’m trying to balance everything. Reading and writing for this blog feels like a holiday though, so there will be plenty going on.

Dubliners – James Joyce (Penguin English Library, 26th July)

A very nice cover indeed.

Nearly a hundred years since it was first published in 1914 this collection of fifteen stories or ‘epiphanies’ remains powerful. In each Joyce depicts some aspect of damaged humanity as the collection moves towards its powerful consummation in ‘The Dead’.  As the excellent, if severe, essay by J.I.M. Steward emphasises Joyce’s style is one of ‘scrupulous meanness’: he spares no one their sorrow, be they temperate and kind or coarse, ignorant, and drunk. All are caught in the social and political paralysis that so exercised Joyce and which is foreshadowed in the form of a stroke victim on the very first page. A kind, trusting, and generous but ugly woman destined to be an old maid is loved by all but meets with misfortune in a harsh city full of men who do not desire her in ‘Clay’. In ‘Eveline’ a girl wrestles with the possibility of love and obligations owed to the living and the dead and ultimately falls backward into the dark. It opens thus,

She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.

Joyce’s language is so precise and pared back, and yet so dense and resonant and rhythmic that it is a joy to read despite its lapsarian tone. Decline, decay, angst, and exhaustion are all contained in three taut sentences.

A sudden loss of innocence, a moment when the world opens out – never for the better – for a character or the reader is characteristic of each story. In ‘An Encounter’ a young boy sheds his innocence when approached by an old but impotent pervert. The story is full of play and of freedom until the old man becomes too free and frightens the boy away, his world changed. Indeed, the structure of the whole collection is one of maturation: youth, maturity, and middle age, and the shadow of death, with that shade extending back to pall each person occupying Dubliners’ pages. Joyce everywhere implies that religion is no protection against this decline even when it serves as a useful tool for an ‘us and them’ mentality. Priests come off badly throughout: in ‘The Sisters’ an elderly priest dies having lost his faculties and perhaps his integrity, a symbol of the Church in Ireland; in ‘Grace’ an unsympathetically portrayed Jesuit preaches to a gathering of businessmen, reducing a deeply human parable to a symbol of profit and loss for the consumption of a corrupt class. Poverty and shallowness of sentiment run throughout, particularly in the consecutive stories ‘A Painful Case’ and ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ wherein want of feeling is explored to the full and loneliness and regret tinge the latter story’s mercenary canvassers’ apathy and idealisation of the past.

Throughout drink and perceived injustice lead to resentment and violence of feeling and action. In ‘Counterparts’ a resentful clerk seethes with a sense of emasculation at the hands of his diminutive but dominating employer. He metes out an unwarranted beating to his son whose plaintive cries serve only to emphasise the irrelevance of religion and the lost world Joyce feels Dublin and Ireland has become.

The boy uttered a squeal of pain as the stick cut his thigh. He clasped his hands together in the air and his voice shook with fright.

“O, pa!” he cried. “Don’t beat me, pa! And I’ll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you…. I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me…. I’ll say a Hail Mary….”

Undoubtedly the most powerful story in Dubliners is The Dead’, at least in part because it draws in the threads of those which precede it, the shadows of those who have gone before hovering over a middle-class gathering in every sense. Memory, loss, age, and crude but sincere sentiment surround a highly literate but alienated school-teacher who comes to understand his isolation from his wife of many years. The final passage of ‘The Dead’ in which this realisation comes emerges from Joyce’s naturalism and consummates the social dissection of the whole in a symbolic identification of the human condition.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Buy Dubliners

Amazon: Dubliners (Penguin English Library)

Or at your local bookshop!

Anthony Trollope: The Warden (Chronicles of Barsetshire)

Trouble with the media is apparently nothing new. In The Warden (1855), the first book in what would become the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) explores the clashes between public and private, institution and individual, abstract and particular, in the aged person of Septimus Harding and his crisis of moral conscience arising from reformist attacks on his wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital in the quiet and unremarkable cathedral town of Barchester. All is well until his young friend John Bold decides to investigate the grounds on which Harding receives the income from the medieval bequest which is in the gift of his old and somewhat ineffectual friend the bishop.

Bold’s naivety in thinking to separate his friendship with Harding from his attack on the institution of the Church is most pronounced in his enlisting the The Jupiter (The Times), whose thunderous pronouncements on the iniquity and inequity of clerical privilege and simony are notorious and hugely influential, and make no allowance for the tragedy of the individual caught in the middle of institutional conflict and reform.

That media pronouncements which elide fact and comment at the expense of private individuals should strike one as so strongly contemporary says something both for the legitimacy of Trollope’s concerns at the influence of the media on public opinion as well as for the apparently inevitable sensational tendencies of newspapers. It is a strength of the novel that it does not simply reduce the legitimacy of Bold and The Jupiter’s attack on clerical gifts to that of their methodology. They may well have a point. However, it is not the fact – if indeed there is any such fact – of Harding’s entitlement or lack thereof which matters particularly, except to the warden himself, in this novel. Trollope’s concern is with the manner in which one’s duties are carried out, one’s defences laid, one’s attacks prosecuted. Those who defend Harding, the formidable Archdeacon Grantly in particular, do so not in the warden’s individual interest, but in the interest of the public institution of the Church; it is a battle of wits built on partisan presumption, rather than moral reflection.

The Warden is suffused with a gentle, occasionally stinging, humour which serves to highlight the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of his characters, each of whom is, on the whole, made to seem more human for all their public bluster through Trollope’s omniscient revelation of the private aspects of their personalities. Trollope’s portrait of Harding is highly sympathetic and one senses a real affection for the inoffensive and well-meaning Warden who carries out his duties with love and pleasure. Indeed, Trollope might also be seen in the person of Septimus Harding as privileging feeling or sentiment over reason. Alternatively, we might see his moral integrity as Trollope’s playing out of the triumph of practical over theoretical reason: Harding acts well toward others (perhaps too well) in the face of the abstract and dehumanising pronouncements of an intensely rational but unfeeling reform movement. (His love of music, expressed in his tendency to play an imaginary cello at moments of particular emotional turbulence, might be seen as the ideal marriage of the two.)

Trollope’s evocation of Harding’s lost innocence is most striking in the image of the Hospital’s walled garden: pristine and loved by the warden, this garden stands as a symbol for the loss of his timeless paradise. As his fortunes falter, so does the garden. We shouldn’t forget that ‘paradise’ derives from the word for walled enclosure or garden. As Adam and Eve gained their knowledge of good and evil at great expense, so Harding’s awakening to the moral complexities of his own case strips him of his comfortable position. The Warden’s charm lies in its subtle and humorous playing out of one man’s isolation at the hands of his own conscience whilst institutions do battle around him; in its emphasis on the complexities of the individual case in the face of sweeping public pronouncements; and in a warm but ambivalent nostalgia for the provincial Church life so clearly disappearing in the face of progressive social agendas.

The Essay – Robin Gilmour

One of the excellent things about PEL editions is that they place their essays after the novel rather than before. I never read introductions beforehand for, as the PEL series editor has pointed out, it is best to approach the story without one’s interpretation having been nudged in some particular direction. Frankly, it takes half the fun out of it. Having said that, I find that the best commentaries make me feel that I need to go and read the book all over again. Robin Gilmour’s essay is very good indeed, providing a lot of the context of The Warden’s original publication amidst the anti-clerical editorials of an all-powerful Times. He also highlights Trollope’s subtleties of symbolisation in the opposition of Barchester and London, and the journey of moral conscience Harding undergoes as he moves between the two: details easily missed on a first read-through. That Trollope’s heart was with the country and the cloister is hard to doubt, even if, as is so often the case, his head could see all too clearly the demand for modernisation and the equitable distribution of heretofore protected clerical gifts. These days, we would probably have an enquiry.

Buy The Warden 

Amazon: The Warden (Penguin English Library)

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