Saturday, February 5, 2011

2/5/2011 (Friday reviews for 2/4/2011 - Vampires!)

As Robert Burns says:

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley
Basically, I fouled up the internet connection here last night, and so was unable to post the other two posts I had promised to post. So, here is the vampire portion of yesterday's reviews.

Of the five vampiric novels I brought home this week, I have read two:

Bram Stoker - Dracula

It's hard to know what to say about this. Obviously, the book is now a classic (although it didn't really take off until after Stoker died in 1912), and a great deal has been said and written about it all over the place. Still, I suppose it's possible that someone hasn't read it, so. The novel is a fine example of an early novel form known as the epistolary novel, which is to say that the action is described through letters (and, largely in this case, diaries). While that provides a sense of realism, it has some considerable problems, because it places the reader at a remove from the action - there's the ever present sense that the characters are sitting down well after they've done whatever they are talking about to write it down. If you're not ready for it, this can be a little distracting.

Also off-putting for some is the fact that this is a Victorian novel, written by a Victorian author, and so the language is a little more formal than a modern reader might expect. Also, Stoker wrote with a set of cultural assumptions which are no longer considered normal, especially in regards to gender and ethnicity.

In terms of gender, the two prominent female characters, Lucy and Mina, are presented as delicate, as emotional, as somewhat out of step with reality. They need to be protected. There is some sneering about "modern women," and how they will probably propose to men in the future, rather than the other way around.
It seems logical to ascribe some misogyny to Stoker.

 In terms of ethnicity, the fact that Van Helsing speaks "foreignese" throughout the novel - he's Dutch, and so his English is convoluted and somewhat difficult to understand at times - and the fact that non-British characters are presented as somewhat backwards - the Slovaks are assumed to be dirty peasants unfamiliar with things like guns - indicate some ethnocentrism on the part of Stoker.

Or are either of those things really true? This is one of the things that makes this novel fascinating. Stoker doesn't write in his voice, instead, he writes in the voices of his characters. So, the assumptions above (with the exception of Van Helsing's English) are the assumptions of Harker and Godalming and Seward, and not, necessarily, of Stoker himself. Consider - Johnathan Harker sneers at the foreign superstitions that he encounters on his way to Castle Dracula - but those superstitions turn out to be entirely real. Van Helsing, odd diction and all, is the only one who really knows what is going on, the only one who is capable of applying the rigors of science to the experiences of Harker and co. And, further consider that it is the desire of Arthur, Andrew, Johnathan, James, and Quincy to protect Lucy and Mina* which puts the women in danger - if they had explained to Lucy what was happening to her, they could far more easily have protected her, and it is only because Mina is excluded from their planning and their activities that she is left alone for Dracula to prey on. Finally, Mina is instrumental in the tracking down and destroying of Dracula at the end of the book - perhaps Stoker was, quietly and subtly, criticizing the assumptions of his culture.

Clearly, there's a reason why this book is still as widely read as it is - there's a great deal of depth in it, and thus it still has the ability to fascinate audiences. If you have not read it, I do recommend that you do so - the link I've provided above is to the Public Domain version of the book, because the copyright has long since expired - an copy of Dracula that you have to pay for is enriching only scholars and publishing houses.

* Consider, as an example of cultural assumptions, how odd this looks - and yet, I can't say Westerna and Harker for the women, because I might be referring to Lucy's mother, or to Jonathan Harker.

Bekka Black - iDrakula

As an indication of the enduring nature of this story, consider this - a modern re-telling of the story, using text messages and e-mails. A fascinating experiment, and largely, I think, true to the spirit of the original, which was as much about the clash of modern technology (Seward's phonographic diary,Mina Harker's use of a typewriter, the race between sailing ships and steam trains, etc) and premodern superstition as anything else. So, when Johnathan vanishes from the narrative for the first time, it is because his e-mail can no longer connect, and he has lost the charger for his phone (or it has been stolen, perhaps?). A nice example of how our modern technological assumptions make writing some sorts of stories more difficult.

This book was much quicker to read than Stoker's version (perhaps because text messages are able to convey information more efficiently than letters?). Black has moved the action from London to "Gotham" in the US (Boston? New York? Hard to say), and has also compressed some of the characters to simplify the narrative somewhat. Additionally, there are some nice touches - for instance, the point where Johnathan suggests to Mina that he is collecting a recipe for her (Chicken Paprikash - and the scene is in the original), Mina responds that perhaps he is collecting it for himself - thus defining the gender relations right from the start.

Black deviates from Stoker in some of the places that many post-Stoker adaptations have done, such as placing Renfield in the law firm where Harker is interning (another modern touch) to explain how Renfield has made contact with Dracula. Black also changes the ending of the novel to be more consistent with her modern setting.  It's a little off-putting, and will doubtless throw purists into a tizzy (assuming the whole premise of the novel has not already done that), but it makes sense, and is ultimately satisfying.

A final interesting twist - the book is available as an iPhone app, enabling readers to experience the novel in a different, but thematically consistent, way. This was an interesting, and largely satisfying adaptation.