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Dracula by Bram Stoker

      

Country: Ireland
Genre: Gothic Fiction, Horror Fiction
Publication Year: 1897
Edition Read: Penguin Classics. 2002 cover design. Introduction by Maurice Hindle.
First Read: Yes

Everyone knows the story of Dracula in some way; whether it is one of the many screen adaptions, The Simpsons Halloween special from about 15 years ago, or even the Twilight books. Anyone in the Western world can easily conjure up the image of Count Dracula skulking the halls of his castle in Transylvania. Dracula by Bram Stoker is an epistolary novel from the late Victorian Period that was part of a larger late 19th Century gothic revival – along with The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Dracula, for the most part, single-handedly created the vampire legend that still lives on today.

One thing that struck me about the novel was the scant presence of the character Dracula. Other than the opening chapters told from the point-of-view of Johnathan Harker while he is at his castle, a couple references about 2/3 of the way through, and then the last quarter or so, Dracula himself is nowhere to be seen, but his specter looms over every page of the novel.

As I was reading this, I put myself into the shoes of a reader from 1897, the year Dracula was first published. This would have truly been horrific without that inherent knowledge of the story that us in the 21st century all possess. The bizarre occurrences like the two holes in the neck, Dracula turning into a bat, the reanimation upon death after death at the hands of a vampire, and the stake through the heart and decapitation to kill the vampire.  Stoker’s prose was so vivid and dark that he truly earned his retroactive moniker as one of the fathers of horror fiction.

When I read this novel, the primary thematic thread that seemed to be running throughout the novel is that of gender roles – specifically through the lens of female sexual liberation; the two poles of this thread were wholly embodied by the two female characters in the book: Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker. Lucy enjoys the adoration of three different men, taks in their bodily fluids – via blood transfusions – and shortly before her death is sexually aggressive towards her fiancé. Mina on the other hand is meek, deferential to the men in her life, and believes in an innate inferiority of women. Lucy, reanimated as a vampire and therefore completely sexually liberated, must be destroyed by polite and educated male Victorian society. Mina however, gets to live on with her husband and continue being the demure little lady bowing to her husband. To the Victorians, the vampire represents an individual completely disconnected from the everyday social mores of civil society, and that is the real monster.

In my post-reading research into the novel, and in reading the introductory essays in my volume, I was amazed at the continuing evolution and contradictory nature of the literary criticism of Dracula since it started to emerge in the 1950s. The critical consensus amongst the literati is practically nil when it comes to Dracula. This is not unusual in the world of literature, but generally there are some very broad agreed upon agreements. Dracula, however, is all over the place. Just as many critics argue that is a feminist masterpiece as there are who argue my point-of-view that this is the complete opposite. Some view this as a critic of colonization, some as a pro-Catholic novel, and I even came across one article that felt this novel was nothing but a critique of The Picture of Dorian Gray and its glorification of giving into the temptation of excess. Perhaps that just shows the power of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece.

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Posted by on July 31, 2017 in British Fiction

 

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Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

  

Country: France
Genre: Romanticism, Gothic Fiction
Publication Year: 1831
Translator: John Sturrock
Edition Read:  Penguin Classics. 2002 cover design. Introduction by the translator.
First Read: No. Third Read.

Almost ten years ago, I began keeping a list, a log of sorts, of every book I read (2009 of course was in the primitive days before Goodreads did this for nerds like me). The Excel file which houses the list has survived for almost a decade and the death of two computers. On that list, I have 281 unique titles. I would estimate that had I kept that list since I really started reading in 2001, there would be around 500 unique titles in total. Notre-Dame de Paris has two very important exceptional characteristics when compared to any other book in that large list: it is the only non-English book which I have read both in translation and its original language and it is the only book on my list which instantly makes me reminisce about the potent odor of fresh goat feces.

In my Grade 12 French class (as a French immersion student), my teacher, Mr. Bergeron, had decided that our year would be almost completely dominated by reading Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (in its original French obviously) and putting on a full-fledged musical based on the novel with songs from the Paris production. We all had our jobs: aside from the cast, some were tasked with building the sets, others with writing the script, and yours truly… I was tasked with taking care of the goat. Yes, a real goat. One of the English teachers at my high school had goats, my teacher thought it would be a swell idea to have a real animal portray Djali. My motivation was that I figured this was the easiest way to milk the most points out of the project that I could so that I might pass the course (I did). I haven’t finished talking to my therapist about this so I will just leave this whole episode here.

You will notice that I am referring to the title as Notre-Dame de Paris and not The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. This is not simply because my copy is named the former. I firmly believe that this title is far more apt. Unfortunately, when people think of this story today, they think of this:

The title The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was chosen by the original translator as it was felt that a gothic title would be more appealing to English audiences of the time. The title has stuck mostly due to film adaptations; the two best being the 1923 silent film and the 1939 film with Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton (one of my all time favorite films which was recently on TCM and what made me want to read this book again). I would argue that these films would best be credited as being inspired by the novel, rather than based on it. Over the last 20 years, many literary publications (Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and Norton to name a few) have reverted to the original title.

After watching the 1939 film adaptation and reading the novel in such short succession, I was reminded of the stark differences in the general thrust of the novel and the visual productions. When the lay person thinks of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, they think of two things: the character Quasimodo and an unlikely love story. The novel will strike entirely feelings.

Notre-Dame de Paris is ultimately a defense of the preservation of gothic architecture and a meditation on the fleeting nature of political revolution. Quasimodo, while not a peripheral character, is far from being the protagonist of the story (scholars have been debating for over a century whether that title lies with La Esmerelda or Claude Frollo). And the ending is far from happy with everyone dancing and celebrating.

This not an excessively long novel, 493 pages in the Penguin Classics edition I have – miniscule in comparison to Hugo’s Les Miserables, my Penguin Classics edition of that is over 1500 pages. That being said, it can at times feel like a very very long 493 pages, especially for those who read this for the first time. Victor Hugo is the undisputed champion of the literary digression. He makes Herman Melville look like an amateur when it comes to digressions. Some of the longest chapters in this book do not advance the plot whatsoever or even acknowledge the existence of characters. These chapters are essentially stand-alone essays that espouse the themes that Hugo is advancing, like architecture; show off his encyclopedic knowledge of Paris and France; or go on ironic rants about the dangers of the printing press. Les Miserables is even more extreme in this regard with something like 25% of that big ass book being pure digressions. As such, Victor Hugo is the only author whom it is acceptable to read abridgements without being judged.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post my love of 19th century novels. They are a magical beast. Rich characters, memorable stories, still relevant themes, and intoxicating settings. Notre-Dame de Paris was really the novel that planted that seed. It wasn’t the first 19th century novel I had read, but it was the first to make me all tingly. If you need one reason to read this masterpiece, it’s this: I’ve read hundreds of books and earned a degree in literature… I can say, without any hesitation or qualifiers, Notre-Dame de Paris has the best and most heart breaking final chapter of any novel, full stop.

P.S. Goat piss stains.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2017 in French Fiction

 

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Vathek by William Beckford

207302 6150282 207299 17070365 9781551112817

Country: Great Britain
Genre: Fiction, Gothic Fiction
Publication Year: 1786
Edition Read: Broadview Editions, 2001. academic critical edition, heavily annotated. Ed. Kenneth W. Graham
First Read: Yes

Vathek, William Beckford’s 1786 gothic novel first came to my attention when I was in the final semester my English degree. It was 18th Century Literature II – The Gothic Novel. I had intentionally saved my 18th century requirement until the bitter end (along with my Medieval requirement) as I had some challenges in my survey courses as a daisy fresh student with Jonathan Swift (who I have grown to enjoy) and Alexander Pope (who still gives me hives). Fortunately, the professor I had this for the 18th Century course was fantastic, and the course did not contain any author who gave me hives (although The Monk gave me nightmares). Due to my heavy course load, I had to make some sacrifices in terms of reading and rely on online summaries and such for a few titles. Vathek was the sacrificial lamb. For several years now, this book has sat patiently on my shelf, taunting me, saying “you were supposed to read me.” I decided it was time, not out of some sense of obligation, but because it was the only book on that part of the shelf I hadn’t finished yet.

Vathek is a product of Orientalism – a cultural obsession for some during the late 1700s. This short novel is set in the mid-9th century and tells the story of Vathek, the ninth caliph of the Abassides (the character being very loosely inspired by the historical Al-Wathiq who reigned as caliph from 842 –847). The primary forward motion of the story focuses on Vathek’s fall from grace and renunciation of Islam. Along with his overbearing mother Carathis, Vathek goes down a path of evil to curry favor with a devious fellow called Giaour to gain magical powers. Ultimately though, Vathek and mama must roam Hell silently for all of eternity.

The primary point of interest for me as I got into this book was the treatment of Islam, both in the context of what would now be called be historical fiction and how Islam was interpreted, for lack of a better word, through the lens of 18th century English sensibilities. Beckford seems to be very well-versed in the minutiae of Islamic mythology and history and seamlessly weaves that into his novel. The author is, of course, not a Muslim, so his interpretation of Islam is that of an outsider. I continually vacillated between whether Beckford had a genuine appreciation for the culture, or perhaps Islam was simply an artistic device to tell a fall-from-grace gothic tale, or another possibility is that Beckford looked upon this other culture with the snobbery you would expect of an Englishman at that time.

That’s all I really have to say about Vathek. This was a fun read. It is a short book, only around 100 pages in the volume I have, with no chapter breaks. The dialogue is catchy. And it’s gothic and proto-fantasy elements are very well crafted. All-in-all, a satisfying book if you’re looking for something off the beaten path.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in British Fiction

 

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