Friday, October 31, 2008

Monster Stories

Exhibit A: A new edition of Frankenstein.

It remains impossible to know – though interesting to speculate – how many of Percy Shelley’s alterations to the manuscript were prompted by discussions with Mary, or indeed how much her words and ideas owed to conversations participated in or overheard between herself, Shelley and other members of their circle. The real merit of Robinson’s edition, however, is to make it possible for scholars to trace for the first time how extensive his involvement actually was. From his careful analysis of the draft manuscript, Robinson estimates that Percy Shelley “contributed at least 4,000 to 5,000 words” to the 72,000-word novel. These revisions and additions take a number of forms. Some replace colloquialisms with more formal, Latinate language: “ghost story” with “tale of superstition”; “go to the university” with “become a student at the university”; “it was safe” with “the danger of infection was past”. Others clarify motivation and set up the events that Frankenstein’s insatiable curiosity will unleash. For example, the following comparison between Frankenstein and his future wife, Elizabeth Lavenza. In the draft, Mary Shelley’s “my [ie, Frankenstein’s] amusements were studying old books of chemistry and natural magic; those of Elizabeth were drawing & music” is expanded and changed by Percy Shelley to: “I delighted in investigating the facts relating to the actual world – she busied herself in following the aerial creations of the poets. The world was to me a secret which I desired to discover – to her it was a vacancy which she sought to people with imaginations of her own”. The revisions amplify the difference between the two characters, and establish the curiosity which Frankenstein will later pursue to fatal effect, a curiosity which leads to Elizabeth’s death at the hands of the creature...

Robinson observes that “Most but not all of Percy Shelley’s changes . . . are for the better”. Yet it is important not to reduce the “original” Frankenstein to a discussion of literary value. To be preoccupied with whether Percy’s additions are “better” than what they replace is to miss larger points about collaboration and authorship, both in the Romantic period and beyond. What emerges from the first draft of Frankenstein is a sense of the collaborative energy that helped to forge the novel. The image, vividly evoked in Robinson’s introduction, of Mary and Percy passing the manuscript draft between them, each responding to the ideas of the other, is a powerful reminder that the popular myth of the Romantic author as an isolated, creative genius is just that – a myth. The Shelleys were part of a complex cultural network, involved in literary collaborations and (as the connections between Frankenstein and early nineteenth-century scientific debates illustrate) responsive to contemporary issues.
Exhibit B: The new Swedish horror film Let the Right One In.
Pale and strange: with his light blond hair and alabaster skin, the 12-year-old Oskar appears not quite of this world, an alienation of body and spirit that causes him enormous pain but proves his salvation. The seemingly friendless only son of divorced, emotionally remote parents, he is also an outcast at school. The other children taunt him, particularly a pint-size sadist who grows crueler the more Oskar retreats into himself. But there are few other places he can go, which is how he ends up alone at night outside his apartment building thrusting a knife into a tree as if stabbing his tormentor. It’s an uneasy revenge fantasy that attracts the notice of a girl even paler than he is, Eli (Lina Leandersson), an outcast of a deadlier kind.

The bedraggled Eli drops into Oskar’s life like a blessing, though initially she seems more like a curse. Mr. Alfredson has an elevated sense of visual beauty, but he knows how to deliver the splattery goods. One of the earliest scenes features Eli’s guardian or slave (it’s never clear which), a defeated-looking middle-aged man named Hakan (Per Ragnar), headed into the night with a little black kit, the contents of which — a knife, a plastic container, a funnel (ick) — are soon put to deadly use on a strung-up victim. The ensuing stream of red is all the more gruesome for being so matter-of-fact, though the sudden and comical appearance of an inquisitive poodle quickly eased at least one violently churning stomach.

There are other interested animals in this story, and many more unsettling excuses to laugh. Yet while Mr. Alfredson takes a darkly amused attitude toward the little world he has fashioned with such care, he also takes the morbid unhappiness of his young characters seriously. Both are achingly alone, and it is the ordinary fact of their loneliness rather than their extraordinary circumstances that makes the film more than the sum of its chills and estimable technique. Eli seizes on Oskar immediately, slipping her hand under his, writing him notes, becoming his protector, baring her fangs. “Are you a vampire?” he asks tremulously at one point. Her answer may surprise you, but it’s another of his questions — “Will you be my girlfriend?” — that will floor you.

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