?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

I reckon if I just crack on with it and don't allow myself to get too carried away with any individual one, I can get my 2017 book reviews finished today. Let's see how that goes...


6. Nick Clegg (2016), Politics: Between the Extremes

I am Quite Ashamed that Nick Clegg has written and published a whole other book during the time it's taken me to get round to reviewing this one. I read it largely in the bath or by the pool-side in Cyprus, and for a book on politics it worked remarkably well in those settings. Clegg's written prose is impressively clear and fluent, while his content is very perceptive and intelligent on the current state of UK politics, articulating the significance of what's happened in recent years very clearly and often appearing extremely prescient on some of the things which have happened since it was published. It's exceptionally frustrating that he has undermined so much of what he might have had to offer in this book and in politics generally as a result of how he approached coalition government. No matter how thoughtful, valuable or well-meaning much of what he has to say is, he has now so completely trashed his capacity to reach a majority of people in this country that there is a significant extent to which he may as well not bother. But I do admire the thickness of skin which allows him to continue nonetheless, and in fairness he certainly isn't hoarding the lessons of his rather unique path through British politics to himself. He quite openly acknowledges that the coalition wasn’t exactly a roaring success for the Liberal Democrats, and sets out at least some of the reasons for that with considerable humility and perspicacity. Who can say whether he could have handled it better given the chance again, but I think his comments on the negotiation process and the day-to-day business of working with the Tories will be exceptionally useful to any smaller party attempting to form and work within a coalition with a larger party in the future. Indeed, I wondered wryly last June whether the DUP leadership had read it, given how efficiently they appear to have wrung everything they could out of the Tories in return for a mere confidence and supply deal. Few will agree with every political position he expresses - there were certainly a couple of passages which made me want to give him a shake and point out his blind-spots (though unfortunately I can't remember what on now, as I didn't take notes at the time). But it’s hard not to come away with the overall impression of an intelligent and compassionate man who is much more genuinely committed to improving the life-chances of everyone in the UK and beyond than he is often given credit for.


7. Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally (1989), Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times

Read on my Kindle in Australia. Florescu and McNally are famous in Dracula circles above all for their 1972 book In Search of Dracula, in which they argued that Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula by a deep and profound knowledge of the historical Vlad III Dracula (rather than setting out to write a vampire story and dressing his creation in an impressionistic mish-mash of elements which certainly include Vlad's name and a few pickings from his life-history but don't privilege them). This isn't that book, but it's important context for how I approached this one, and relates directly to the next book I read as well. Basically, although I haven't read the 1972 book, it's famous now above all for over-interpreting Bram's prose to assume things without sound justification - e.g. assuming that wooden stakes are a key weapon against vampires because Bram knew Vlad had used them to impale his enemies, rather than because he had encountered this standard method of despatch during his research into general vampire lore. But it was also clear to me from what I'd read about the 1972 book that half the problem was that it was the work of two (somewhat over-enthusiastic) historians approaching a piece of literature without really understanding how an author like Bram works. On that basis, I was prepared to give Florescu and McNally a try as historians of the real historical Dracula, which is what they are being in this book. As such, for me it was a complement to reading Treptow's book on the historical Dracula a couple of years ago (LJ / DW).

Indeed, as history, it was pretty good, and certainly better than I'd feared from the things people say about the authors' 1972 book. In particular, they present lots of direct quotations from the primary source material, which is what I’m really after with regards to the historical Dracula (and why I liked Treptow's book so much). They also took a more systematic narrative approach that Treptow, who groups his material more thematically, which helped to fill out some details and clarify causes and effects for me where I hadn't fully understood them before. But there are some errors to catch - e.g. they think Whitby has a ruined Cathedral rather than an Abbey. And, more seriously, their interpretation of some of the primary material needed more thought. They are fully aware that the German and Russian pamphlets about Dracula’s atrocities were written with strong political agendas which have obviously strongly distorted their content, and indeed they discuss those agendas and the role of the pamphlets in furthering them at the appropriate point in the book. BUT they also still take the contents of the pamphlets very nearly at face value in other parts of the book when it suits them to do so. In other words, they commit the classic undergraduate dissertation student's error of explaining the 'problems' with the primary sources in their introduction, and then ticking that task off their to-do list, dusting their hands and going on to use those sources completely uncritically in the rest of the work. Luckily I have the training and experience to realise that that is happening and read around it, but it's irritating to see professional historians doing this, and perpetuating myths as a result.


8. Elizabeth Miller (2006), Dracula: Sense and Nonsense (2nd edn)

Also read on my Kindle in Australia. The basic premise of the book is that people talk a lot of unsupported nonsense about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so Miller goes through the most persistent and egregious myths systematically, quoting examples and explaining the problems with them. She explains the approach herself on this publishers' page about the book. I completely see the need for this. People do churn out ill-researched books on Dracula because anything with his name in the title sells, and I’ve been irritated myself often enough by the constant repetition of well-worn canards. Florescu and McNally's 1972 book claiming that Count Dracula the vampire was inspired by a detailed knowledge of Vlad III Dracula (mentioned above) is obviously a prime example, but there are plenty more. In general, Miller unpicks them very fairly, drawing on what is clearly an exceptional knowledge of the book, Bram's writing process and the scholarship around it, and guided by unerring critical facilities and a very sophisticated understanding of how both history and literature work. That said, I think the format of this book often encourages her to go a bit too far to the opposite extreme in the cause of killing off popular myths.

In the case of the relationship between the historical Dracula and the vampire Count, the detail of Miller's deconstruction of Florescu and McNally's claims is very good and entirely justified. As she shows, Bram's research notes make it very clear that he developed the character before he found the name, and probably only knew a few basic details about Vlad III Dracula's actual career. BUT the antagonistic 'what nonsense!' tone in which she presents her case has I think inspired a lot of people to take the whole issue on too much of a black-and-white basis. It's not exactly Miller's fault that lots of blokey horror fans on Facebook groups now rush to inform everybody that Bram's Dracula has 'nothing to do with' the historical Vlad every time the subject comes up, because in fact she herself is far more nuanced than this and entirely acknowledges that Bram did use snippets of Vlad to round out his creation without intending Dracula wholly to 'be' Vlad. But I think she has fed a climate in which the baby is entirely thrown out with the bathwater by people unable to appreciate these sorts of nuances. The same goes for other examples as well. E.g. she calls the idea that Bram drew on his relationship with Henry Irving to help develop his characterisation of Dracula 'fabrication', but to me 'over-simplification' would be fairer. Obviously authors draw on the real personal relationships they have experienced when crafting their characters, at least subconsciously, and there has to be a middle ground between ‘Stoker's Dracula is a thinly-veiled caricature of Irving’ and ‘Stoker's Dracula has nothing to do with Irving’ which allows for Irving to have been just one of the character's many real-world ancestors.

I spotted one actual error, which is that Miller insists Dracula's famous cape comes only from film adaptations and is not mentioned in the novel. But unless we want to argue that a cape is meaningfully different from a cloak, these words from Jonathan Harker's journal (12 May, chapter 3) contradict her: "I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings." In complete fairness to Miller, though, it's quite clear that she would acknowledge the issue straight away, as she does in fact once or twice hold her hands up to her own previously-published erroneous assumptions within this book. She also provides a very helpful annotated bibliography of major publications on Stoker and Dracula, some of which I will certainly be reading. I came away feeling great admiration for both Miller's scholarship and her open style of debate, but wishing she had presented what she knows about Stoker and his novel straightforwardly, rather than in the format of killing canards. Thankfully, elsewhere she has, so I've since acquired a copy of her book Bram Stoker's Dracula: A Documentary Journey into Vampire Country and the Dracula Phenomenon and look forward to reading it.


9. Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula

So it was fairly inevitable in the light of the other reading I'd done this year - especially Makt Myrkranna (LJ / DW) and Miller's book - that I would feel the urge to Go Back To The Text; and this feeling was only intensified by the approach of our DracSoc trip to Whitby in September (LJ / DW). I read Dracula first when I was nine, and reviewed it here on my last read in 2004: LJ / DW. I find some aspects of that review a bit cringeworthy now, feeling that it largely presents a lot of very obvious and widely-recognised points as though they were original observations. But then again, I had certainly had much less exposure to other people's writing and discussion about Dracula then than I have now, my friends at the time seemed to like it, and it's a very early example of me reviewing anything at all online. I didn't start doing it regularly and systematically until 2007, and the fact that one of the occasions before then when I was inspired to do it was after reading Dracula says quite a lot about how much the novel has always meant to me.

I enjoyed the re-read, and it certainly enhanced my trip to Whitby to have those sections fresh in my mind. I was struck throughout by Bram's facility for descriptive prose, and particularly liked the newspaper account of the storm as it brews in the prelude to the arrival of the Demeter. I also appreciated his ability to capture plausibly the voices of women. I commented on the strength of Mina's character in my last review, but here I mean rather things like the tone of her and Lucy's letters to one another, Lucy's internal thoughts as her mysterious illness increases and Mina's sensible, clear-headed pragmatism throughout. I don't mean to claim that Bram is a great feminist or his women perfect literary creations - in particular, Mina's description of herself as unclean and dramatic requests to be put out of her misery should she become a vampire come across very much as the stereotypical melodramatic and self-sacrificing Victorian female heroine. But I just mean it's better than you might expect for a late-Victorian male writer, and Bram deserves the credit for that. I was also surprised by how quickly Dracula leaves London once the vampire-hunters start seriously invading his lairs, which slightly undermines his characterisation as the ultimate demonic enemy. Within a day of snarling out his famous line at the house in Piccadilly that "My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side", he is on a ship out of there, so that the line falls a bit flat really in retrospect. Meanwhile, with my Hammer lenses on, I enjoyed the moments when their various crystallisations of the novel suddenly flared up on the page, and indeed spotted one I hadn't really taken on board before: that even as late as The Satanic Rites of Dracula, when you would think the novel had entirely been left behind, the way Jane (Valerie Van Ost) experiences Dracula's approach in the form of a mist billowing under her door while she lies helpless on the bed, unable to escape, is actually very directly based on how he gets into Mina's room in Seward's asylum in the novel.

But the main thing that happened on this read, and which I had certainly never noticed before, is that I found myself seeing a nexus of Classical references woven into the book, and indeed enough of them for it to be worth writing a paper on the topic. This is very exciting, because having enjoyed the World Dracula Congress which I attended in Dublin in 2016 (LJ / DW) and knowing that another is coming up in Brașov this October, I had been increasingly thinking that it would be really nice to attend the next one as a presenter rather than just a listener. Well, now I've found my topic and indeed have got far enough with developing the idea to have submitted an abstract to the conference committee (which I'm currently waiting to hear on). I won't say too much about it here, as it's a separate matter from an ordinary book review, and besides I don't want to give too many details of my argument away before the actual conference. But a simple and typical example of the sort of stuff I've been collecting is represented by this little speech from Van Helsing:
Let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India, even in the Chersonese; and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even is he, and the peoples fear him at this day. He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar.
There, Bram is situating Dracula within a frame of reference which explicitly extends to antiquity, although of course only alongside a whole symphony of other cultural resonances. My point is essentially going to be that we wouldn't want to isolate the Classical references from the rest of the mix, but since they are there they are worth exploring and understanding properly - and while people have spent a lot of time examining Stoker's use of Eastern European history and folklore, personal knowledge of Whitby and London etc., no-one has really pulled together the Classical references and shown what they contribute to the novel as a whole and the characterisation of Dracula in particular. I've got about 25 in all, scattered fairly evenly through the novel - some straightforward and explicit like the one I've included here, others more allusive, and others still quite fundamental and structural. Anyway, I am enjoying pursuing and thinking about them all HUGELY, and assuming that my paper is accepted will probably be banging on about this topic quite a lot more over the next few months as I steer my leisure reading in its service. You have been warned!


10. Charles Dickens (2009) Complete Ghost Stories (Wordsworth Classics edition; editor unnamed).

Finally, this was my Christmas reading. I had read M.R. James' full oeuvre the Christmas before (LJ / DW), so wanted something in the same vein but not actually James, and Dickens seemed the obvious choice. I read parts of it on a train to Göttingen, looking out over wooded valleys and light driving snow, and finished it on New Year's Eve in the somewhat chilly garret of my sister's Georgian house, listening to fireworks going off all around me - all of which (except perhaps the fireworks) seemed extremely appropriate. You can see the full table of contents via Amazon's look inside function, but I will confess that I skipped 'A Christmas Carol', on the grounds of having read it at least twice already. Several of the earlier stories in particular are actually extracted from ongoing serials such as The Pickwick Papers, rather than having been written as stand-alone stories as such.

Generally I enjoyed the collection hugely, and one of its pleasures was the organisation of most of the content into chronological order, starting in 1837 with The Queer Chair and finishing in 1866 with The Signalman (a lot of the remainder of the book after this actually consists of tongue-in-cheek meta-commentary on the standard tropes of ghost stories, rather than straightforward stories per se). In broad terms, the earlier stories show a greater interest in exploring the capacities of language, repeatedly delighting the reader with descriptions which are just perfect for and evocative of whatever is at hand, yet always original and surprising. They lean towards the moralistic, though, in a way that can sometimes strike a modern reader as rather sickly and cloying. The later stories, by contrast, are perhaps simpler in their language, but more complex in their morality - edges are greyer now, and there is less of a sense that Dickens wants to convey a Lesson. In other words, there's plenty of pleasure and value to be had throughout, though of different kinds.

My least favourite story was 'The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain', which read like an attempt to recreate the success of 'A Christmas Carol' five years later, with a similar central motif of a self-centred elderly man learning to be a better person after supernatural intervention. But this one certainly did suffer from cloying morality without ever offering anything of the seasonal good cheer also inherent in 'A Christmas Carol'. My most favourite, after giving each entry a fair hearing, was still 'The Signalman', for its masterful portrait of the human psyche under the strain of isolation and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. There's a good reason why that one was selected for the BBC's annual ghost story adaptations in the '70s. The most surprising moment, though, came in the middle of 'The Ghosts of the Mail', in which the narrator's somewhat inebriated uncle, walking late at night through the street of Edinburgh, comes across some abandoned mail-coaches, and experiences visions of the eighteenth-century cads, adventurers and damsels who once travelled in them. The story unfolds of a distressed young lady who is clearly being abducted by her male fellow travellers, and whom the uncle (now fully absorbed into his own hallucination) resolves to rescue. Once the coach stops and everything erupts into actual sword-play, though, this happens:
At this very moment, the gentleman in sky-blue turning round, and seeing the young lady with her face uncovered, vented an exclamation of rage and jealousy, and, turning his weapon against her beautiful bosom, pointed a thrust at her heart, which caused my uncle to utter a cry of apprehension that made the building ring. The lady stepped lightly aside, and snatching the young man's sword from his hand, before he had recovered his balance, drove him to the wall, and running it through him, and the panelling, up to the very hilt, pinned him there, hard and fast. It was a splendid example.
One of Xena Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's literary ancestors there!


OK, I did it. That is 2017's books all written up. That doesn't mean I'm quite at the top of my pile - I still have six 2017 films to do, besides another three already for 2018 and one book. But getting completely up to date is looking more achievable right now that it has for a long time. That is a good feeling.


Dreamwidth version | comment count unavailablecomments | Leave a comment

Latest Month

August 2018
S M T W T F S
   1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031 

Tags

Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by chasethestars