Book Quote:

“I sat quite still and observed the heavens revolving above my head, and wondered if they were the origin of my being. Or had I come from the creeping waters of the river? Or from the mild earth that nurtured all the plants and flowers of the world? When at first light a wood pigeon came before me, I took part in its existence and pecked upon the ground; when a gull flew above my head I shared its soaring form; when I watched an otter upon the bank, I could feel the sleekness of its limbs. In all creatures now I felt the force of one life, a life I shared, of which the principles were energy and joy.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (DEC 11, 2010)

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, and it stands as a classic marker of the intersection between the Romantic and Industrial Ages. The most superficial aspect of her idea — a being created from human corpses by the use of electricity that turns out to be a monster — has been transformed by Hollywood into a cliché of the horror genre. Yet Mary Shelley’s original work has profound moral and philosophical implications that shed a great deal of light on the thought of the time, and are relevant in many respects to debates in our own age, such as cloning and stem-cell research. Peter Ackroyd’s retelling of the story might seem superfluous, except that for modern readers it manages to cut even closer to the heart of what made the original novel so important, not least in its pitch-perfect evocation of early 19th-century style and intellectual portrait of the age.

What Ackroyd is essentially writing about is the genesis of Frankenstein, and the intellectual climate which gave it birth. The book is presented as the first-person narration of Frankenstein himself, a cultured gentleman from the Mont Blanc region who comes to study at Oxford University and there meets Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two become close friends and Victor later meets many members of the atheist and agnostic circles in which Shelley occasionally moved, his two wives (Harriet Westwood and Mary Woolstonecraft Godwin), and literary personages such as Lord Byron and the shadowy John Polidori, who is credited as the author of the first vampire story. Frankenstein’s studies are originally philosophical, into the origin, nature, and meaning of life, but they soon take a more practical turn as he explores whether the newly-discovered “electrical fluid” might be the source of all energy, and thus be harnessed in the conquest of death.

As Mary Shelley had done, Ackroyd brings Frankenstein and the monster together again for the creature to tell his story. This is a passage of extraordinary beauty, as the opening quotation should show, in which the creature goes through the process of human learning with astonishing rapidity. Like a second Caliban, he looks on life from a perspective largely free from conventions of social and religious morality, but he goes far beyond Caliban in his appreciation of abstract philosophy. The apparent disconnect between the purity of the creature’s mind and the deformity of his body may surprise some readers, but it will become important later.

Ackroyd differs from Shelley in that his Frankenstein only revives a recently-deceased corpse; there is no thought of new creation. His story is more concentrated in space and time, and less melodramatic. He also takes several liberties with history: most of the events concerning real-life people did indeed take place, but Ackroyd freely shifts them around by a year or so here and there, and suggests different circumstances for known events such as the drowning of Shelley’s first wife. But those who are prepared to read the novel as something more than a simple retelling of Mary Shelley’s original or a book of history will find a work of some depth that is entirely true to the essence of its period, besides being a rattling tale of Gothic adventure. And nowhere does Ackroyd depart more significantly from the original than in his astounding but carefully-prepared conclusion — but that would be telling!

As a former art-historian whose specialty was the Romantic period, I take a particular interest in Ackroyd’s insights. In one scene, for example, Frankenstein and the Shelleys are sailing up the Rhine, looking at the “rugged mounts, and crags, and precipices, where castles had been erected among the rocks and torrents.” Bysshe takes the anarchist point of view: “There is tyranny visible. Every stone is fashioned out of blood. It is built upon foundations of suffering.” Mary, however, contradicts him: “The spirit of this place is more friendly than you suppose, Bysshe. It is more intimate with humankind. Do you not see? How much more harmonious than those mountain peaks and abysses you praise so highly! This landscape is touched by the human spirit.” A perfect summation of this particular landscape and its many reflections in the Romantic imagination. And, in the balance of Gothic wildness and the touch of the human spirit, a beautiful symbol of the essence of Ackroyd’s book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 23 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor; Reprint edition (September 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another set in this time with these people:

Another variation on a classic storyline:



December 11, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author

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