Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Frankenstein: The Writer's Cut

How much of "The Waste Land" was by Eliot -- and how much was the work of his mentor, Ezra Pound?

How much did Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel owe to his editor, Maxwell Perkins?

How much of the minimalist genius of Raymond Carver was actually imposed by his editor, Gordon Lish?

To these on-going literary controversies, we can now add another: how much of Frankenstein is by Mary Shelley, and how much is due to the aid of her husband Percy?

In an excellent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Howard tells the fascinating story of the scholar Charles E. Robinson, professor of English at the University of Delaware, who has devoted considerable years to settling this matter, which involved extricating Mary Shelley's original draft from the one marked up by Percy:

"There's no evidence that Percy is responsible for the conception of this novel or even the early drafting of it," he says. "All the evidence that we have is that he comes in at this intermediate stage and offers his editorial advice and changes, and comes in at the fair-copy stage and offers some melodramatic prose for the final version of the scene in the polar regions." Close to publication, Percy added about 60 words to the ending. "Those words are a bit purple," Robinson says.

In Mary's early version of the monster's final speech, for example, he looks forward to his death with these words: "I shall ascend my pile triumphantly & the flame that consumes my body will give rest & blessings to my mind." In Percy's version, the line becomes: "I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell."

Howard also quotes Anne K. Mellor, who first tackled the authorship question back in the 1980s:

Her own study of the notebooks led her to conclude that Percy "made many technical corrections and several times clarified the narrative and thematic continuity of the text." In Mellor's reading, however, Percy at times "misunderstood her intentions and distorted her ideas" as he attempted to impose his style on his wife and make the novel more formal and Latinate.

"Percy never met a monosyllable that he didn't want to make a polysyllable," Mellor says. "Percy thought he was heightening her prose style, making it sound more erudite." So the monster walks around "sounding as if he's Horace."

This helps explain why I've always thought Frankenstein, while no doubt an extremely influential book in the development of the horror story, and an absolutely vital one in examining the Romantic ethos, or whatever you call it, it's actually not very good. When I read it a few years ago, I kept trying to cut it some slack, reminding myself that it was written by a teenager. Alas, my suspension of disbelief became less and less willful, partly because it rather paled compared to the movie.

In the movie, the monster (so brilliantly portrayed by Boris Karloff) is a crazed imbecile, which seems to me a lot more credible than what Shelley (or Shelley and Percy) cooked up, which is this kind of doleful loser who speaks the Queen's English.

Of course, the movie does have a certain amount of baggage, and you have to make yourself forget that Karloff's portrayal has become such a broad stereotype. Still, nothing the monster said in the book was as effective as any of Karloff's tormented grunts in the film, or the otherworldly power of its lighting and composition.

No comments: