Sunday, 12 August 2007

The Frankenstein Diaries, 'translated from the original German and edited by The Reverend Hubert Venables', (Charles Herridge, 1980)

In The Frankenstein Dairies, Mary Shelley’s original story has been abridged, annotated and re-presented in a different form, with graphic elements given at least as much room as the text. So, unlike the other novels discussed so far in this blog, the visual devices in this book were not conceived at the time the story was written.

The point of this new form becomes clear at the outset. The ‘Editor’s Foreword’ (as with Alasdair Gray’s Poor things) asks us to believe that the Frankenstein legend is in fact true. The graphic elements are provided both as ‘evidence’ for this and as a way of bringing us closer to the diarist – the tormented Dr Frankenstein. Venables tells us a ‘tatttered bundle of ancient, decaying papers arrived ten years ago from a colleague in Switzerland’ and that, following research, he has ‘established beyond all personal doubt the authenticity of the diaries as a true historical record of fact.’

From the prologue, which is illustrated by 'the only known portrait of Viktor Frankenstein' and 'a portrait of Caroline Beaufort, Viktor's mother':

‘The reader is bound to view with some scepticism the publication, over 150 years after the event, of a volume purporting to contain extracts from the diaries of a figure universally considered never to have lived… Yet there is some truth in the saying that there is no smoke without fire, or, more appropriately, that there is often if not usually a basis in real life for a legend. Encouraged by this thought, I therefore began my investigations…’

Every page of typed and annotated diary entries that follows includes accompanying items from the editor’s papers. These fall into two categories: reproductions of the original diary pages and the diarist’s drawings:

and miscellaneous items from the editor’s research:

While all the visual elements serve as evidence for the claim that what we’re reading is real, the two categories have additional functions.

The captioned items from the editor’s research include portraits of key characters, illustrations showing scientific equipment of the day, a map, a clipping of a newspaper account of one the monster’s murders, and photographs. These things link the events in the book to real historical events, to the real world in which we live. They also use the visual language of newspapers and non-fiction books, and so tacitly ask the reader to accept them as fact. In this way they extend the suspension of disbelief in a way that words alone cannot.

The reproduced diary entries do something different. When reading first-person narratives, any visual element purportedly created by the narrator bring us closer to the character by allowing us to see through their eyes. The marks that they’ve ‘made’ on the page are human, familiar – believable. This is the intention here. We see ornate German handwriting and Da Vinci-like diagrams on aged and stained parchment. And somehow these marks show us into our narrator’s mind in a way that is unattainable through words and text. So, when we see Frankenstein’s monster, as drawn by its creator, in a spread that punctuates the text and the action, we are also shown the moment the sketch was made - we imagine ourselves in that room with the parchment in front of us, the creature lumbering around with its misshapen limbs and pleading eyes...

Do these graphic interventions work? Well, the reader does often have to backtrack to read captions and study pictures, and so the book has a different rhythm and pace to a text novel. But as the pictures are so integral to the mood and the ideas behind this reworking, it doesn't suffer for this.