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.

9 comments:

Zoe said...

Hi Greg,
This is a fascinating example of a 're-illustrated' text.

I think your analysis of the graphic elements having three functions is really relevant - and I think there is a larger point in here. Suspension of disbelief (through the 'evidence' of documents) and characterisation (through Dr Frankenstein's diary) are both visual embellishments, additional layers to the existing story. But the notion that these documents are real, that they have been discovered, validated and included in this new edition does something else - it asks the reader to completely reinterpret the text, to read it in a way that they would not read any other edition. Rather than than the illustrator interpreting the text in their particular style, as is the case with many illustrated classics, the graphic interventions actually demand you read the text in a different way, as you have convincingly pointed out.

By using photographs you've taken of the book rather than lengthy verbal explanations of the graphic elements, I think you've used images well to make a point - this seems really obvious, but I keep finding that when I'm reading about images they are often floating away from the relevant text, if included at all. If we are to talk about what images 'do' in a meaningful way, we have to think about what we tell and what we show. The way we argue needs to reflect what we argue, or, we need to include more visual rhetoric in our discussion of these texts. Sorry, I'm writing a presentation at the moment and I'm trying to make some of these ideas more coherent!

And, regardless of anything else, what a beautiful volume. Great review.

digshot said...

Yep - and the diary reproductions perform a different, visual form of characterisation in that the surface of the page has visibily been 'created' by the diarist. When we read a handwritten letter in real life, we read the personality behind the letter shapes at the same time we read the content. It's the same here (only they're German shapes and I can't understand them). But it's an interesting tool for a writer, I think.

You're right. Next review will be more visually expressive and helpful, promise. Good practice anyway.

Terry said...

Is this really a translation from the German or is that part of the fiction? Any idea who the real author is?

greg said...

It has to be part of the fiction - the Reverend Hubert Venables must be an alias, but I don't know who for. Googling doesn't help. Will check the book when I get home...

greg said...

As far as I can make out, it's written by a Hubert Venables, but the 'translated from the original German and edited..' bit on the title page is part of the fiction.

Zoe said...

I love that it is so ambiguous. I remember watching Spinal Tap for the first time (I was young) and not understanding 'till about halfway through that it was a spoof - I'd never encountered a mockumentary, and to be fair, rockstars ARE pretty ridiculous. The ability to achieve that kind of suspension of disbelief in an audience is fascinating. It provides a really unstable relationship between the author and the reader (are you making a fool out of me? Can I trust you?) It calls to mind a few of the literary 'controversies' of recent times: A Million Little Pieces, etc. Also, authors like WG Sebald and Brian Castro, who write 'fictional autobiographies'.

greg said...

Fictional autobiography - love it! I guess most autobiographies contain their fair share of fiction; some more than others. Also true of people's perceptions of themselves: memories are based on situations which are often perceived differently by different people - depending on world views, moods, intoxication, etc... One's remembered past is merely a version of events.

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Ken Qualls said...

I would say that Stewart Cowley is the author, not the amamnusis.