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November 29, 2012

From the archive, 26 November 1831: The origins of Frankenstein

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — Bookblurb @ 6:27 am

A miniature portrait of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton.

As a revised edition of her famous novel Frankenstein is published, Mary Shelley reveals the genesis of the story.

By Mary Shelley

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.

They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin (I speak not of what the doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him), who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bound of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together; I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out; and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.

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June 19, 2012

Frankenstein, Milton & the Computer

Mary Shelley

On this day in 1816 the Shelleys, Lord Byron and entourage gathered at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva to tell the ghost stories that would trigger Frankenstein. The byways of literature being what they are, this most legendary of storm-tossed evenings has connections backwards to John Milton and forward to the language of computer programming.

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March 8, 2012

Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?

By Ruth Franklin

“I have no doubt of seeing the animal today,” Mary Wollstonecraft wrote hastily to her husband, William Godwin, on August 30, 1797, as she waited for the midwife who would help her deliver the couple’s first child. The “animal” was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would grow up to be Mary Shelley, wife of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankenstein, one of the most enduring and influential novels of the nineteenth century. But Wollstonecraft would not live to see her daughter’s fame: She died of an infection days after giving birth.

The last notes that Wollstonecraft wrote to Godwin are included in the exhibition “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet,” which began last year at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and has now come to the New York Public Library. On display are numerous artifacts both personal and literary from the lives of the Shelleys, including manuscript pages from the notebook in which Mary wrote Frankenstein (with editing in the margins by her husband), which have never before been shown publicly in the United States. But it was Wollstonecraft’s scribbled note, in which she referred to her baby as “the animal”— the same word that the scientist in Frankenstein would use to describe his own notorious creation—that gave me pause. Could the novel—commonly understood as a fable of masculine reproduction, in which a man creates life asexually—also be a story about pregnancy?

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February 9, 2012


Filed under: Lists — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 5:48 am

Stephen King's The Shining

We’re not just about prize-winners and underappreciated books here at The Literary Man.  And since Halloween’s only a few days away, we present you with The Scary Book List. We specifically chose the term ‘scary’ and not ‘horror’, or ‘thriller’, or even ‘paranormal’ because like most good lists, ours is inclusive and written to point our readers in the right direction rather than the last word in this or any subject. Discerning readers will point out glaring omissions, of course.  Where are ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’, you ask? Safe and sound in their ancient, seminal places, where they belong. We like Shelley and Stoker as much as you do (possibly more), but we’re not sure if they still have the power to scare us.  The countless film adaptations and re-imaginings have rendered those classics impotent in our amygdalas. And after all, the primary task of a scary novel is to scare. So herewith, The Literary Man’s Top Ten Scariest Books of All Time:

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November 15, 2011

Battle Of The Books: Genre Vs. Literary

Genre Vs. Literary

Column by Stephen Graham Jones

Scratch the surface of most any discussion about fiction, and what you find seething under there is that old tension between the literary and the genre. Or maybe it’s a dynamo, an engine—two magnets spinning around each other, making energy, spinning out stories, or maybe it’s some yin-yang thing, and we’re supposed to understand that you can’t recognize the good if you don’t have some bad around to compare it to.

I’m being charitable here, too. At least for the moment. Never mind that genre fiction always get the short end of the measuring stick, that it’s built into the language, even: literary writers go ‘slumming,’ they step in the ‘gutter,’ they take a tour through the ‘ghetto’—this is insulting more than just writers—or, conversely, they ‘elevate’ genre just by trafficking in its conventions, by showing these scrubby, cash-grubbing writers how a real story’s told.

So, already I’m losing my charitable disposition here. And no, I don’t want to try on that old argument that genre’s where it all started—Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, and on and on, deeper and deeper. Not because those aren’t solid works, but because it allows ‘serious’ writers and critics to suggest that those were all the comic books the culture was reading in its indiscriminate youth. But we found the right librarian (a Flaubert fan, no doubt), and graduated to the good stuff, the gritty, realistic stuff. And I wish I were talking Ed Brubaker, here—is there anybody who writes more gritty, more ‘realistic?’—but no. I’m talking all the kitchen-sink dramas dressed up in their various ways, which are considered ‘quality’ because they so accurately depict or reflect our own lives. But you can’t allow that defense; the conventions of our waking world and of the dream world of fiction, they’re completely different. If you ever allow yourself to say that it’s that way on the page because that’s the way it happened, then you’re not giving fiction enough credit. Why not shoot a documentary feature instead, then not edit it down? Just give us the raw footage. And from all angles at once.

No, fiction’s better than that. It can be. It has to be.

Also, that title fight everybody’s always feeling like they’re watching, and have to take sides about, ‘Literary vs. Genre’—I trust that the audience is sophisticated enough to see that there will never be any punches thrown. Simply because the terms themselves shouldn’t be in the same ring. Or, really, because one can be used to modify the other.

‘Literary,’ what it’s come to refer to in the marketplace is That Which Subscribes to No Conventions. Yes? If I could water it down more, I would. And of course that’s pretty much just another way to say ‘Not Genre.’ So, ‘Literary,’ it’s ‘Not Genre,’ and ‘Genre,’ it’s then defined pretty much as being ‘Not Literary.’ And terms which define each other by referring to themselves are of course useless in any hopefully-productive discussion.

And, I suppose the literary enthusiasts—not a charitable term there, sorry—might offer a definition along the lines of ‘fiction which doesn’t break any physical laws,’ ‘fiction which is believable because it could actually happen, or be happening right now, next door,’ ‘fiction which subscribes to realism,’ or, I don’t know, they might even just go ahead and call it ‘serious fiction’ (very problematic, that), or simply ‘fiction of sufficient depth that it can be returned to again and again.’ more

September 26, 2011

Bodleian Library shows off treasures, from Magna Carta to Shakespeare

Detail from a 14th-century account of Marco Polo's travels, one of the items in the Bodleian's exhibition. Photograph: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Oxford library to ask exhibition visitors which items deserve permanent display – including a First Folio it once threw away.

By Maev Kennedy

A spectacular exhibition of the greatest treasures of one of the most famous libraries in the world features a monument to past folly: a large battered leather volume the Bodleian Library in Oxford sold off as surplus to requirements in 1664 and had to raise a fortune to buy back almost 250 years later.

Now, rather than getting rid of the exhibits, it is holding them in storage. Visitors to the Bodleian’s new exhibition, will be invited to suggest which ones deserve to be given permanent display in the new gallery.

The £78m transformation of the New Bodleian will give the library climate-controlled stores and reading rooms, and a museum-quality gallery for the first time.

But few outsiders have any idea of how extraordinary its contents are.

They include Magna Carta; a pristine Gutenberg Bible; a dazzling 14th-century travels of Marco Polo; Philip Pullman; William Blake; Jane Austen’s handwritten compendium of her own earliest writings; a 13th-century bestiary showing an elephant being strangled by the only animal it fears, a serpent like dragon; the Codex Mendoza, an account made for the first Spanish viceroy of the Aztec civilisation Spain was destroying; Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein with suggestions scribbled in by Shelley; and the earliest almost complete copy of a poem by Sappho, from a cache of extraordinary documents found in a rubbish dump in Egypt in the 19th century. more

September 12, 2011

The Literary Worth of Comics

The debate about whether or not comics are a form of literature has raged on since the early 80’s, and a key component in the debate is trying to build criteria for literary worth. This is, in my opinion, a fruitless endeavour. Literary worth is purely subjective and determined not by criteria, but by personal importance. The academic perception of literary worth is very different, and it’s this academic perception that I wish to discuss. It generally takes three elements into account when attempting to determine worth in storytelling mediums.

These elements are the narrative itself, it’s cultural importance and its Innovation as a piece of literature. When comparing comics to other forms of literature it becomes clear that the medium itself should not be ignored, but afforded a place among the literary elite.

Why do comics get a bad rap?
In order to fully understand why comics should be accepted as having literary worth we must first understand why they generally aren’t. Comics have been around since people could draw, but it wasn’t until the 1920’s and 30’s that the ‘American Comic’ became popular. The boom coinciding with other ‘low-brow’ literature of the time, namely science fiction and the pulps. Comics and pulps were inexpensive escapist fiction written simply with little subtext, so the story was easy to follow and easy to read. It was storytelling for the masses. Genre fiction in general has only recently gained critical acceptance anyway, with gothic horror such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stocker’s Dracula, followed by fantasy fiction such as The Lord of the Rings. Comics were doomed from the beginning.

It also doesn’t help the medium’s cause that there is a culture and perception that ‘comics are for children. I’m not sure how this perception came about. Certainly there have been many comics for children over the years, but for every Donald Duck, there was also a Fritz the Cat. Perhaps because comics have been used to bridge the gap between picture books and works of prose in teaching children to read or may be because they bear resemblance to children’s picture books, comics have been unfairly labelled ‘for kids’.

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