The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Sunday, June 11, 2006


It may be a factor of age, or possibly parenthood, that I rarely seem to be able to read a book all the way through these days, not at the one attempt. Simplicissimus took three or four, with gaps of months - the best part of a year to get from cover to cover. It doesn't appear to have affected my ability to enjoy them - not so long as I stop and switch to something else when I start to get bored - or to remember what's happened, more or less, when I pick them up again. So I have put down December Bride for the time being and restarted The Count of Monte Cristo. The padding in it is outrageous, but I'm managing to forgive Dumas for being such a hack, and taking pleasure from his nonpareil eye for a good yarn.

It may also be a sign of age that I'm taking equal pleasure from the footnotes by Robin Buss, viz:

"The sinister byways of Italian history held a peculiar fascination for French writers at the start of the nineteenth century, particularly for liberals who saw political capital to be made out of relating past papal misdeeds. But there is more to it than that: Stendhal, who tells similar stories in his Chroniques italiennes and Promenades dans Rome, admired the mixture of refinement and savagery that he perceived in Italian culture, and was fascinated by its reversals of expectations (noble bandits, degenerate nobles). The Italian scenes in Dumas' novel are an interesting reflection of the image of Italy in his time and suggest the appeal of a country that French visitors often found liberating after Restoration France."

Stendhal's not the first, or last. Shakespeare and his contemporaries made use of Italian stories on a regular basis (there's an Everyman book of selected original translations, now seemingly out of print), and Thomas Harris had Hannibal Lecter seek refuge in Florence. Refinement and savagery - about right.

And (one for Joe):

"The short novel, Lord Ruthwen, or The Vampire (first published in 1819 in the New Monthly Magazine), was written by Byron's companion and physician, Dr Polidori, who did not discourage the attribution to the poet himself. It was soon translated into French by Henri Faber (1819) and again by Amédée Pichot (1820), and helped to fuel an extraordinary vogue for vampire stories and melodramas, including Cyprien Bérard’s Lord Rutwen, and the melodrama Le Vampire (1820), co-authored by Charles Nodier. Dumas saw this in 1823 and devoted several chapters to it in his memoirs (3rd series, 1863).

"Nodier’s play was promptly re-translated into English by James Planché, as The Vampire, or The Bride of the Isles (1820), and before the end of the same year in France there had been at least five other vampire productions on the Parisian stage: a burlesque, a farce, a comic opera, a vampire Punch [interesting!] and a ‘vaudeville folly’ in which one character says: ‘Vampires! They have come from England…That’s another nice present those gentlemen have sent us!’ Nodier observed that ‘the myth of the vampire is perhaps the most universal of our superstitions’. It revived, of course, with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1899); and lives on in our own century in a medium which might be said to feature only the shadowy figures of the Undead - the cinema."

- most of which he'll already be familiar with, I'm sure.

Then there's this, from the text itself:

'Do so, my dear guest, do so. But do not be content with just one experiment: as with everything, the senses must become accustomed to a new impression, whether it is pleasant or not, happy or sad. Nature wrestles with this divine substance, because our nature is not made for joy but clings to pain. Nature must be defeated in this struggle, reality must follow dreams; and then the dream will rule, will become the master, the dream will become life and life become a dream. What a difference is made by this transfiguration! When you compare the sorrows of real life to the pleasures of the imaginary one, you will never want to live again, only to dream for ever. When you leave your world for that of others, you will feel as if you have travelled from spring in Naples to winter in Lapland, from paradise to earth, from heaven to hell. Try some hashish, my friend! Try it!'

Which, as a pitch, beats "Wan' a score some grass ther pal, likezey?"


I note, with the grim satisfaction of one whose end-is-nigh prognostications have been proved correct, that Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy is now out of print in the UK. Oh, the irony.


At 13 June 2006 at 00:46 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Aha. From the website of the National Library of the Netherlands, of all places:

Stendhal's loose, sometimes careless style is often contrasted with Flaubert's polished, precise use of language. Stendhal was popular in the Netherlands during the 1920s and 1930s among the 'Forum generation', especially for his autobiographical writings. Inspired by Shakespeare [my italics] and always in love with anecdotes, Stendhal used ancient sources for his stories. He adapted sixteenth-century Italian chronicles in several novels, full of violence, love and sex. One of these stories, Les Cenci, deals with an Italian variant of the Don Juan character. The story was first published in the magazine La revue des deux mondes in July 1837, and was reprinted posthumously in 1855 with his other Italian stories in the collection Les chroniques italiennes.

At 13 June 2006 at 10:55 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Oh, and I thought we were the forum generation... but perhaps we're the blog generation.

At 14 June 2006 at 22:36 , Blogger Joe said...

Back when she was still half decent and wasn't 'writing for the Lord', Anne Rice riffed on the mania in Paris for vampiric entertainment by having Le Theatre des Vampires on a Paris stage. The fictional explosion in Britain and France didn't come from nowhere however and supposedly real vampire cases were discussed in the salons of both countries - Rousseau is quite famous for his discussions of vampirism; Voltaire was known to discuss them (with his usual cheeky charm). There were even 'real' cases of vampirism in Paris itself rather than the usual reports from peasants in Eastern Europe, although the case is probably more what we'd consider necrophilia today rather than vampirism.

By the time you get to Dracula Stoker had most of a century's worth of different elements to draw on, which he brings together in Dracula (or The Undead as he almost called it). One pedantic note though - Dracula was 1897, not 1899.

I hadn't really noticed the French fascination with older Italian stories, although it has been a long time since I read my Dumas (you're right, lots of padding, but some great swashbuckling too)- I wonder if this was related to the way the Gothic writers in Britain in the 18th and 19th century tended to use places like Italy and Spain for their settings, seeing them as older, darker, more superstitious than modern, scientific Britain?

At 15 June 2006 at 18:36 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Or possibly the fora generation...

It's Robin Buss's goof on the date, or a typo.


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