Book Review: Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

MoveableFeastWhen I finished reading Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife,  a fictional recounting of Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife Hadley, I entered into a small obsession with Hemingway’s life and fiction, which is what led me to A Moveable Feast.  He has been much discussed, not only as a writer,  but also as an adventurer — a larger than life icon of manly man living.  Serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during  World War I, then a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Hemingway very much lived the stories of love and danger that fill his novels.

He also knew nearly all of the literary greats of his day and was himself an overnight success with the publication of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.  Always wary of losing his own authentic voice by being sucked into the world of wealth that surrounded him, he frequently took dangerous writing assignments that put him into the front lines of conflict.  He loved outdoor sports and had a life-long fascination with bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and big-game hunting that appears again and again in his work.  But for all the dangerous and exhilarating pursuits, it was alcohol that would get him in the end, destroying his ability to write, from both a physical and mental perspective.  His last book, his memoir A Moveable Feast, is frequently cited as proof that his talent was declining.  And yet, A Moveable Feast was still a delight for me, as I fell into the enchantment of Hemingway’s distinct cadence, sharp dialogue and forthright description of the glittering literary expatriate world of Paris.

Oh, how I love the dialogue of Hemingway.  As a writer, I can’t help but admire how well he describes character through dialogue.  It is the work of a master.  When he first meets Gertrude Stein, he writes:

‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she said.
‘It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do
both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention
at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort
and durability, and you will have the clothes money to
buy pictures.

 

”But even if I never bought any more clothing ever,’ I
said, ‘I wouldn’t have enough money to buy the
Picassos that I want.’

 

‘No. He’s out of your range. You have to buy the
people of your own age – of your own military service
group. You’ll know them. You’ll meet them around the
quarter.

There’s just no one that writes dialogue like Ernest Hemingway.  I can only sit back and admire the eloquently rhythmic exchanges, enjoying the beautiful simplicity of the language.

When Hemingway arrived in Paris,  he was a young man and an unknown in literary circles.  Thanks to an introduction by Sherwood Anderson,  who had mentored him back home,  he was able to enter the same social circles of the most famous Modernist writers.  A Movable Feast is a tell-all memoir about many of the famous people that he knew; Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald feature prominently, with chapters devoted to Hemingway’s relationship with each of them.  He gives us his impressions of them, both from his perspective as a young man and the perspective of his older self — the mature and confident writer that he became.  When Hemingway describes his first meeting of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he writes that

Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty.  His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful, unmarked nose. This should not have added up to a pretty face, but that came from the colouring, the very fair hair and the mouth. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.

It’s moments like these that make A Moveable Feast so enjoyable.  The modernists were larger than life people, so Hemingway’s memories of them are delightful for literature fans.  Although the book could run the risk of sounding like a gossip column, it is Hemingway’s devotion to writing that saves it. When he criticizes the relationship between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is because of its affect on Fitzgerald’s work.  He writes:

He was always trying to work. Each day he would try and fail. He laid the failure to Paris, the town best organized for a writer to write in that there is and he thought always that there would be some place where he and Zelda could have a good life together again.

As a memoir, there is not much in the way of insight into Hemingway himself — but A Moveable Feast can sometimes be painful in its honesty about the other writers.  When he writes about Gertrude Stein that “she disliked the drudgery of revision and the obligation to make her writing intelligible, although she needed to have publication and official acceptance, especially for the unbelievably long book called The Making of Americans,” I couldn’t help but wince for Stein.  Yet, having read The Making of Americans, I have to agree with his commentary.  Still, it’s painful to read such a public pronouncement of his opinion of someone he once considered a friend, and made me wonder about the cost to the author about writing so truthfully in a memoir.  A Movable Feast was published posthumously by Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary Welsh Hemingway a few years after his suicide.  Would Hemingway himself would have gone forth so bravely? I suspect, given the courage with which he lived his life, that he probably would have .

This concern with the writing that the modernists were producing drives the book, which provides fascinating insight into how these writers work.  We learn predominantly of Hemingway’s own routines as a young writer and hear his version of the famous lost manuscripts. He ends the book with the publication of The Sun Also Rises, telling us about his transformation from journalist to novelist and the failure of his first marriage. Given the celebrity and curiosity surrounding Hemingway as a man, it’s a must-read for any Hemingway enthusiast — and an excellent companion to The Paris Wife.

Genre: memoir, nonfiction
Subjects: Hemingway, lost generation, modernists, roaring 20s

My Year as a Cow

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                        My Spirit Sister

I grew up with the idea that high schools in the fifties used to make their students carry around an egg for a week, to teach them what having a baby is like.  I don’t know if this is true or a result of having watched too many sitcoms, but I’ve been thinking of it a lot now that my day involves navigating trains and side walks and elevators, with my ever-present breast milk cooler always draped over my pretty leather commuter bag.  Somehow, the cooler has become the most important thing I own and what I am most afraid of leaving behind.  I carry it carefully, making sure that the four precious bottles of milk do not spill, because it’s a resource that nothing but time can replace.

In the breastfeeding community, breast milk is often called liquid gold.  It’s touted as the most important thing that you can do for your baby — and its importance is well documented.  Studies confirm that breast fed babies are calmer, healthier, and show more focus at an earlier age. When the baby had a small eye irritation, her doctor told me to squirt her in the eye because of breast milk’s antibiotic properties. There’s research to suggest that it contributes to the prevention of allergies, childhood cancer, diabetes, high cholesterol and IBS. It’s convenient, as long as mother and child are together, and costs a heck of a lot less than formula. Truly, it’s a wonder food.  It’s probably only surprising that Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t featured it yet on Goop.

Nursing is good for the mother, too; our breasts were designed to lactate.  The more we do, the lower our chances of breast and ovarian cancer.  The hospitals now tout this and promise you that breastfeeding will make you skinnier and help you live longer.  It’s best if you nurse at least four babies, if you can. Never mind the cosmetic damage to your breasts and the initial discomfort — I, for one, learned that nipple trauma is not only a thing, but a thing that you’d rather not have happen to you — it is something that every preggo is heavily pressured to do.  When I was in the hospital, a lactation consultant showed up minutes after we were moved into our recovery room.  Over the two days that I was there, countless nurses touched my breasts to show me how it was done.

What isn’t immediately obvious, when you’re a pregnant woman, is how focused your life will be on your breasts when you come out on the other side.  You know that it’s not something that your partner can do, but until you’re nursing ten times a day, it doesn’t really strike home exactly what that means for your life.  You have to eat a certain way — my breakfast now regularly includes flax seed and brewer’s yeast — and you have to arrange your life around the filling and emptying of your breasts.  I think it’s likely a rare woman that doesn’t feel the challenge of milking her own body.  My cooler sometimes feels like a shackle.  I watch my husband leave the house for hours without a concern, while I won’t have that kind of freedom until I’m no longer the cow.  It might be another year.

And yet.  And yet, I know that I will carry on with this routine for months to come.  I have a friend who signed up for private cord blood banking, which costs a small fortune.  When she told me about it, she said that she had to do it, because she loved her child so much.
What if?  What if it could save her life some day?  I feel the same way about my moo-cow duty — although it sometimes seems tragically unfair that this is a burden that I cannot share, I know that I will do it until it becomes clear that every advantage of breast milk has been soaked up by my kid.  It, like pregnancy, is a labor of love — another labor of love that my child won’t even be able to recall.

I will just have to remember for her.

Book Review: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

[rating=5]the-poisonwood-bibleAs I have been watching the news unfold over the last few months, I have been reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which is a novel that I haven’t been able to put out of my mind since I read it. It seems that every week or two has brought a new story of black men being killed by police officers under questionable circumstances. Over and over again we’re hearing a narrative that we’ve long known to be true — that to be a young black man in this country is a particularly dangerous business.

The unfair treatment of black men by police has been a social problem that I have known about my entire life.  Likewise, the main subject of The Poisonwood Bible — the disastrous effect of colonialism in Africa — is another narrative that we’ve all heard over and over. As with our national narrative, we have heard the problem described so many times that any real change seems like a hopeless dream. Kingsolver, in writing a novel about the Congolese, has contributed in the way that writers do — she’s written a compelling story to give human faces and names to big social problems. She gives us the who and also the why, taking the abstract ideas of colonization, unimaginable poverty and political corruption and turned it into a story about these specific people in the Congo. She shows us faces and makes us care about her characters, while forcing us to examine the ideas we were taught about Africa as schoolchildren.

Kingsolver sets up her perspective by narrating her story through the eyes of a white American missionary family, who go to the Congo less than a year before the revolution and American-controlled counterrevolution that made Mobutu Sese Seko a dictator for three decades. The bulk of the story is told by the four Price daughters, who range in age from six to sixteen. There is Rachel, who mourns the loss of her comfortable suburban American lifestyle and resents nearly everything about her new life. The twins, Leah and Ada, are sharply intelligent and insightful about the world around them, but tied up in their own drama about the family dynamics. The baby of the family, Ruth May, charms us as she makes friends as the open-hearted way that only young children do.

When the Prices arrive in the poor village of Kilaga, they are immediately thrown into culture shock. When they emerge from the plane from Georgia, Leah tells us that:

We stood blinking for a moment, staring out through the dust at a hundred dark villagers, slender and silent, swaying faintly like trees.  We’d left Georgia at the height of a peach-blossom summer and now stood in a bewildering dry, red fog that seemed like no particular season you could put your finger on.  In all our layers of clothing we must have resembled a family of Eskimos plopped down in a jungle.

The material sacrifices that the Prices have made to move to the Congo pale in comparison with their neighbors. When the Prices packed to leave, they were flummoxed by the weight limit of what they were allowed to bring on the plane, trying to fit all of the clothes and tools that they’ll need for the year into fifty-four pounds of luggage and whatever they can wear. The Congolese, on the other hand, have so little that the elderly of the village watch a hair dressing party

working their gums, dressed in clothes exactly the same color as their skin, from all the many ground-in years of wash and wear.  From a distance you can’t tell they have anything on at all, but just the faintest shadow of snow-white hair as if Jack Frost lightly touched down on their heads.  They look as old as the world.  Any colorful thing they might hold in their hands, like a plastic bucket, stands out strangely.

It quickly becomes clear that the native Congolese were given a deck of playing cards with all the diamonds stolen, while the Europeans are given another, more complete, set. When the Belgians release their hold on the Congo, the Europeans and Americans that the Prices have met flee, with as much of their stolen wealth as they can carry out.

And yet, while the economic situation of the Congolese could easily make the novel relentless in its depictions of the harm the Europeans and Americans have done, Kingsolver makes the political personal by involving us in the familial struggles of the Price family. Burdened with a mean and authoritarian father, whose religious zealotry isolates him from everyone around him, the Price girls must navigate their childhood carefully. It is a complex family relationship, where the girls compete against one another to try and find their father’s love, while also learning to survive in a foreign world. When Kingsolver stages the trials of adolescence against the missionary background and combines it with dysfunctional family dynamics, she creates a page-turning narrative that lingers with the reader for a long time after the final page is turned. Leah tells us that

our whole family was at odds, it seemed: Mother against Father, Rachel against both of them, Adah against the world, Ruth May pulling helplessly at anyone who came near, and me trying my best to stay on Father’s side.  We were tangled in such knots of resentment we hardly understood them.

Kingsolver writes powerfully and beautifully, bringing difficult social and family issues to life through her narration.  We get a sense of the beauty and promise of the Congolese, while not descending into a simplistic portrait of good versus bad, black versus white. Through their burgeoning relationships with their neighbors, the Price children discover beauty and absurdity within the world around them and within their own family. What at first seems bizarre and strange becomes comprehensible and natural as they learn the social context around the unfamiliar behavior of the Congolese. As their year in the Congo extends, it is American norms that begin to seem strange. When Patrice Lumumba comes to power, Leah Price stands in the crowd and dreams as a Congolese.

Nothing will take away the suffering of the thousands of black men that have wrongly become victims to the prejudice of our penal and legal system. Likewise, we can’t undo the actions of our government that have contributed to the political instability of the Congo. In both cases, we see the same theme — a status quo that works hard to keep itself, at the cost of fairness and justice.

Kingsolver, writing in 1998, asks a very similar question in The Poisonwood Bible to the questions we see being asked today about our legal system.  Will there ever be justice for the crimes committed by the Europeans and the Americans in the Congo? Can corruption be removed when it comes from the top? Can we escape the ideas of our past to create a fair tomorrow?

With over half of its wealth still being exported, continuing civil war and record-setting levels of poverty among its people, it seems that the majority of the Congolese are still waiting to find out.

More on the Congo:

Amy Ernst

And then it was April

On Sunday, my daffodils bloomed.  I also emerged from under a sea of papers, readings and writing, as I turned in the very last requirements of my masters degree.  There was a certain hesitation and satisfaction in clicking submit.  When it was done, I wanted to feel something more intense than the relief that my deadlines were removed.  This is very likely the last formal schooling of my life, which seems significant somehow, but the emotions haven’t followed.

In the week since, I have wandered around my house, feeling a bit lost for things to do without the focus that school has given me over the last two years.  I have found a local writer’s group to keep the momentum going — the most valuable thing that academia gave me was a community of peers to throw my writing at.  Now that I have been kicked out of the doors of academia, I have no excuses left to hold me back from trying to turn my writing into something more serious.  On the contrary – I now have to justify all the money I spent taking an extra two years of writing and literature courses.  I’ve pulled out my portfolio and have been preparing a story or two for workshopping at the next meeting.  It’s time to get serious.20150427_075210

With an eleven week old daughter, who grows bigger and talks and smiles more every day, I still feel like motherhood is a suit that I’ve put on rather than something intrinsic to who I am.  I love my early mornings with the kiddo, who smiles at me like I’m the best thing that has ever happened when I wake her up.  I kiss her neck and listen to her coos and wonder that she belongs to us.  It seems unreal, as though any day someone will take this responsibility away.  Each morning is still a surprise, even as my hands and hips pick up the routine of diapering and lifting and soothing.  When my arms are free, they feel empty.  It’s just a matter of time until she’s so deep in my consciousness that she’ll come out in every story.  I find myself wanting to write for her, to tell her the stories I dreamed about when I was a child.

Last weekend, I brought the kiddo out in the garden in her car seat, as I dug my hands into the dirt and planted.  This year, my gardening is building on the hard work of the previous few years.  I planted all bee-friendly plants, hoping that the lone carpenter bee that joined us would bring along his friends as my garden grows.  Pulling and tugging at the wisteria, I trained its long tendrils around the fence and away from the roses.  I put down lavender and bee balm, lady’s mantle, a hydrangea bush. I introduced the kiddo to the Asian pear trees and the roses and had her touch the soft leaves of the butterfly bush with her impossibly small fingers. At the end of the day, I washed the dirt off of my new gardening gloves with the satisfaction that I was looking for all along.

She

In the last three weeks, our lives have been taken over by the presence of a tiny new creature in our household — she.

“Is she fed?  Dry?  Crying?  Safe?  Sleeping?”

Our daughter is now nineteen days old, which seems both like an impossibly short and long time.  Starting with the moment that I went to the hospital to be induced, I’ve been wandering around in a surreal time lapse, which is only interrupted by doctor appointments and house visits from friends.  These scheduled moments give me something to differentiate one day from the next, to interrupt the daily routine of feeding, eating, dressing, sleeping, soothing and scrubbing and remind me that there is a world outside of the perimeter of my house.  If it weren’t for these moments, I could so easily forget.

20150225_170844As the days have flowed into each other, my memories of labor have been receding into a series of images. IV drips in both hands that tied me to an uncomfortable bed for twenty-four hours.  Green jello and lukewarm vegetable broth, the cold feel of the epidural, the sound of my water gushing out for impossibly long moments.  The eternal minute when the baby’s heart rate dropped and my midwife called the operating room to arrange for an emergency c-section.  The stiff feel of the oxygen mask on my face, then the moment of sudden relief — as palpable as a breeze — as the machine monitoring the fetal heartbeat returned to making the right rhythm. The unbelievably hard work of pushing out a baby, as ice cubes are put in your mouth and the pain in your abdomen takes over your brain.  Then, at last, the remarkable sight of my long and slimy daughter taking her first cry, while the thick yellow tube of the umbilical cord still connected her to my undelivered placenta.  The sound of my husband being talked into cutting the line that tied us together for so long — and the feel of her warm skin on my bare chest as I carefully prodded her skull in disbelief that this was the creature that had lived so long in my body.

No labor is easy– and mine was certainly gruelling. By the time I was allowed to leave the hospital two days later, I was desperate to go home for an uninterrupted night’s sleep in a room without a light shining in my face.  Once I got home, I spent much of the next week on the couch, healing, crying through the pain of learning to breastfeed and being taken very good care of by family that swept in from overseas to make certain that all I would have to worry about was taking care of she.

She is a “good baby” — she sleeps for long periods and doesn’t cry much at all, though we are still mystified about what to do when she does.  I was worried about my skills as a mother, but aside from breastfeeding, it’s come more naturally than I ever would have imagined.  For the first week, I just stared and stared at her face and tiny body, marvelling at the impossibility that we created this small being.  Sometimes I still catch myself doing it, as she feeds from my body or finds sleep and solace in my arms.  I stare at tiny ears and little blue veins and think about the choices in my life that have led to this moment — and can do nothing but let the love for this creature and gratitude for my life flow in and overwhelm me.

Transition

Yesterday morning, I woke to a few inches of snow covering the asphalt parking lot that the back of my house faces.  My neighborhood is a densely packed New York City suburb of 30,000 people, which could be far worse than what it is, but isn’t precisely what I would call a picturesque environment.  Snow significantly augments its beauty by hiding all the pavement and letting me pretend that I live somewhere far more pastoral and charming than I really do.

Although it is already the end of January, we’re still awaiting our first snowstorm of any significance.  Yesterday, the snow turned to sleet within a few hours and the plows were out in full force, so the beauty of the snowfall disappeared rapidly under their combined efforts.  We are due more snow tomorrow and on Tuesday, which does make it feel like winter has finally hit us here.  The seasonal transition is late this year, but it feels appropriately timed for the events of my life, as I wind down my professional life and move into my last few days before motherhood really begins.

deskviewOn Wednesday, I worked my last day in the office before my maternity leave.  I was filled with a remarkable amount of sorrow, despite the fact that I am still working from home until my labor begins.  I am coming back to work after my maternity leave, but over the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly cleaning out my office and bringing home the things that I’ll need to function as a telecommuter, so my office feels echoey and empty. I took a picture of the view from my desk and joked with my Beloved that I should hang it on the wall in front of my desk at home so that I can still feel like I’m part of the energy of my department. Perhaps I have spent far too much time around cats, but the idea of not following following the same routine that I’ve had for the last seven years has thrown me for a bit of a loop.  Logically, I know that it is a temporary change, but my hindbrain hasn’t quite gotten the memo.  I had tears in my eyes as I snuck out the door at the end of the day.

I am fortunate enough to like my coworkers very much. I’ve realized that I will miss seeing them while I’m on leave.  Working from home is not something that I enjoy nearly as much as I feel that I should — I do miss the variety of the small social interactions of our team as we navigate around each other on our way to the water fountain and the coffee machine and the fridge.  We often eat lunch together. I don’t go to work to socialize, but the social life is a big part of why I’ve worked there for so long.  Working from my desk in my basement in my pyjamas is comfortable, but it is lonelier than I would like.  All the same, I do see how fortunate I am that it’s an option for me.

At home, we are quite busy arranging for the last minute provisions and needs of our incoming infant.  I’ve been working hard to try and speed up the labor, as I’ve now been given a deadline for an induction.  Having heard some horror stories about induction, I am  very motivated to invite our daughter out into the world as soon as possible.  This morning, we went out for breakfast in the nearby beach town so that I could waddle down the boardwalk for a while.  I watched the ocean waves coming in, pounding on top of each other in the January winds, and thought about all the fluid surrounding our womb girl.  I’m sipping on raspberry leaf tea and taking my evening primrose oil tablets, as per my midwife’s advice.  I’m waiting and counting false contractions and waiting some more.  I’m writing and knitting at a furious pace, trying to finish up projects before I have a rather less understanding project demanding my attention.  I am spending a lot of time with my Beloved and dreaming of the future.  I can’t decide if I want her to hurry up or if I want these final days of preparation to linger.  All I do know is that change is coming–and it’s coming very soon.

 

Book Review: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Dracamer99[rating=4] Perhaps it is the cold that I have been harboring all week, but there was something just delicious about curling up with the freakishly successful Dracula while I was ill.  It might surprise a modern audience to learn that Dracula was written by a pulp novelist and theater manager who specialized in churning out penny dreadfuls.  Likewise, it might be surprising to learn that it far from the first vampire novel, but its success and the sophistication of the storytelling has made it the pinnacle of the genre.  Even the literary noteworthy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker to express his admiration for the blood-curling nature of the story, while its more general popularity has made Count Dracula a household name — and a synonym for vampire — for over a century.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, which incorporates the emerging technology of the late 19th century as its characters experiment with phonograph recordings and typewriters to tell their story.  This sense of the changing modern world is a major theme of the novel, and it is interesting to get a contemporary Victorian reaction to emerging technology.  At the heart of the story is Count Dracula, who is made horrific through his intelligence and cunning as much as by his murderous means of eternal life.  The novel quickly becomes a race between the five heroes and the Count as he puts into action his schemes to move to a more populated and modern country than his rural Transylvania.  Although being a member of what Stoker calls the Un-Dead, the Count’s humanity still lingers, although he remains an unambiguous monster with few redeeming qualities.  It is this combination of cold intelligence and monstrosity that has allowed Dracula to linger so vividly in the popular imagination for so long.  We never do discover how Count Dracula first became a vampire, but we quickly learn about vampirism and its dangers to a populated city through his attacks on the beautiful and pure-hearted Lucy Westenra.

Those who have seen the 1992 movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be somewhat surprised to hear me describe Lucy Westenra as pure-hearted.  Francis Coppola’s vision of Dracula is astonishingly sexualized (or as I like to say, HBO-ified) compared to the original novel.  Although Stoker was a contemporary of Freud’s and it is reasonable to believe that he was familiar with Freud’s psychological work into sexuality, the novel is actually much more interesting for its inspection of the Victorian understanding of the complexities of the psychiatry of criminal minds.  At the heart of the novel is the lunatic asylum, where Dr. Seward records his case notes about his patient Renfield, who has been eating flies and spiders and ranting about the ability of blood consumption to lead to everlasting life.  The reader, who is already aware of Jonathan Harker’s terrifying stay at Castle Dracula, enjoys the irony of understanding the sanity of the mad man, while Dr. Seward struggles to put his ravings about vampirism into modern medical language.  Once the vampiric attacks on Lucy Westenra begin, the tension raises as we understand precisely what is happening to her, but like her doctors, are helpless to interfere.  The novel is filled with enjoyable winks to the reader as we watch the heroes go through their journey and try to figure out what we already know.  In one of the newspaper excerpts in the novel, Stoker writes:

“There is, however, possibly a serious side to the question, for some of the children, indeed all who have been missed at night, have been slightly torn or wounded in the throat. The wounds seem such as might be made by a rat or a small dog, and although of not much importance individually, would tend to show that whatever animal inflicts them has a system or method of its own. The police of the division have been instructed to keep a sharp look-out for straying children, especially when very young, in and around Hampstead Heath, and for any stray dog which may be about.”

We, of course, understand that there is a vampire on the loose — at this point in the story, we even know who the vampire is, but these small ironies engage us as readers and keep the pages turning.

As in the modern cinematic culture around the Dracula story, Van Helsing quickly steals the show as the brilliant and eccentric foreigner that remains a few steps ahead of his companions.  His eccentricity mainly comes out in his forgetfulness that his patients and companions are people with emotional attachment to the events in the story — he becomes so hyperfocused on stamping out the problem of vampirism that he has delightful slips in compassion such as this one:

“Yes and no. I want to operate, but not as you think. Let me tell you now, but not a word to another. I want to cut off her head and take out her heart. Ah! you a surgeon, and so shocked! You, whom I have seen with no tremble of hand or heart, do operations of life and death that make the rest shudder. Oh, but I must not forget, my dear friend John, that you loved her; and I have not forgotten it, for it is I that shall operate, and you must only help.”

In Van Helsing, we discover the character that is most like the Count — he is a true adversary in cunning and intelligence.  Yet, unlike the Count, Van Helsing does care about those around him.  It is his devotion and love for his companions, combined with bravery and kindness,  which makes us care about his fight to remove evil from the world.

Perhaps the best part of Stoker’s writing is that all of his characters jump off of the page, often because of their language.  Although all dialog is being repeated to us by the characters themselves, we hear Van Helsing’s Dutch roots, Quincey’s American slang, Lord Arthur’s upper-class upbringing and Dr. Seward’s medical training.  Epistolary novels can easily become boring as the letter writers report what happened in past tense, but Stoker keeps it fresh by getting his characters’ words on the page.  It requires a small suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but brings the novel to life.  As an Irish immigrant in London, with extensive experience as a theater manager, Stoker must have had a great delight in dialect.  It does a great service to the novel.

Modern horror lovers will no doubt find the lack of gore in Dracula to be quite tame compared to the graphic descriptions of the likes of Stephen King, but I found it charming.  The novel is no less suspenseful for all that it lacks a modern insouciance to violence — and reading it late at night gave me more than one fit of anxiety and restless sleep.  As with all things to do with the famous Count Dracula…..read at your own risk.  But do read it.

Tales of an Ordinary Bird

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