Publisher: Recorded Books, Inc. (1990)
When I first tried to read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, I was 11 or 12 years old and deeply into monsters. I read Famous Monsters Magazine and I had Monster bubble gum cards and I watched every monster movie that came on TV. Frankenstein was one of the best monster movies. The novel, of course, has nothing in common with the movie except the name. I can remember skipping ahead looking for the laboratory scene and the castle with the lightning bolts and not finding it. The creation of the monster in the book is a paragraph or two long.
I have since grown up a bit and, although I still enjoy the movie Frankenstein, I understand that Hollywood rarely has reason to faithfully transcribe a book into a movie. Movies are their own species and don’t have anything in common with a novel, even if they have the same name.
In college I took several classes in romantic literature. This is not the romance genre, but the literature of the late 18th and early 19th century, especially the work of Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats and Byron. These have always been THE poets for me. I have enjoyed Yeats, Beat poetry as well as the Pre-Raphaelites, but the romantics are the last word.
Mary, of course, was first the lover and later the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the rock star poet of his day. She was the daughter of famous writers and could shake a pen when she wanted to, but Mary was overshadowed by her immensely talented husband.
I picked up Frankenstein as a book on tape and I have been listening to it on my commute. In the preface, Mary describes how the book came to be and what influence her famous husband had on the book. She states that there is not a page of the book that “HE” didn’t write. I don’t take this literally, though. Shelly’s mercurial personality would never have allowed him to spend more than a few minutes on someone else’s project. I am sure he, Keats, and Byron all read the chapters, discussed the progress of the book as Mary wrote it, and made suggestions. I am sure that Mary bounced ideas off the Poets who were staying at or near Shelly’s house in Switzerland. I don’t believe that Shelly actually wrote much of the book for Mary. There are lines in the text, even a fragment of a poem that reeks of Percy’s style, but I think the book was very much Mary’s own. There is no doubt, however, that it was, in many ways, inspired by the ideas of the poets surrounding her.
Listening to Frankenstein now, after years of reading the romantic poets, gives the book a whole new meaning. The monster that appears in the book, is allegorical and is presented as Percy would have presented an allegorical creature in one of his poems. There is no Boris Karloff character, mute and evil, with a tender side. The monster is a natural man. He is an autodidact who has to deal with his weird existence. Instead of having a conversation with God, he has a conversation with his creator, Dr. Frankenstein. The analogies are poetic and, in the context of a long novel, are treated with a heavy hand. Frankenstein feels like a Percy Shelly poem translated to a novel form.
I am enjoying the book for its great moments, but it is only a great novel in its vision. The plotting is amateurish and the writing is inconsistent. There are long periods where Mary seems to wander a bit, not knowing quite what to say next. There are episodes in the book that have little to do the rest of it. It is obvious that she didn’t have a clear vision of where she wanted the book to go when she started out and there are frequent places in the book where she backtracks or brings in a plot point out of the blue. The viewpoint has grating shifts, so that it is a story told in a letter, telling of the confessions of a rescued traveler who tells of the monster’s monologue who tells of conversations that he has overheard. Her elegant Georgian English is wearing to my ears and overly ornamented with polite turns of phrase. The Prometheus and Adam themes, favorites of the romantic poets, don’t really work well and are not consistently carried forward. Mary hints that she was reading Goethe at the time and that poet’s influence clashes with her husbands, making the book very dark and depressing.
While driving in the truck, I listen to books that I would never have the patience to read. This book is much better for having been read aloud. Frankenstein is narrated by the inestimable George Guidall. I think that he may be my favorite voice in audio books. If George reads it, it is worth listening. Mr. Guidall makes the book come alive with his dramatic reading. He has captured the gruff, but sentimental voice of the monster and the manic moods of Frankenstein. If you come across this edition, buy it.
I am on the last tape. Who wants it next?