Thursday, 6 August 2015

Reading Dracula with distance

Why am I reading Dracula when the horror genre isn't my thing? 
The same way I can't help comparing her to Tolstoy, Flaubert and Jane Austen when reading George Eliot, I've been silently making comparisons between Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley and Wilkie Collins. Dracula is a classic, sure, but is it serious literature? Never mind. That's probably the wrong question. What matters is that I don't think it's on par with Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is a brilliantly written, perfectly controlled and tightly packed work or art, and Frankenstein, which is a fascinating and marvellously rich novel of ideas. I don't mean that Dracula is bad, but I see it as a story, or an elaboration of a myth, more than as a work of art. For example, think about the epistolary form. Dracula is made up of not only journals and letters (traditional in novels) but, as written in the introduction, also "memorandums, telegrams, title-deeds of property, railway timetables, dictionaries, newspaper cuttings, monumental inscriptions, notebooks, phonologically recorded case-notes of psychiatry, and a ship's log translated from the Russian"*. That is very interesting, but I'm afraid that Bram Stoker hasn't made use of all the potential of the form. 1st, I haven't seen any unreliable narrator. 2nd, this can be a means of characterisation. In The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins exploits the form for the creation and depiction of 2 of the most fascinating characters in literature- Gabriel Betteredge and Miss Clack; in The Woman in White, it's Count Fosco and Mr Fairlie. In Dracula, the characters' voices are not very distinctive and distinguishable. 3rd, there's no clash of perspectives. We all know that in life the same thing is seen and experienced differently by different people, and sometimes 2 versions of the same incident can be different beyond recognition. There's no such obvious conflict in Dracula, at least not yet. 
Should I read faster and consume it whole instead of taking it slowly and critically? No, perhaps I shouldn't speed up- I'm highly unlikely to read the book again. 
At the moment I find myself more fascinated by Renfield than by the Count and his prey and his hunters. Renfield's the most intriguing, colourful and mysterious character in the novel. 

*: written by Maud Ellmann. 


  1. Yes, but is it art? To which the answer, I suppose, is “Does it matter?”

    Bram Stoker wasn’t attempting to create art, or to explore any serious theme relating to human life. His aim was simply to scare the shit out of you. And I think “Dracula” does that. It frightens me more than “Frankenstein” 9which was not really intended as horror in the first place); it scares me more than “Jekyll and Hyde” (which deals, however, with more serious themes). Stevenson was also, unlike Stoker, a very great writer, and the quality of writing in “Jekyll and Hyde” does, I agree, surpass anything by Bram Stoker.

    I agree also that Stoker makes no use of the literary potential of epistolary narrative, and that his characters – Dracula himself gloriously excepted – are not particularly memorable. But where Stoker does score is his ability to frighten, to make the flesh creep. No-one surpasses him in that. Of course, if you’re not the type to be frightened by supernatural horror, that will mean little to you, but all I can say is that it frightened me far more than any of the other books you mention.

    I don’t think I have been more frightened by what I have read than by Jonathan Harker’s account of his journey from Borgo Pass to the castle, and of his subsequently being trapped there. The scene with the three female vampires still makes me feel uneasy. The captain’s log-book is a wonderful piece of horror writing. And so on.

    I’m getting the feeling that you’re not very susceptible to horror. I’m afraid that if you’re looking for qualities other than horror, you’ll end up disappointed. It’s not *badly* written, as such, but no, Stoker was no Stevenson.

  2. Well, Dracula does not scare me in any way, aside from the apocalyptic bureaucratic vision of filing in triplicate. Yet I can still see how the book succeeds. It creates art in spite of itself. It creates Dracula! That has turned out to be a substantial achievement. "an elaboration of myth" - that is right - that is itself a kind of art.

    You can almost see how Van Helsing's section could have been as good as something in Collins, if it had been written by, for example, Collins.

    Di, why are you expecting an unreliable narrator? That would defeat Stoker's point. He is pro-reliability.

  3. Di, I think a book can be "digested" only after you have completed the "meal." Don't worry now about the individual morsels or how they have been prepared and served. They will all function together as nutrients when you are finished. Of course, I might be talking nonsense with this metaphor. Hang in there!

  4. Hola. Thank you all for your comments.
    I'm still reading.
    Himadri, that's probably it- I'm not susceptible to horror (in books). Horror films work better on me, I think. But the log-book is scary.
    Tom, I have no idea. This is bad reading, I suppose. Been looking for something...
    Tim, all right, I'm still reading. But I always think about the individual morsels and how they've been prepared and served.