Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Front List / Back List: The Castle In Transylvania by Jules Verne & The Invention Of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

We’re officially all-spooky here for the month of October. My love of seasonal themes is well-documented on this blog and really, the fall is the best time for ghost stories.

Today we have a pair of spectral novels that are eerily similar tales of mad science, haunted love and shrewd investigation. Okay, so I added the “eerily” for the sake of being cute. Kind of like candycorn in a ghost shaped tin. They are truly spectral though.

On the front list we have the great French writer, Jules Verne, whose long unpublished novel has been brought “back from the dead” by Melville House Publishing. Then we’ll dive into the stacks to take a look at a wonderful Argentinian novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose intricate plotting is comparable with that of Henry James, G.K. Chesterton and Casares' longtime friend and collaborator, Jorge Luis Borges.

From The Front List

The Castle In Transylvania by Jules Verne. Fiction. Melville House Publishing. Trade paperback. 8vo. 9781935554080. $14.95

One of the most interesting things to note about this edition of Verne is that it is complete. It is something that tends to go overlooked by academia and critics alike, but Jules Verne was often heavily edited in translation, particularly in English. Much of the rich exposition that is apparently a hallmark of Verne’s writing in French was edited out of his English translations. This of course left English readers with a stripped down, action oriented storyline that focused more on the pace of the story and its imaginative inventions than on the development of characters or description of location.

The shame of this practice is all the more evident after reading a “complete” translation. One of the most charming facets to The Castle In Transylvania is the lengthy descriptions of the Transylvanian countryside and its people. Writing his “ghost” story (Melville House calls it a zombie story, which is not really accurate) years before Stoker penned Dracula, Verne does not fall into the Stoker tradition of exoticising Transylvania. Nor does he overplay any spooky traditions, which are now hallmarks of popular conception of the region.

Instead Verne describes Transylvanian topography and customs, which of course includes some plot developing superstitions (one can’t completely avoid it apparently). These passages are actually quite engaging, if potentially antiquated or dubiously didactic.

Do not confuse what I’m saying: This is not a travelogue. It is tale of mystery and science, of desires perceived and deceived. Verne’s story is a somewhat uniquely fragmented affair that sets an extended, realistic stage and then quickly puts the bump in its night. That bump of course comes courtesy of that castle mentioned in the title.

Naturally it has been long abandoned and in somewhat abrupt and mysterious circumstances. Naturally it is in a craggy, somewhat inexplicably unassailable (getting stores there must have been some trouble in its heyday) position both in distance and height from the small village it neighbors. Unnaturally however, the castle appears to be inhabited.

What starts with an inexplicable issue of smoke from a chimney quickly turns to otherworldly lights and sounds. Threatening voices sound off in the village’s small inn and the first brave party to investigate the castle meets with a violent end. Even the most rational investigator, of course this would be a foreign man of noble birth, meets with the horror invoking reality of the castle when impossibly he spies on its ramparts the ghostly form of his lost love.

This is Verne mind you and I will naturally leave off on any further exposition of my own. It’s better to leave the exposition to the writer and pare the critic.

Not exactly a zombie story like it’s advertised to be it is yet a wonderfully spooky yarn that is cleverly plotted and assembled from a diverse (and very unique) set of parts. Perhaps because it is such an early arrival in the genre, let alone a first (as far as I know it is the first “horror” story set in Transylvania), The Castle In Transylvania should prove entertaining for even the most initiated of horror fans.

From The Back List

The Invention Of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Prologue by Jorge Luis Borges. Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine. Fiction. New York Review of Books. Trade paperback. 8vo. 1590170571. $12.95.

I have discussed with the author the details of his plot. I have reread it. To classify it as perfect is neither imprecision nor a hyperbole.

-Jorge Luis Borges, concluding his Prologue.

My persistent, deplorable preoccupation with Morel's relationship to Faustine keeps me from paying much attention to my own destruction; that is an unexpected and beneficent result.

-Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel

There is a relationship between these two books that is quite stunning. There is a unity of commentary on the self-deluding nature of unrequited love but more particularly there is a remarkable similarity in technological inventions that populate each novel. Unfortunately the description of this device, literally and figuratively, would render the plots transparent. So in some sense I must talk around it in order to avoid such a crime.

By way of brief bio, or "capsule biography" as Borges used to refer to the micro biographies he'd write, Adolfo Bioy Casares is often mentioned only in relation to his friend and mentor, the previously mentioned Borges. They collaborated on writing and both inspired each other in kind with their unique yet unified vision of literature. Both men were preoccupied with concise writing and champions of the evocative plot. More to the point, both believed that intricate plotting held a reader's attention and would help them (the reader) invest enough in the story to successfully arrive at any "points" the story might have.

In this sense The Invention of Morel is the perfection that Borges writes of in his Prologue to the novel. The book is at once cinematic in its setting, gripping in its lurid plot and upsetting in its implication. Rereading this book is an apocalyptic delight. Additional depth is revealed with further appreciations, which is certainly a hallmark of great literature.

The plot and back story are simple and purposefully obscured. Both reveal themselves slowly and while one maintains a bitingly ironic humor (the story of the protagonist himself) the other becomes increasingly full of dread. Both Borges and the translator compare the book to the works of Kafka, Chesterton and Henry James (in particular The Turn Of The Screw).

So what of that plot? A man has fled the law to a deserted and supposedly disease afflicted isle, which is one of the Pacific's Ellice Islands. There amongst strangely well-maintained buildings he makes his paranoid home. Instantly his memoir, for that is what we the reader are auspiciously reading, is called into doubt by its stodgy, short-sighted editor. For instance the island is populated by a verdure that no other Ellice island possesses.

Disbelief is easily suspended however, particularly because of conscientious, let alone confessional approach the narrator is taking. After weeks of barely surviving the hazardous, flood prone isle he discovers that there is a vast and still fully functional series of machines on the island that can, if nothing else at first, pump clean water.

Like that famously short story about the last man on earth not being alone so too is our narrator suddenly not alone. In fact the island is populated by a party of people, including a lovely young woman who so fully unmans our protagonist that we begin to question his sanity. These other inhabitants are instantly realized as somewhat lurid entities, in fact they seem mechanical at times and at others repetitive like a ghost repeating its former life. Indeed, you too will question sanity as the story becomes increasingly strange.

After hiding himself for weeks the young criminal becomes emboldened by the notion of companionship. In time he learns that the island belongs to a member of the party, a certain scientist by the name of Morel. So too do the attentions of the young woman, appropriately named Faustine, belong to Morel. Morel is of course of the "mad" variety of scientists and any phonic resemblance between Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invention Of Morel is not only purposeful but also important. It quickly becomes apparent that Dr. Morel has created the island with some sort of purpose.

One and one does not equal two on this island, that is until it is perhaps too late. Casares fashions an ingenious hell and replaces Dante with a gentlemanly yet criminal protagonist that lives in constant self-effacing anguish.It is in that sense a perfect situation for a dark comedy of unrequited love and maniacal idealism.

It truly is a treat to read these two as a pair. Better fit the tropical Argentinian novel in during these last days of sunlight. Save the Verne for those long, grey days soon to arrive.

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