Beautiful Phrases

Hi everyone, I’m Joan and I’m returning to the Zombies fold after almost totally folding on 2666!  I first read Moby-Dick as an adult and I’m really glad that it was never required reading for me.  I approached it the first time with open arms and I fell in love.  It was the pick of the reading group I was in at the time in Brooklyn, and although we extended the time-frame by a month I was the only one to finish it.  So I had only myself to discuss it with.  Now, around 12 years later, I’m already way ahead in terms of discussion and analysis and it’s only week 1!

This time around I’m doing side reading, working my way through a number of the books Daryl reviewed here, particularly Hoare’s The Whale, Delbanco’s Melville, and soon Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary which should arrive today.  Additionally I’m dipping into Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan.  I feel as though I’m completely immersing myself in Moby-Dick and what a rich world it is.

In what is looking like a bit of a theme for the first week here, I’m going to touch on one of the elements of the work that I truly love.  I’m a total sucker for beautifully crafted phrases, the ones that take your breath away and make your heart sing, the ones that you stop, read again, underline and star in the margins, the ones that can in just a few words speak a universal truth.  Many years and so many wonderful books have come and gone since my first time with Moby-Dick I had almost forgotten just how poetic and beautiful Melville could be.  Sure, it’s an adventure story, and there are so many styles and tones woven together, but it’s those beautiful phrases that keep me coming back.  Here are just a few of my favorites so far.

Chapter 12, regarding Queequeg’s native land:

It is not down in any map; true places never are.


Chapter 14, right at the end regarding Nantucketers:

For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman.  With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.


Chapter 16, regarding the Pequod, the well known but still wonderful to me, and beautifully illustrated by Matt:

She was a thing of trophies.  A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies


Which ones are moving you?


Ah, the pit of despair as Daryl so eloquently put it below.  I’ve been wondering just where I was!  I have to admit that I bit off a bit too much this first quarter of 2010.  I believed I could take on an extra project at the office, serve on a grant review panel, read 2666, participate in the forums and post at least occasionally as part of the Zombies crew.  What the hell was I thinking?  Well, the extra project is finished, the funding recommendations have been made, and this is the first week I’ve been on schedule with the reading (actually slightly ahead).  High time to finally put some thoughts down in a post.

Full disclosure first – so far I just don’t like the book.  I don’t hate it, but I’m not loving it.  It’s just leaving me cold.  An odd experience for me, it’s pretty rare that I’m not at all moved.   As I really began to realize that I was not making any connection to it an idea began to gel for me.  I found myself thinking a great deal about a book that addresses some similar themes and that moved me greatly – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  Then over the past week the fates, serendipity, coincidence, whatever you want to call it, really pushed me in the direction of looking at these two works together.

I ordered a new copy of Blood Meridian; the lovely Modern Library edition with a wonderful introduction by Harold Bloom.  I read the intro Monday night and a couple of pages into the text.   The next day I checked in with The Morning News Tournament of Books to see which book was advancing in that day’s match up.  What do I find there?  The commentary includes an hysterically funny bit of back & forth about Nicholas Sparks and his dissing of Cormac McCarthy, specifically Blood Meridian, in a recent interview!  I read the interview referenced and found it horrific in its own right.  But the commentary also reminded me that both McCarthy and Bolano have been in the TOB in recent years – 2666 in last year’s Tournament; The Savage Detectives in 2008; The Road in 2007 (and the champion).  So I’ve been dipping into the matches and commentary on 2666 over there as well.

All of which is my very convoluted way of saying it’s obvious to me I need to keep exploring these two books.  I’m putting my first thoughts together and I’m looking forward to bringing them to you and hearing your comments.  Meanwhile, back to the litany of death!

Then We Came To The End*

*Today’s blog title shamelessly lifted from the  wonderful recent book by Joshua Ferris because it popped right into my head when I was thinking of a title and it just plain works.

Right.  I finished last night and I’m not really going to worry about posting anything past the spoiler point here.  I mean really, there’s only one day left and if you’re not finished yet I doubt anything I could possibly say will be a revelation.

Well, well, well.  I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it.  As Infinite Detox so eloquently said, meh.  It didn’t sink to the level where Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code reside for me, but it did pretty much level out at what I term “airport trash.”  In other words, if you’ve been enough of an idiot to arrive for your flight and you have nothing to read, or you’re stranded and have run out of reading material, you can pick up some paperback from an airport shop and have a perfectly enjoyable reading experience.  But is it great literature?  Nope, not for me.  There are too many inconsistancies; several footnotes in my Norton edition point out that either Stoker or his characters have got their journal entry dates wrong; sometimes the characters are quick on the uptake but more often they’re dumber than posts; do we keep Mina informed or do we keep her in the dark; will we let her become a vampire and gallantly go with her “into that unknown and terrible land” or will we all pledge to cut her head off and drive a stake through her heart to release her soul to God?  And Van Helsing?  Well, I’ll get to him later.  There were many times when I felt like Stoker was making some deeper connections and exploring some larger themes and I got all excited.  Then it would just fizzle out and we were back to the boy’s club dithering about.  My sense is that he wanted to write a larger (in the thematic sense) work, but either couldn’t or he just went for the quick buck.  Maybe he had it in mind all along that he would turn it into a play for Irving and he just needed to crank it out.   In any case, I think it’s a fun page turner (most of the time), a quick and easy read that due to the circumstances of the subsequent play and movie has become a cultural icon.

Now, that Van Helsing and his final Memorandum.  Wow.  Nearly swooning over the three sisters, brides, whatever they are, in their tombs he admits to being nearly a carnal man.  But he squashes the “very instinct of man in me, which calls some of my sex to love and to protect one of hers” and proceeds with the “butcher work.”  But what really annoys me about Van Helsing is his back story.  If I missed it somewhere early on when the pages were turning please let me know.  In his Memorandum as he talks about the effect the vamp ladies are having on him he says

Yes, I was moved – I, Van Helsing, with all my purpose and with my motive for hate – I was moved to a yearning for delay which seemed to paralyse my faculties and to clog my very soul. 

So, just what the hell was his motive?  Did we ever learn that?  Why does he know about Dracula and what extra motive for hate does he have?

And what an ending.  The snow swirling, the wolves howling and drawing closer, Quincey giving his all in fighting through the gypsies, the vanquishing of the evil from the world, and then that rosy glow lighting up dear Mina as the men fall to their knees in adoration upon seeing that the terrible mark of the unclean is gone from her forehead.  Quick cut to seven years later and the happy family – Jonathan, Mina, and son Quincey (who apparently has all of their names in his full name).  And we end with Mina’s greatness summed up by stand-in grandfather Van Helsing with little Quincey on his knee.  Telling them all that someday the boy would

…know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is.  Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake. 


In the immortal words of Bill the Cat  – oop ack! Thhhpt!

Mein Gott!! Is he faking it?

It seems as though most everyone (at least those commenting) has been annoyed with Van Helsing to some degree.  Indeed, some have admitting to wanting to pitch the book across the room at times (see the discussion in the comments over at Infinite Detox).  

 Then we came to a short passage in Chapter 22 that made my jaw drop.

It may be that you may have to bear that mark till God himself see fit, as He most surely shall on the Judgment Day to redress all wrongs of the earth and of His children that He has placed thereon.  An oh, Madam Mina, my dear, my dear, may we who love you be there to see, when that red scar, the sign of God’s knowledge of what has been, shall pass away and leave your forehead as pure as the heart we know.  For so surely as we live, that scar shall pass away when God sees right to lift the burden that is hard upon us.  Till then we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His will.  It may be that we are chosen instruments of His good pleasure, and that we ascend to His bidding as that other through stripes and shame; through tears and blood; through doubts and fears, and all that makes the difference between God and man.

Is this the same Van Helsing who has been torturing us with his syntax?  One of the problems with him that I’m having is that it’s so varied.  We have him nearly incomprehensible and then when he’s being Biblical he is spot on; with a pretty good range in between.  At times he reminds me of Marathe in Infinite Jest and at other times all I can picture is David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.  Sometimes it makes me laugh and I understand what he’s saying and at others it’s just ridiculous.  Add to that the fact, that some others have pointed out, that if he’s Dutch, why does he exclaim in German? 

Then we have the priceless moment very near to the end of Chapter 23 when Jonathan Harker is relating what Van Helsing thinks of their rushing off to find the ship that Dracula is on

We have been blind somewhat; blind after the manner of men, since when we can look back we see what we might have seen looking forward if we had been able to see what we might have seen!  Alas! but that sentence is a puddle; is it not?

It’s a puddle (puzzle) alright.  Is this a silly aside?  One of Van Helsing’s little jests? Or is it a sneaky comment by Stoker about Van Helsing.

So here’s a crazy thought – he’s faking it.   It could serve as a form of personal defense – the bumbling foreigner who has trouble with English and seems able to laugh about it.  It disarms and charms.  That would fit with what we know of him so far, which is pretty much nil – why exactly does he have all this vampire knowledge; why has he been so secretive; etc. 

Now, what do you think?

Dracula on the Mat

The yoga mat, that is.    Because I have to tell you, it’s taking pretty much full yogic mindfulness to not let this book make me batty.  As I sat quietly in a recent yoga class and listened to my teacher talk about the importance of accepting where you are at this very moment and surrendering to that acceptance it felt like Bram Stoker was next to me giving me a little tap on the head.  Maybe what I need to do is to simply read and accept, be open to the style and conventions of a book written over 100 years ago.  Is it possible to let go of our 21st Century minds and accept that in this world the characters would behave very differently?  Can we just accept and enjoy?  In the words of Van Helsing (Chapter 17) can we “Read all, I pray you, with the open mind…”?

When I first started writing notes for a post about letting my yoga mind help me enjoy Dracula I was somewhat ahead of schedule and adding some additional reading.  Since then I’ve read J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a lovely little novella with a female vampire published in 1872, and H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896.  They helped me to get more into the style and rhythm of fiction at the end of the 19th Century, and were wonderful side reads.  For a little while I was doing ok, relaxing into it, accepting the characters seeming obliviousness and Van Helsing’s ridiculous phrasing.  I was thinking that life for these folks was simply more dramatic, what with all the sinking to the knees and wailing and pledges of undying loyalty.  I was enjoying it, really I was. 

Now?  I won’t go beyond the spoiler point here, but since we’re supposed to be finished with Chapter 21 today, I have to admit that the scribbled notations of WTF followed by exclamation  points are piling up in the margins of my copy.  As Claire wrote in her main page post  for Oct. 21, damn them!  The whole dismissal of Mina after they couldn’t praise her enough and then their complete miss of the fact that she was suffering the same fate as Lucy was just about too much for me.  Now that the boy’s club is all together it’s all about planning and getting our toys, um, I mean weapons, ready and preparing and all the fun boy club things.  Gee, Mina looks pale, she should go to bed.  By herself.  In the lunatic asylum next to the lair of Dracula.  Much safer that way.  Do the boys redeem themselves by finally figuring out what’s going on with Mina?  Nope, Renfield has to tell them as he’s dying. 

As we move into the rest of the book, I’m going to be trying to just relax and accept.  I’m going to try to keep my yoga mind about this, but I have to say it’s getting harder and harder to do!

Way Ahead

Ok, so I’m way ahead of the reading schedule and trying to slow myself down.  Part of the additional material in my edition (Norton Critical) is a selection of reviews that came out when the novel was published.  As I read through them, some favorable and some not, I remembered that there had been some forum discussion as to whether readers would have known what they were in for.  Without the internet, massive marketing efforts, and splashy dust jackets with glowing praise, how would the Victorian book reading public know what to buy?  I’m not a scholar on these things and welcome comments from those who have a better grasp of this, but I think they would have depended on reviews, word of mouth, and the knowledge of the booksellers.  Based on the reviews collected in mine, they would most definitely have known what Dracula was about. 

The Daily Mail, June 1, 1897, describes it as quite a page turner (exactly the problem for me!), references such works as Frankenstein and The Fall of the House of Usher, and warns readers that

Persons of small courage and weak nerves should confine their reading of these gruesome pages strictly to the hours between dawn and sunset.

The Spectator on July 31, 1897 declared that

Mr. Bram Stoker gives us the impression – we may be doing him an injustice – of having deliberately laid himself out in Dracula to eclipse all previous efforts in the domain of the horrible…

And most interestingly to me, Bookman in August 1897 states

It is something of a triumph for the writer that neither the improbability, nor the unnecessary number of hideous incidents recounted of the man-vampire, are long foremost on the reader’s mind, but that the interest of the danger, of the complications, of the pursuit of the villain, of human skill and courage pitted against inhuman wrong and superhuman strength, rises always to the top.

Bookman also issues a warning to “Keep Dracula out of the way of nervous children…”

Add to the prominence of newspapers and journals in disseminating information the importance of personal letters.  People were prolific letter writers at the time and the postal service, in London at least, was incredibly efficient (I believe two deliveries a day at some point).  I’ll leave it up to Infinite Detox to craft one of his outstanding parodies – perhaps two victorian maidens writing breathlessly to each other about the delicious new novel Dracula?

All of this is simply to say that I believe, for the most part, readers of the time were not picking the novel blindly, but were guided by reviews and commentary and were ready for the story within.

In my effort not to spoil anything, I’m still avoiding the critical commentary in my edition.  So to help me stick to the schedule I’m going to spend some time trying to read similar and contemporary works.  I’ve ordered H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), from my library and will also look for H. G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896).  If I come up with some great discussion points I’ll let you know.

Sublime Spectation

Who knew that we’d be getting such a great example of mesmerizing/dangerous spectation here in Dracula?  I’m beginning to realize that when Matthew Baldwin decided on Dracula as the next book he had an inkling of the ways we would end up talking about IJ and Dracula together. 

My first reaction to Chapter 7 – the news article about the storm and the ship’s arrival in Whitby was much like Infinite Detox’s.  Then as I read on and realized that there was a “mass of people on shore” I thought – what the hell are all those prim Victorians doing out in the teeth of a howling gale?  Enjoying the Sublime?  Honestly, given the description of the storm we can understand that the intrepid reporter is out there doing his duty, but all these spectators out there staring into the inky darkness cheering as each boat arrives safely?  He goes on to describe how the men with the new searchlight spot the schooner then keep the light trained on the entrance to the harbor where all expect to see the ship dashed to bits.  Once the ship does come up onto the shore the mass of people take off from the cliff to race down to investigate.

Now, we know they’re not out there in their all weather gear from the trendy outfitter’s and they don’t have the lovely big windproof golf umbrellas we use here in Florida during storms.  So think about it – a crowd of Victorians, most probably on holiday at the seashore, lured out of their lodgings to stand in the midst of a tremendous storm.  Are they mesmerized by the Sublime?  By the power of  Dracula?  I’d say it was simply the age old pull of the horrible – the people who stop to look at wrecks, etc. – if not for the intensity of the storm.  Something is compelling those folks to be out there risking harm to themselves, up on the cliffs in the tempest.  I don’t have the time now to really research this, so if anyone has thoughts on if this was more of a common occurance of the times, chime in.  Perhaps it’s as simple as this was the most exciting thing to happen during their summer vacation and weren’t about to miss it because the weather was bad!

Beautiful Contrasts

I spent my weekend volunteering with a wonderful foundation I’ve been involved with for many years, The “Negro Spiritual” Scholarship Foundation.  They present an annual concert of spirituals and this year I was serving as a backstage manager.  This meant I spent a large portion of my weekend at rehearsal and the performance listening to some really sublime music.  Why do I tell you this?  Because when I got home each evening I plunged back into the world of Dracula (well, for a few pages at least before I fell dead asleep!).  What a stunning contrast and it crystalized for me one of the things I’m finding quite striking about the novel.  I was moving between a world of light and beauty and a world of dark and gathering evil, just as Jonathan Harker does in the first sections. 

I admit that for whatever reason – other versions, skewed memories, etc. – I expected it to be fall/winter when he travels to Transylvania.  You know, the dark glowering sky, bare trees, leaves blowing, early dusk, but what do we get?

I soon lost sight and recollection of ghostly fears in the beauty of the scene as we drove along, although had I known the language, or rather languages, which my fellow-passengers were speaking, I might not have been able to throw them off so easily.  Before us lay a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road.  There was everywhere a bewildering mass of fruit blossom – apple, plum, pear, cherry; and as we drove by I could see the green grass under the trees spangled with the fallen petals.

He goes on to describe the beauties of the region until darkness begins to fall and the gloom begins to close in.  We get, as Jonathan does, little glimpses of the darkness.  This is not the overt pleading of the townspeople for him not to go on, nor is it the obvious fear of his fellow travelers.  This is much more subtle and so, to me, much, much scarier.  Dracula’s castle is like a malignancy nestled in a jeweled setting.   Once Jonathan is in residence/captivity, he can look out at the stunning view but he can no longer be a part of it.

As the main action shifts to Whitby, we see the same juxtaposition of beautiful scenery with the growing sense of the evil to come.  Lucy and Mina talk about the lovely views from the cliff top, etc. and yet we know what is coming.

It also makes perfect sense to me that Dracula should plan his move for the spring and summer.  Its the time of year that brings a return to life, a rush to procreate and then to ripen.  It’s always been thought of as a lustful time – of course it’s when he goes in search of the ripening maidens.

This all may be very obvious, but it’s working for me.  The beauty without serves to heighten the evil within.  It’s infinitely scarier than the usual Halloween vision!

My Vampire Friends

Hi, I’m the new member of the Infinite Zombies group and I’m a complete beginner at this.  Hoping to have a lot of fun and get lots of help from all of you!

I’m starting to enter Dracula’s world, but am finding it to be quite an adjustment.  For me it’s a combination of factors, the greatest of which is the 100+ years of vampires in our culture.  They’re tapping on my windows and flitting around the shadows in the house.  I know the first column on the Infinite Summer: Dracula site advised us to leave them behind.  I’m not sure that’s really possible and I’m not sure I really want to.  My favorite vampires over the years are all here with me while I read and I’m thinking I want to keep them in view.  Perhaps they can be my counterpoint to Stoker’s creation.  We know from scholars that his Dracula is very different from what vampires have become to us today and we don’t want to read with the mindset of “that’s not right, that’s not how vampires are” but I don’t think we need to banish them all together.  I propose instead to use the difference to reflect back on and illuminate this Dracula.  Not getting caught up in what is different but enjoying those differences.  Marveling at what Stoker’s Dracula has become.  He created a figure so enduring and so attractive that he’s become an icon.  Honestly, we’ve got the suave charming vampires, the ruthless sexual predator vampires, Christopher Lee’s Dracula cavorting with buxom maidens in the great old Hammer Studios films, the sensitive vampires of Angel and the Twilight series, and even The Count on Sesame Street (one of my personal favorites).  Here in Orlando I’ve got a neighbor who decorates his yard for Halloween with a gian inflatable Mickey Mouse decked out in cape and fangs.  Actually, I think that’s the creepiest version!  So I’ve decided that I’m inviting them all along on my read.