When I wrote about vampirism in 2666 about a month ago, I had forgotten entirely the events that take place at Castle Dracula in this week’s swath of reading. Or maybe there was some little synapse way back in the recesses of my brain that remembered, but it sure wasn’t something I had in my conscious memory. But sure enough, Hans Reiter gets shipped off this week to a strange assignment at Castle Dracula that culminates in let’s just say really impressive and ultimately at least slightly disturbing (or is it just humorous?) coitus complete with blood and chanting.
So why all the vampirism? And why this specific strange interlude, with its dream of cannibalism, at the castle of Dracula himself? In the comments on that older post of mine, it’s demonstrated readily enough that vampirism lines up rather nicely with the consumption of others, parasitism, etc., that’s so pervasive in the part about the crimes. It would be simple enough to allow that the Dracula interlude is just a solidification of the conceit.
But I think there’s more to it. Those who read along when we did Dracula this past October may remember that the author of that classic if really sort of disappointing text was Irish and that there are plenty of bits of the text that can be reasonably said to comment on the landlord debacle that Ireland is known for (I wrote about it briefly here). At the heart of that debacle was the misuse of poor people on the margins — outside of society, to use Kessler’s phrasing — by those within society. It kind of sounds familiar within our context, doesn’t it?
Further, consider how Bolaño lingers on the story of Benito Juarez earlier in the novel (I believe it’s in the section in which we first meet La Santa, and I assume that the city of Juarez, after which Santa Teresa is modeled, is named after this former Mexican president). During Juarez’s terms as president, Mexico was the subject of invasions by the U.S. and by France. Both nations had loaned money to Mexico for economical and political reasons, and both fought for influence in the country. Compare this to the history of Ireland, whose landlord problem arose as a result of England’s play to control Ireland for political reasons (it was a buffer from invasions by Spain and France). So yet again, we see pointers in Bolaño’s book to parallels with Irish history that happen also to be addressed, if obliquely, in Stoker’s book.
And then finally, at the end of this week’s section, we see the strange courtship of Reiter and Ingeborg in which we learn of her fascination with the human-sacrificing Aztecs and Reiter’s oath sworn by the Aztecs. Bolaño here is tying World War II and, by not very lengthy extension, the human sacrifice of the holocaust, back to the Mexico in which the heart of his story is centered. That one of Ireland’s most well-known writers couched the landlord matter in terms of cannibalism hardly seems tangential.
Someone who has a better head for history than I do may be able to provide additional color or nuance, but I definitely have the sense that Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.
As I write this, I have the strangest notion that somebody has beat me to it, that somebody else has mentioned vampirism with respect to 2666, but if so, I can’t find the reference. If I’m inadvertently ripping you off, please speak up and take appropriate credit in the comments. Maybe I just have the Infinite Summer read of Dracula still on the brain.
The things I’ve noticed (probably not an exhaustive list; I found these in a quick skim after reading this part a week ago):
- There’s the obvious draining of life force from industrious women.
- The man held in connection with the crimes is a tall, pale man. Even though he’s locked up, the crimes mysteriously continue. He’s obviously sneaking out at night as a bat.
- In a bit of mischief running parallel to the murders, we have an elusive sacraphobic breaking idols (Dracula hates a cross, don’t you know?).
- The Penitent pees in prodigious amounts. Vampires drink lots of blood. Vampire bats, which can consume half their weight in blood within a 20-minute feeding, begin to pee within a couple of minutes of feeding. One assumes they pee in impressive volume.
- Inmates at the mental hospital are made nervous by the wind. I’m reminded of the storm that preceded Dracula’s arrival to England and his later association with a mental hospital in Stoker’s novel.
- The director of the asylum has small, sharp, white teeth.
- The filmmaker Rodriguez, probably best known for his vampire film From Dusk till Dawn, is featured in the prior section of the book, with a credit on what seems to be a snuff film oddly premonitory (or emblematic) of the killings in Santa Teresa.
- One victim has a stake driven through her. Usually we think of this as the vampire’s fate, but then, vampires spread the love to others who must also be staked.
- The left hand of one victim rests on some guaco leaves, which are supposed to be good for mosquito bites. Mosquitos are another blood sucker.
I’m not saying this is a vampire novel, or a vampiric section of the novel. The bits about the pee in particular are almost certainly a stretch. Still, there are some pretty evocative images and circumstances that a credulous reader like me can find a way to tie together in a post about vampires. Boo!
“…and while Scary is Exciting, Nice is different than Good.”
-Red Riding Hood, from “I Know Things Now,” Into the Woods
And so we end in a warm living room, all gathered together, knocking back rack punch and talking about that freaky time back just after we got married where Mina got totes possessed and we ran all over Eastern Europe chasing a Vampire. Vampire, pleeease.
So is Dracula a Good book? Meh. I think it has probably been more of a Nice book for me … a creepy tale of the supernatural mixed with no small amount of “Law & Order”-like proceduralism to keep the pace going. But for me, all of the compelling bits ended up falling short of their early promise:
Mina as the “New Woman” – why couldn’t her Baptism by Blood have proven to be the small impetus needed to turn her from an apologist for women who wanted more out of Victorian life to a rabid champion for what womanhood could have been. Lucy might have been the hot one, but Mina had all the makings of that kind-of-wierd-but-sort-of-hot girl in your Psych 201 class, with all the threat and promise of the same.
Renfield as the Spurned Apostle – poor most-likely-bipolar Renfield. Never have we seen a more plain case of hero worship/man crush gone horribly wrong. Imagine what his diary might have been like … secreted away under his stool, pages sticky with melted sugar and the cover painstakingly adorned with the pearlescent sheen of a thousand blowfly wings.
Van Helsing as the (Un)witting Impetus — Abraham, with your so halting speech and knowledge of the wampyr that seems almost uncanny in its thoroughness. Surely Stoker must have thought you had a little bit more in you. In your so-strong drive for knowledge, a drive that drove your poor wife Sarah mad with fear and grief, you saw something one night, didn’t you? Peering up over a rock lip onto the unholy convocation of the scholars at Scholomance you witnessed something so thrillingly wrong, so completely, compellingly depraved that the rest of your life would be spent trying to scrub that so-not-of-Gott image from your mind, hoping against hope that you’d fail. Abe, you are a sick little monkey.
Jonathan “I Was Cuckolded by The Undead and All I Got Was this Lousy Head of White Hair” Harker: You never could get those three women out of your minds, could you, Johnny? How could Mina ever be enough after the freaky bloodthrill of getting three-wayed in the Eastern European equivalent of the Bunny Ranch. ANd tell me you didn’t go into explicit detail the minute you and the boys were out of earshot of the women. Dude, you had three undead, bi-curious, possibly related wraith women fighting over who would be your first? How do you not turn that into the best campfire story ever?
Of course, the slash fic possibilities are endless. And maybe in the end, it’s that malleability that makes Dracula a classic. You can hang sex, mystery, nationalism, criminality, class warfare and so many other Big Ideas from the hooks Stoker leaves festooned around the story that Dracula can’t help but be retold and reread time and time again. It brushes up against enough of humanity’s Naughty Bits that it ends up being the perfect framework into which we can all cast our own hopes and fears about Life, Death, Sex, Money, Class and Technology and more and watch what happens.
So is Dracula a good book? Maybe not. But is Dracula the book we need and deserve? Mien Gott, yes.
*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!
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?
What if Bram Stoker is the equivalent of Phil Hartman’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer character on Saturday Night Live. He’s just this guy, right. This guy who happens to be alive at the time of almost tectonic shifts in the way the world looked and worked. Everything was in flux.
Let’s cherry-pick shall we?
- Married women had been granted the right to vote in England in 1894. In fact , the two decades spanning the turn of the century saw women’s suffrage explode throughout the British Empire.
- Austria-Hungary, including the Count’s beloved Transylvania, was a loosely stitched-together amalgam of tribes and nationalitoes, ruled by the German aristocracy with the consent of Hungary’s Magyar ruling class. Similarly, the whole of the Western World was bound up in a web of alliances, treaties and backroom deals that all but guaranteed any regional conflict would bloom into full-blown war across the entire European continent.
- Technological advances on par with those that marked the late ’90s and early ’00s in this century were blurring the lines between personal and business communication. Anyone with an opinion and a couple hundred dollars could start a newspaper and through the use of telegraphy, a vigorous mail system and a rail network that ran like clockwork and report news from places that had been days away from a printing press only 20 years before.
- Resource-rich America was an emergent power on the world economic and political stages.
In short, might the Victorian Age have been all about trying to retain a grasp on a too-quickly shifting World Order? Any thinking, semi-well-read white man in the world *should* have been able to look around the world to see that his supremacy as the Prime Mover was being challenged from every side. Women. Technology. Social Class. Wealth. Power. All these props of the Victorian Man were being nibbled away at.
And so with all that angst that he and his fellow Men must have had bottled up inside, Bram Stoker sat down and wrote a scary-ass story.
- Aristocrats fleeing their beloved, impoverished homelands for juicier pickings abroad!
- Women torn between a society that wants them docile and an outside world that obviously needs their help! Oh and S-E-X too.
- The insane being treated as human beings!
- Domineering Germans dictating the course of events at every turn with no explanation!
- New-fangled technology that moves information at the speed of electricity no longer afforded the calming gift of time between missives to let passions simmer down and news to play out!
- Lord Godalming’s fading genteel aristocracy overpowered by the rootin’ tootin’ manifest destiny of Quincey Morris’ America!
That, my fellow Zombies, is some crazy, boundary-messin’-with, masculinity-threatening stuff to cram in a book. To me the question is whether or not Stoker wrote all this and more into the book.
In fact, no author can claim to write in a vacuum, totally removed from his times. I believe Stoker was just writing a good, pulpy story that would sell enough copies to make him just a bit famouser than his boss, actor Sir Henry Irving.
I’ve read a couple of posts expressing frustration with how the menfolk in Dracula handle Mina after they resolve to take care of Dracula themselves. It’s absurd, really, another of those “what were you thinking?” things not, in ways, terribly unlike what we saw from Harker in the book’s opening and from Seward and Van Helsing when handling Lucy’s case. Reading what amounts to banishment of Mina from the inner circle (and straight to bed) specifically calls to mind the repeated mishandling of Lucy’s case. Whether the men’s view of the women would be viewed as sexist in today’s world or not, you’d think they’d have learned not to stick the desirable girl alone in her room with a vampire aprowl.
Even granting the differences in society and decorum over the last hundred years, it all begins to feel a bit heavy handed, doesn’t it? The cultural reference that came to mind for me as the incompetence built and built was the Keystone Cops. It began to occur to me that when behavior persists in seeming absurd, perhaps it is done for a good reason. Perhaps, that is, Stoker aimed not merely to write a story in which the men grossly mishandled the situation at hand, but that he sought to do so in such a way that the mishandling became parodic or satirical. Well, when writers do this, they tend to be writing about things external to the story. Take Swift, for example, to whom I’ve suggested Stoker may owe a hat tip. The petty Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian politicians had specific referents external to Gulliver’s story, after all.
As I’ve said before, I don’t know enough about Irish history to say anything with much authority about it. But the notes to my edition suggest that Stoker treats of the landlord conflict in Ireland that persisted through the 19th century. And that conflict could be expressed simplistically as the removal of autonomy from one people by another that thinks that, by virtue of its place in society, it is somehow entitled to or well-equipped to control the other. Or: A bunch of rich white dudes telling other people at a societal disadvantage (e.g. women) where to go and what to do.
Of course, with respect to the landlord conflict, it’s easy to see the aristocratic blood-sucking Dracula as representative of the landlords and his poor victims as the poor people they mistreated. But what about these other gentlemen? The notes to my edition point I think too enthusiastically to certain things that suggest that both Harker and Van Helsing are Dracula’s doppelgangers (think, for example, of the mirror scene early in the book, in which Harker looks in the mirror expecting to see Dracula but sees only himself). I’m really not at all convinced that the twinhood is all that pronounced. Still, for the sake of providing a more complex allegory, it’s not unreasonable for Stoker to have given both his good guys and his bad guy characteristics or behaviors resonant with those of the Irish landlords.
Again, I don’t know the history well enough to make any bold assertions about Stoker’s attempt to write an allegory about the landlord conflict, but I did get the sense as I moved forward in the story that the men’s behavior was too idiotic to be taken entirely at face value. I’m inclined to give Stoker some credit for trying to say something in artful or nuanced ways rather than simply writing him off as a ham-handed chronicler of the society of his day. Is that fair or is it over-permissive, I wonder?