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?
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!
Not completely up on my Seward backstory, but had a couple of BGsO (Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious) this morning.
“Journals for go, recordings for show.” Like all of the characters, we only know of Seward what we read in his personal papers. While the Harker and Murray journals are personal papers, meant for each other and possibly their descendants, Seward’s notes get laid over to Gramophone with an eye (ear?) toward permanence. As a “physician,” Seward would have been educated to keep scrupulous notes. Van Helsing even comments on the fact that Seward’s case-books were always the best of all his students. I can’t help but get the sense that Seward records knowing that these reels will be used as source material for some future generations’ research. Contrast his reels with the journals kept by the others and Seward’s tone is decidedly more professional, which would be expected. That said, he also comes off as much more of a self-promoter and the reels end up sounding, in many ways, like what Seward meant to function as medical cases-work ended up working much more as a Book of Grievances.
Locker room talk sucks regardless of age or century. Seward proposes to Lucy (assuming, I get the feeling, as close to a sure thing as Victorians would be capable of) and gets a tearful rejection because Lucy’s heart already belongs to another. Later, he hears that his wasn’t the only proposal on the table. I make that assumption based on the sausagefest Quincey sets up at the end of Chapter V as Holmwood promises to bring messages which will “make both your ears tingle.” One can only imagine much later that night as Morris drunkenly pulls Jackie aside and drunkenly whispers, “Dude, I totally tapped that” as they all three drank healths to Lucy. Sure it was a kiss. But even if we take Lucy to be a reliable source, “just a kiss” would have been the sociological equivalent of a party hook-up.
“‘Let’s be friends’” cuts deep. So having his proposal rebuffed by the Hot One, and the Hot One’s BFF also removed from the pool by reason of her previously engagedness to that prig Harker, Seward can’t even throw himself into the work of guiding poor fly-eating Renfield down the corridors of madness before he’s summoned by his rich friend Holmwood to check up on the Hot One, now in waning health. (Chapter 9). So Seward gets to check up on a weakened Former Love Object, including, we assume, some amount of diagnostic palpating and such. Considering the times, wouldn’t have this been the equivalent of asking Seward to play eunuch and take good care of the harem? I think yes.
But wait there’s more. Seward is just about to give blood for the first of Lucy’s transfusions when Holmwood bursts into the room. “Come,” Van Helsing commands, all but pushing Seward aside. “You (Holmwood) are a man and it is a man we want. You are better than me, better than my friend John.” Call for Dr. Inadequacy, call for Doctor John Seward Inadequacy. Please report to the Emasculation Suite, stat!
THEN, when Seward’s blood is finally called for, only a half-measure is taken, the blood of “her lover, her fiance,” being better suited to the purpose.
Thrice shunned from Lucy. Twice required to become at least medically intimate with Lucy.
Is it any wonder some amount of rumor/speculation exists that links Jack Seward and Jack the Ripper to each other. You KNOW that if this was a comic book universe that we would have had an entire series devoted to Seward the Ripper.
I for one, am maybe interested a bit more now in the Seward/Holmwood/Lucy dynamic than I was before. Let’s keep an eye on that one.
Like Joan, I’m pretty far ahead of the daily milestones, so I haven’t by any means dropped out of the reading, though I’ve clearly sort of dropped out of the writing for Infinite Summer this time around. Maybe I’ll come around soon. I brought my book into the office tonight with the intention of scanning my margin notes through chapter 11 and putting together a post, but I simply don’t feel like it. I guess part of it’s because I put a lot of myself into not only Infinite Summer but a side writing project associated with Wallace’s work over the summer, so I’m kind of needing a break from what sometimes feels like the obligation of a deadline. Part of it also is that I missed watching a whole lot of baseball this summer. Nobody held a gun to my head, of course, and it was a good tradeoff, since the first installment of IS was a great pleasure for me. And don’t get me wrong — I’m enjoying reading Dracula (it doesn’t really speak to me as Wallace’s work does, but it’s neat to read the work that has informed the culture). But Dracula‘s no Infinite Jest, and baseball season is winding down. Oh, my Cubbies are long since out of the running, and I was bummed to see the Cards fall to doper Manny and the Dodgers last night, but the Yankees are still around to root against (I guess I’m cheering for the Phillies to take it ultimately now), and then there’ll be the 5-month drought. So baseball is trumping writing about Dracula right now. But I’m here, and I’m reading, and I’m reading a couple of blogs about it, and if anything moves me to write, you bet I will.