Friday, November 1, 2013

Frank Moorhouse

November, 2013: I've been reading a lot lately - it's an activity that fits in well with having a baby sleeping on my lap.  I've been reading almost too much, finishing novels too quickly, starting another immediately.  In an effort to slow myself down, I decided to read Frank Moorhouse's 'Edith' trilogy, Grand Days (1993), Dark Palace (2000) and Cold Light (2011).

I was prejudiced against Frank Moorhouse; being a writer who is struggling through the Great Arts Depression*, I find myself resenting those who 'broke though' and made a name for themselves in the Arts Boom of the 70s and 80s.  [*Perhaps calling this current period an Arts Depression is like farmers bewailing a Drought, when really we live in a low-rainfall continent, and it's the good seasons that are the exception.]  I have a tendency to doubt whether these writers are really any good - suspecting them of just coasting along on their comparatively easily-won reputations - and therefore to avoid reading them, as they've had enough attention already.  As soon as I catch myself at this shameful sour-grapism, I make reparation.  I borrowed Moorhouse's trilogy from Errol, took it home in a wheelbarrow, and winched it onto my bookshelf.  There it sat, piled higher than my Shorter Oxford English Dictionaries and higher even than my yoga bricks, like a punishment I had to inflict on myself.

Then came this phase in my life where long books are what I need.  My first response to Grand Days was surprise.  I thought, "This is almost twee!"  And I wondered if I would have taken it less seriously if a woman had written it.  I might have thought, with a shudder, "Chick lit."  Here's a characteristic example from the third volume:

Janice took a piece of the Belgian chocolate and put it into her mouth, closed her eyes and exclaimed, "Divine."
There was a moment of silence while they ate their chocolate, making large eyes at each other.
Janice then asked, "Are you someone who eats their chocolate slowly or the person who gobbles it?  I'm a gobbler.  But I won't gobble yours."
Edith smiled.  "I'm a gobbler who tries not to be.  It's amazing that we have any of the chocolate left."

Although this tone - twee, or camp, affected, even silly - put me off at first, soon it was established as part of Edith's personality.  She is, above all, fun, and a character with whom the reader will go anywhere - to bed with a man in a lacy nightdress, into Sir Eric's office to forge his signature, and even (rather reluctantly) into a conventional marriage in 1950s Canberra.  At the times when the story loses its thrust, the pleasure of Edith's company is all that pulls the reader along - but it's enough.

There is substance to the fun.  Most obviously, the trilogy is a thorough and detailed portrait of Edith, following her trajectory for forty years.  As in Portrait of a Lady, our youthful heroine, full of confidence, promise and idealism, is put through severe tests.  Edith longs for grand causes - no less than world disarmament and the end to all war.  She goes to Geneva in the '20s to work for the League of Nations.  Where is the League of Nations now?  With grand causes come grand failures.  I find this worth examining, over three long novels: how the biggest disappointments are allotted to the biggest dreamers.  So we follow Edith, hoping she doesn't give up or become embittered.  Her urge to enjoy life vanquishes disappointment time and again; finally the fun is the substance.  A sense of fun is an invincible weapon against life.

People used to dream big, and the trilogy touches on some of the biggest dreams.  On reading of, say, 'the Pact of Peace', my first reaction is to scoff: "Well, that certainly didn't end war forever!" - the barest knowledge of history turns the reader into a smug know-all.  Then I marvel that so many people could have shared such a preposterous dream.  Then I think it would be a great boon to have a cause, and to live in a time when there were still causes, still Utopian hopes.  Lastly it brings me to feel sad that our time is one where we don't believe in much except the greediness of humankind, and the best we can hope for is that we don't destroy the planet and extinct ourselves...or maybe that we do extinct ourselves.  No, my very last thought on the matter is that I should find myself a cause, to hell with the futility of it!  In Mr Smith Goes To Washington, which Andy was watching last night with headphones on, while I watched it silent, knowing that Andy would fill me in on the best bits, Mr Smith said, "Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for."

I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Moorhouse is including in his shortlist of grand failures of the twentieth century, our capital Canberra, with its design that Edith, and the Burley Griffins, foresee as creating a new type of city.  It's poignant to read of Edith's romantic projections about Canberra-to-be, such as: "the streets and roads that broke away from the old grid pattern were themselves a work of some art and reminded people that they were in a special city."  In fact, those artistic roads are annoying and impractical; as an inveterate pedestrian, my experience of those roads is needlessly long and boring trudges relieved here and there by shortcuts - invariably straight lines - worn into the grass by other pedestrians.  The satisfaction of being able to contrast the concrete reality of 2013 to the various futures imagined for us by earlier decades is one of the pleasures of Moorhouse's trilogy.

There is a curious echo between what goes on within the pages of the trilogy, and the actual work itself.  For Moorhouse, this was clearly a Grand Project (Edith/Moorhouse likes to upper-case the important things).  It took twenty years to write, and involved extensive reading and research, with Moorhouse living for several years in Geneva.  There are pages of acknowledgments to benefactors and institutions.  People clearly believed in and supported this work; Moorhouse himself must have been devoted to it.  It was probably going to be bigger than The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, or even in the realms of Tolstoy.  But like Edith's plans for ending war, Moorhouse's plans for a classic masterwork run up against the facts of imperfect reality, 'the human element' (to quote a poem of my father's).  The trilogy is full of flaws, from the major - such as the superficial treatment of two of Edith's three marriages, or the artless and repetitive recapping that goes on in the second and third volumes, presumably in an attempt to make them capable of standing alone - to the minor - the misspelling of 'gnarled' as 'knarled', and grammatical inconsistencies and errors such as  ' allowed Ambrose and she to...'.  But just as Edith's life is not a failure, although her plans didn't amount to much, Moorhouse's trilogy is far from being a lost cause.  Edith and Moorhouse (and the reader) enjoy her life up to her last minute, or page.  Because of the joie de vivre - the fun - of Moorhouse's writing, I would have gladly kept reading if it had been twice as long.

At the moment, writers seem to be obsessed with the finish, the polish, of a work.  The spirit of a work has often been polished right out of existence.  I'd much rather a book with rough patches and a life of its own, than one with perfect prose, no mistakes, and unlovable, humourless characters.

Finally, I think it is almost a handbook on how to live a good life - Moorhouse seems to know his own fallibility too well to state answers, and instead, through Edith, proffers suggestions.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Eudora Welty

July/November, 2013:  The arrival (earlier than expected) of our baby has had an impact on my Books of the Moment cataloguing, or bloguing.  For a start, capital letters require more effort when the hand that usually holds down the 'shift' key is holding the breast-pump in position.  Also, I think each blogue will have to be more concise, like everything in my life - showers, phone calls, sleep etc.

Several days before my waters broke, back in May, I spent a day in a bean bag at my mother's house reading Eudora Welty's Robber Bridegroom (1942).  I'd recently applied for a grant to write a novella I'm describing as a modern fairy story.  In writing the project outline, I began to think of modern fairy stories I've read, including Robber Bridegroom.  The truth is, much as I love real fairy stories, I don't particularly like modern ones, which have the hand of their maker all over them, no matter how well the traditional style has been captured.  Why I don't is an essay in itself (as opposed to a concise blogue).

Eudora Welty's writing is clear and pure, sometimes almost childlike in its simplicity (and many of her short stories feature children as characters).  But often, after reading one of her stories, I've felt the true meaning has eluded me - eluded my conscious mind, but penetrated me all the same.  With her pure writing, she is capable of exploring murkiness and ambiguity, mysteries and paradoxes.  A writer like her would be drawn to this story, where the characters twist and turn, with a lead male who is both hero and villain, and a heroine who faithfully loves him yet also mistrusts him.  I would hazard to say it is a story about the murkiness of attraction, and the danger of truly getting to know one's lover, but months later, her version of the Robber Bridegroom still puzzles me.

Here is some Welty wisdom...I've never liked presents from swains much, ever since that first rather contractual ring and a single-red-rose at age 15 (though I'd lied and said I was 16).  The best presents are ones picked in back lanes, or found on the sand:

"I wonder what presents he will be bringing next," she said in a loud whisper.

This angered Clement, who said to her, "You will find that men who are generous the way he is generous have needs to match."

And  a speech I liked, for its echoes of "the world is too much with us", a poem oft-quoted in our household:

"But the time of cunning has come," said Clement, "and my time is over, for cunning is of a world I will have no part in.  Two long ripples are following down the Mississippi behind the approaching somnolent eyes of the alligator.  And like the tenderest deer, a band of copying Indians poses along the bluff to draw us near them.  Men are following men down the Mississippi, hoarse and arrogant by day, wakeful and dreamless by night at the unknown landings.  A trail leads like a tunnel under the roof of this wilderness.  Everywhere the traps are set.  Why?  And what kind of time is this, when all is first given, then stolen away?
"Wrath and love burn only like the campfires.  And even the appearance of a hero is no longer a single and majestic event like that of a star in the heavens, but a wandering fire soon lost.  A journey is forever lonely and parallel to death, but the two watch each other, the traveller and the bandit, through the trees..."

This beautiful speech "on the lateness of the age" continues, but the baby is stirring, and I am striving for concision.

Monday, April 1, 2013


April, 2013: After reading Independent People, I wasn't ready to start another novel.  As with all good things, I needed some time for it to sink in: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested", says Francis Bacon in his essay Of Studies...that's the old Francis Bacon, not the new one (and that's paraphrasing Rambling Jack Elliot,: "That's the old Jimmie Rodgers, not the new one").  So to absorb the full benefit of Independent People, I held off from another novel, instead reading a few of Charles Fenner's lovely, short essays about Australia - limestone cocoons and basalt plains - and began The English Essay (1939), which Andy bought for a dollar at Bathurst Salvos.

In Cowra at my grandfather's old house, I pulled out a book whose spine has always intrigued me - The Little Grey Men by 'BB' (1942).  It turned out to be a children's novel about the last four remaining gnomes in England.  I've always loved gnomes and all the Little People, so I was very happy to keep reading.  

Three gnomes, Dodder, Baldmoney and Sneezewort,  journey up their stream, the Folly, in search of their fellow gnome Cloudberry, who was stricken by wanderlust a year or more ago and has not been seen since.  The woods, the stream, the seasons, birds, creatures and plants, are minutely observed.  It feels like the author's lost landscape, a countryside he sees in memories and dreams; often one needs distance to see something vividly.  The date of publication - in the middle of World War II - adds poignancy to these loving portraits of innocent places.  

It's a book about the natural world, written at a time when the human world was particularly ugly.  In The Little Grey Men, the human world is kept on the peripheries; people are dangerous, and must be avoided, but foxes and huge pikes are more of a threat to the travelling gnomes.  I welcome an escape into the non-human world.  It is one of those healthy and constructive escapes, as opposed to a head-in-the-sand escape.  Books like this encourage readers to revere the natural world, and protect it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013



Lucy Lehmann, published novelist and painter of portraits in words, is in the midst of a raffle-ticket-selling campaign to raise funds to print Part One of her newest novel.

Below, Lehmann answers the most frequently-asked questions:

1:  If you win the raffle, what do you get?
"I'll be painting a full-length portrait in words of the winner, or any subject nominated by the winner.  I envisage approximately 2000 words (as calculated by Stell's watertight reasoning about pictures telling a thousand words).  Perhaps the portrait will be a description of a meeting between the subject and me - say, an informal chat over a cup of tea, or even a gala event such as a 21st or a wedding.  Perhaps it will be 'a day in the life of'.  Or the subject might prefer to sit for me over several sessions until I have described him or her from head to foot.  A full-length portrait in words has never before been attempted, so I'm not placing any limits on myself.  Except the word-count."
2: How much is a full-length portrait in words worth?
"A question for you, Stella," defers Lehmann.
McDonald, the brains behind the portrait-painting business, takes over, "Lu isn't really worth much at the moment, but for all we know, this new novel of hers might eventually sell a few copies.  Stranger things have happened.  Think of a full-length portrait by Lucy Lehmann as a long-term investment."
3: How much do you have to fork out for a raffle ticket?
McDonald: "Five dollars.  Same as your standard-length five-minute portraits-in-words.  The raffle ticket makes a good bookmark, if you're into reading."
Lehmann: "I'm also offering a free ticket to anyone who can sell a book of ten tickets for me.  I'm not the world's best salesman."
4: When will the raffle be drawn?
"I've set myself a minimum quota of 150 raffle tickets before the winner is drawn.  I am considering scaling that back to something more manageable-"
McDonald laughs, "How does 20 sound?"
Lehmann: "Just keep an eye on this blog.  I'll announce the drawing ceremony, which will probably take place at the Lord Wolseley in Ultimo because they have a raffle-ticket tumbler.  I'm guessing it'll happen around September."
5: What will Lehmann do with the proceeds?
"I'll print up Part One of my new novel.  I love 'making things' - whether it's novels, songs, knitted blankets.  Trying to get a novel published is often a long process, and it makes me feel a bit powerless to think that this novel of mine will have no life until some great publishing god deigns to smile upon it.  So I like the idea of printing up something.  If I sell 11 tickets, it will be a few photocopies of the first three chapters with a hand-painted cover; if I sell 150, I might be able to afford a larger print-run, with more chapters."
McDonald interjects: "A copy of Part One might also be a good long-term investment, especially if Lu only manages to sell a few tickets, which is looking likely."
6: Will Part One be for sale?
"I might sell some.  I might leave some on bus-seats."
7: What's the novel called?
"The One Who Loved Best.  It's from Henry Lawson's poem, Past Caring.  'He's droving in the great north-west, I don't know how he's faring, and I, the one who loved him best, have grown to be past caring.'  The novel's had about 5 names already, but I think this one is a keeper."

To buy a raffle ticket from Lehmann, email her at, or come to their next portrait-painting session, which will be at Firstdraft Gallery, 118 Chalmers St, Surry Hills, on Saturday March 9 from 7-11pm.  No guarantees McDonald and Lehmann will still be there at 11pm.  A two hour session is usually quite long enough.  And don't forget to ask Lehmann about her great free-ticket-for-selling-a-book-of-ten offer.  To see the latest portraits, go to:

Friday, March 1, 2013

Halldór Laxness

March, 2013: I started to read Patrick White's Tree Of Man, but having spent the past nine years writing a novel about a young couple living in an isolated bush hut, I found myself unable to bear White's setting - a young couple in an isolated bush hut.  I mentioned this to our flatmate, Tony, and he said, "Then you wouldn't be interested in reading a novel about a family living in an isolated hut in Iceland."  Perhaps guided by the spirit of contrariness, or else by my summer habit of reading books set in snowy places, I borrowed Halldór Laxness's Independent People (1946).

I was immediately won over by Laxness's tone.  Rural culture is very attractive to writers, not only because it's usually an exotic culture for anyone who spends their time stuck inside at a desk writing, and trying to get what they write published, but also because it is a good frame for that perennial theme of 'what have we lost or gained in adopting modern life?'  There are plenty of writers who have thoroughly researched rural culture, and get all the details right, and many who use an insightful understanding of it to make some good points, but few who can write about rural culture from within.  Thomas Hardy and Halldór Laxness are the best I've come across.  They provide the reader with all sorts of fascinating and obscure details, and they are worldly enough to contrast traditional life with modern life.  But their sharpest tool is their ability simultaneously to criticise and praise rural culture.  This seems to be the proof of thoroughly knowing one's subject.  I think of how the trait that most irritates us about a beloved friend is also often the one we most admire; it's because this trait is strong, distinctive, notable, and we have suffered at its hands.

In Independent People, and Hardy's novels, there is a lot of suffering - detailed suffering.  Because of the suffering, these writers know that this way of life should and will end; yet they value it enough to document it before it disappears.   I keep thinking of the conversations the crofters have on the rare occasion of a get-together: although epic poetry might be momentarily touched upon, the recurring topic is parasitic worms.  Laxness's sheep-farmers have much to say about worms, and it's not uninteresting.  Sometimes, such as when they gather at the farm of Bjartur, our independent man, to see evidence of the gruesome sheep-massacre possibly perpetrated by a ghost, I was relieved when their conversation left the spooky, and reverted to the here-and-now of worms and sheep - the staff of life for the independent crofter.  But we, like Bjartur's children, who know there's more to life, suffer at the hands of the prevailing worm and sheep obsession, and long for beauty, love, anything else!  Another writer would carefully recreate authentic-sounding sheep-crofter conversations, admiring the earthiness, immediacy, depth of knowledge; yet another writer would depict the oppressive and maddening narrowness; but Laxness presents the reader with both angles, and a few in between.

Often when a writer views a subject equivocally, it results in a coolly dispassionate tone - a kind of balancing act that ends up neutral.  There's nothing neutral about Laxness's novel; it's full of extremes.  There's a description of the farm in summer, where the whole family is harvesting hay for eighteen or more hours every day, and it's raining constantly, and everyone is sick (except the iron-clad Bjartur), with their noses streaming, forever hungry, one or another of them falling asleep in the wet grass with a load of hay on their back, the mother slowly dying of overwork and malnutrition.  It's a horrific description of 'summer in Iceland', a time of year I would have thought beautiful and a respite.  Later, it is contrasted with summer in Bjartur's valley as viewed by a well-heeled young man who camps there for pleasure over a week or two.  Through the young man's eyes, Bjartur's valley is Paradise.  Laxness is capable of seeing it as heaven and hell both at once.  

The main character in Independent People is Bjartur, the most staunchly independent person of the whole lot.  He sacrifices almost everything for the sake of independence - two wives, several children.  Laxness somehow manages to pull off the balancing act even with this character, whom you couldn't exactly call the hero of the novel.  Bjartur is a tyrant, who commits some unforgivable acts (such as slaughtering the beloved family cow); but somehow we don't hate him.  He has a certain integrity, even if he is lacking in kindness.  And he is driven by a dream - of being an independent farmer, owing nothing to anyone - and we like dreamers.  We know there's more to Bjartur than sheep-and-worms.  Laxness's ending is truly beautiful - Bjartur's dream is scuttled, he is forced to compromise, and is redeemed.  In novels, I love the redemption ending - the whole, long novel existing to bring to life the moment of redemption.

The most remarkable thing about man's dreams is that they all come true; this has always been the case, though no one would care to admit it.  And a peculiarity of man's behaviour is that he is not in the least surprised when his dreams do come true; it is as if he had always expected nothing else.  The goal to be reached and the determination to reach it are brother and sister, and slumber both in the same heart.

A couple of pages later: 

Everything that one has ever created achieves reality.  And soon the day dawns when one finds oneself at the mercy of the reality that one has created; and mourns the day when one's life was almost void of reality, almost a nullity; idle, inoffensive fancies spun around a knot in a roof.

Independent People has many passages I could have dog-eared (I'm reluctant to dog-ear a borrowed book) for their sheer beauty.  The lyricism of the writing - which in this case is the characters' thoughts and feelings and observations - is probably the only reason anyone can bear to read nearly five hundred pages of abject hardship.  The lyricism is like the novel's oft-repeated motif of 'the flower among the rocks'.  

Here's an exchange between Bjartur's daughter (the flower of his life) and the young man who camps in the valley:

"What do they call you?" he asked, and her heart stood still.
"Asta Sollilja," she blurted out in an anguish-stricken voice.
"Asta what?" he asked, but she didn't dare own up to it again.
"Sollilja," said little Nonni.
"Amazing," he said, gazing at her as if to make sure whether it could be true, while she thought how dreadful it was to be saddled with such an absurdity.  But he smiled at her and forgave her and comforted her and there was something so good and so good in his eyes; so mild; it is in this that the soul longs to rest; from eternity to eternity.  And she saw it for the first time in his eyes, and perhaps never afterwards, and faced it and understood.  And that was that.
"Now I know why the valley is so lovely," said the visitor.

I dog-eared this passage partly because I found it beautiful, but also because there is something sweetly teenaged and romantic about it.  As a youngish female writer, I sometimes feel shy of writing passages that have a teenaged, romantic scent about them.  As I was editing my recently-finished manuscript with my father, he urged me to excise anything that showed tenderness (he would say sentimentality) towards children (e.g. "wide-eyed"), or, worse still, animals (he wanted me to get rid of all sightings of kangaroos).  We struck compromises, and he was probably right.  But I was reading Anna Karenina at the time, which is full of sentimental and touching descriptions of children; I'm positive they were sometimes wide-eyed.  Children are!  Geoff's riposte was irrefutable: "You're not Tolstoy."  However, I have a lingering resentment of the fact I'm not a dignified old man who can write the occasional soppy bit and be all the more loved and respected because of it.  I just need to win a Nobel Prize (as Laxness did).

I'll end with a poem that appeared in the novel.  I don't know whether it is a traditional Icelandic song, or Laxness's own composition:

When the fiddle's song is still,
And the bird in shelter shivers,
When the snow hides every hill,
Blinds the eye to dales and rivers,

Often in the halls of dreams,
Or afar, by distant woodland,
I behold the one who seems
First of all men in our Iceland.

Like a note upon the string
Once he dwelt with me in gladness.
Ever shall my wishes bring
Peace to calm his distant sadness.

Still the string whispers his song;
That may break, a love-gift only;
But my wish shall make him strong,
Never shall he travel lonely.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

*SPECIAL POST* From The Studio of Stella Rosa McDonald and Lucy Lehmann

Let A Published Novelist Paint Your Portrait In Words: Stella Rosa McDonald and Lucy Lehmann first got their buskers' licences and started painting the portraits (in words) of passersby in 2010.  McDonald draws in the punters with her irresistible patter - "Are you a fan of fiction?  Do you have a passion for the page?"  Lehmann, seated on a milk-crate, taps on her great-great aunt Janet's typewriter, describing the punter McDonald seats before her.  No character speculation: just a sketch of the face.  McDonald counts down the five-minute session, which is never long enough for Lehmann.  The punter hands over five dollars for the original, and a carbon copy goes into the Studio archives.  To see a few portraits, visit:

2012 saw a suspension of the Portrait enterprise, with McDonald in Paris on an artists' residency, and Lehmann moving down to Melbourne.  But come 2013, the spruiker and her word-painter are back in Sydney.  They're ironing the banner, putting a new ribbon on the typewriter and drawing up a good supply of letterhead, in preparation for the next session.  

The 'Let A Published Novelist Paint Your FULL-LENGTH Portrait In Words' Raffle: For the past nine years, when not painting portraits, the Published Novelist has been doggedly scribbling away at her second novel.  On several occasions, she has announced the completion of her great work, only to retract the glad tidings shortly afterwards and disappear yet again into her study.  Finally, last year, it was official.  It was nameless, but finished.  But it was accompanied by no triumphant announcement, no celebration.  It seemed Lehmann didn't even care if anyone read it.  When McDonald returned home from Paris, she was dismayed by the despondent state in which she found her protegée.  This state of affairs called for action: in fact, A RAFFLE.

First Prize is a full-length portrait in words of the winner (or whomever the winner nominates as a subject).  All proceeds of the raffle go towards printing Part One of Lehmann's new novel.  In McDonald's words: "Lu was in the doldrums.  I said, 'You need some wind in your sails - your novel needs some wind in its sails.  We need to get it out there.'  I came up with the idea of the raffle.  At first Lu was a bit reluctant - she was afraid a full-length portrait meant she had to write a novel about the winner, or a nude full-body portrait.  But I said, 'Everyone knows a picture tells a thousand words - according to my calculations, a FULL-LENGTH picture would be about two-thousand words.'  Lu started warming to the idea.  She even did a little drawing and got it made into a rubber stamp and printed up a batch of tickets.  They're a bit hokey - but that's the Lehmann signature style, I guess."

Lunar New Year's Eve Portrait Session: McDonald and Lehmann are kicking off the raffle-ticket campaign and saying 'goodbye Dragon, hello Snake' with a session of portrait-painting and raffle-ticket-selling this Saturday February 9, from 3-5pm.  If it's sunny, the Portrait Painters will set up in Hyde Park (in the fig-tree avenue near the Archibald Fountain); if raining, in the Central tunnel.  Portraits are the usual $5 for 5 minutes, and the hand-stamped raffle tickets are $5 each.  

If you can't make it to the portrait session and desperately want to buy some raffle tickets, email Lehmann at and she will figure out the best way to get some to you.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mary Shelley

January, 2013: Andy brought home Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) because he knows I am a big fan of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of Vindication on the Rights of Woman (1792).  Poor Mary senior died a few days after giving birth to Mary junior.  A Cowra heatwave seemed an appropriate time to read a dark, snow-bound tale like Frankenstein.  

Shelley was only twenty-one when she wrote this; I have to remind myself to cut her some slack.  I was disappointed by the story-telling, which was very basic: first, there's the narrative told in letters from young Walton to his sister, then he begins to makes notes of a narrative as told him by a man his boat picked up in peculiar circumstances, and then this narrator (Frankenstein, who is not the monster but the scientist), passes the narrative baton over to the very well-spoken monster for a while, then the baton goes back to Frankenstein, and finally ends up where it began, with Walton.  Narrators are surprisingly difficult to manage; when they're retailing a story someone has told them, the question is: how much of the narrator's own story does the reader need to know, i.e. how interesting does the narrator need to be?  Too interesting, and the reader wants to know about the narrator's story, not the one he or she is narrating; not interesting enough, and we lose faith in the narrator's worthiness to guide us through the story.  Joseph Conrad is the master of narrators.  He makes his narrators mysterious, enigmatic, and occasionally opens them out as real, active characters at the end.

My main problem with Shelley's tale is that our main character, Frankenstein, remained pig-headed and unchanged from beginning to end.  What I wanted was - to use the modern parlance - for him to take responsibility for what he did.  This is what his monster wants as well.  But Frankenstein's emotional development goes from thirsting for knowledge, in the first few chapters, to regretting, for the rest of the book, this thirst for knowledge.  He takes the lid off the can of worms, then tries (in vain) to stuff the worms back in the tin.  It's not very interesting.  Much more interesting, and helpful, is seeing characters deal with unwanted knowledge, because that's what we all have to do.  Every time the monster pleads with Frankenstein to help him - seeing as he created him - Frankenstein ends with, "Begone, you daemon!"  I kept waiting for some sign that the author knew how annoyed I was getting with stupid old Frankenstein, but it never came.  I suppose we simply have to view Frankenstein's sorry end as the author's disapproval of what he did.  But some change of heart towards the end would have been a great climax.

I wanted Frankenstein to be kind to his monster, and introduce him to his family, and help him make friends and find a place in society.  That would have been interesting.  But Shelley set out to write a horror story, not a human-interest story.