Friday, May 07, 2010

Marginalising Dracula:

The Strange World of the Annotated Editions
[Leonard Wolf: The Annotated Dracula (1975)]

So I sent in an abstract for a projected anthology to be entitled Vampires and Zombies: Transnational Transformations. Strangely enough, they didn't take me up on my offer to contribute an essay on The Annotated Dracula (or, rather, all the editions of Bram Stoker's novel which have come out under that title or slight variations on same) - too frivolous-sounding, I guess.

In a way I'm not sorry, though. Spinning out my views into 7,000 words of ponderous Academic prose always did sound a bit too much like hard work. Instead, I thought I'd just post the main points here.

[Sätty: Illustration for The Annotated Dracula (1975)]

"With Stoker's novel serving as the backbone, this one-volume Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to the world's most famous vampire looks at its author, its psychological and sociological implications, the stage plays, the movies, television versions, the actors, and, of course, the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler."

- Ad for Mark Dawzidiak's Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Dracula. London: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2008.

I mean, what's next? The Home Shopper's Guide to Dracula? Dracula Does Dallas? Tuesdays with Dracula? - Coming Soon to a Bloodbank Near You ... Is nothing sacred anymore? It would appear not.

A certain amount of the fangs - get it? "Fangs" - for this avalanche of drivel has to go to Leonard Wolf (no, not the one who used to be married to Virginia Woolf).

Born in Vulcan, Romania (Transylvania), Leonard was originally named 'Ludovic', changed upon his arrival in the United States in 1930 with his mother, Rose-ita [Cool name, don't you think? Even a little prophetic, perhaps ...]

Among his numerous other literary accomplishments, in 1972 he published A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, a book which has some claims to have started the modern Dracula revival.

In 1975, Wolf followed it up with The Annotated Dracula, an obsessively detailed and beautifully illustrated edition of Bram Stoker's novel.

There's something almost pure and spiritual (in retrospect) about the annotated editions of famous books produced by New York publisher Clarkson N. Potter and his various rivals and collaborators in the mid-sixties and seventies.

They include Isaac Asimov's - somewhat po-faced - annotated versions of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Byron's Don Juan, Milton's Paradise Lost, along with his Guide to the Bible and Guide to Shakespeare (not to mention Familiar Poems, Annotated). There were also beautiful editions of Thoreau's Walden (ed. Philip van Doren Stern, 1970) and Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (ed. Walter James Miller, 1976).

Two bona fide classics emerged from the process: Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice (1960 - now available in the 2000 "definitive edition"), which he followed up with the Annotated Snark (1962), and annotated versions of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1965) and Chesterton's The Man Who Was Friday (1999); and William S. Baring-Gould's 2-volume Annotated Sherlock Holmes (1967), a mad compendium of everything then known about the detective and his several identities, morganatic wives, triple-headed assistant Dr John H. (or "James", as his - second? - wife addressed him on one occasion) Watson, with illustrations, chronological tables along with the full text of the canonical Four Novels and the Fifty-Six Short Stories ...

[W. S. Baring Gould: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (1967)]

Baring-Gould's book apart, the aims of this motley group of annotated texts, by a variety of editors (under a variety of imprints) were remarkably consistent. They consisted of informative contextual - and textual - notes on various matters designed to improve understanding and appreciation of great works of literature. Their status - and the value of the information they provided - depended very much on the scholarly standing of their respective editors.

Isaac Asimov's claims as an interpreter of poetry might have seemed (to anyone but himself) a little on the flimsy side, but then the works he chose to adorn (Swift, Milton - a shame he didn't get to do Dante, really) tended to have a strong science-fictional element which gave full scope to his delight in calculation and scientific patter. Martin Gardner's love of puzzles and paradoxes made him almost the ideal companion to Lewis Carroll (whose mathematical side he was able to do justice to almost for the first time).

The one striking exception was Baring-Gould. It's not that he wasn't an expert on Holmes. His 1962 book Sherlock Holmes: A Life of the World’s First Consulting Detective was actually the first - though not, alas, the last - biography of the famous sleuth. It's the approach he chose to take to the "canon" which was unusual and striking.

I mentioned in a previous post on J. R. R. Tolkien's posthumous creativity the phenomenon of Holmesian (or "Sherlockian", if you happen to be American) "Higher Criticism". This consists of:

writing essays about the Holmes canon which assume as a basic convention the actual existence of its central characters, and the subordinate role of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as Dr. Watson's literary agent.

Its inventor, Monsignor Ronald Knox, outlined the main lines of the method in one of the pieces in his 1928 book Essays in Satire, and the idea spread like wildfire - presumably because it appealed to the same kinds of people who enjoy crossword puzzles, acrostics, the Baconian theory of Shakespeare, the rehabilitation of Richard III, and other even more recondite parlour games.

Of course the main gag behind the "Higher Criticism" was nineteenth-century Biblical scholarship, which - especially in the hands of the more ponderous German textual critics - had produced a bewildering forest of double (and triple) "Isaiahs" and "Ezekiels", not to mention the immense number of people who had collaborated in, edited, revised, added to, garbled, and otherwise served to transmit the gospels and the first chapter of Genesis. Biblical criticism had the disadvantage of demanding a pretty good knowledge of Hebrew and Greek (not to mention Aramaic, Latin, German and a number of other dauntingly difficult tongues), though. The good thing about it was that the invention of a really juicy new hypothesis virtually guaranteed instant notoriety; the bad thing was that there was a good chance of losing your cushy academic job and being run out of town on a rail ...

Holmesian higher criticism, by contrast, was basically as safe as houses. It offended no-one and pleased almost everyone (except, one suspects, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his heirs). The only real risk was passing out from drinking too much at one of the annual dinners of the Baker Street Irregulars (whose inhouse magazine published most of the crucial articles in this increasingly intricate war of words).

Baring-Gould's Annotated Sherlock Holmes, then, is as much of a memorial as it is a contribution to 40-odd years of footling speculation about Holmes's shoe-size, his Tibetan explorations, the vast number of pseudonyms under which he published scientific and other forms of research, his connections with Jack the Ripper and the Royal Families of Europe, etc. etc. etc. If you have no sense of humour, or - more to the point - no sense of the absurd, it's unlikely to strike you as a particularly profitable way of spending your time. If, however, you do, it might well qualify as a friend for life.

So what does all this have to do with Dracula, the ostensible subject of this post? Well, Wolf's Annotated Dracula is a very respectable contribution to the first generation of annotated tomes listed above. It's spectacular both in its size and the strange beatuy of its illustrations, and very informative on Stoker's sources for the first, "foreign" section of the novel (basically all cribbed from a variety of travel guides and histories, above all Emily Gerard's The Land Beyond the Forest (1888)). There's a good bibliography, a useful calendar of events in the novel, along with a rudimentary filmography and guide to the stage versions of the novel. There's no attempt to pretend that Dracula is real, or to treat it as anything but the classic Gothic novel it is.

Wolf followed it up two years later with an edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, reprinting the original, 1818, text of the novel, though with full notes on her subsequent rewritings and revisions of this first, most direct (and arguably best) version of the story.

And there, presumably, the story should have ended. How much more information about Dracula do you actually need?

[Raymond McNally & Radu Florescu: The Essential Dracula (1979)]

Well, as it turns out, quite a bit.

In 1979, Raymond McNally and his colleague, the Romanian scholar Radu Florescu, collaborated on their own attempt at a comprehensive annotated edition, The Essential Dracula, which drew both on the Eastern European local detail outlined in their 1972 book In Search of Dracula, but also on the recent rediscovery of the manuscript notes for Stoker's novel.

There's no doubt that their book had a good deal to add to Wolf's basically humanist view of Dracula. Their research was thorough (and thoroughly up-to-date). The solid and unfanciful way in which they presented it had the effect of making Wolf look, at best, like a unspecialised enthusiast; at worst, like a bit of an amateur.

Don't get me wrong, when it came to the essentials, they were every bit as crazy as he was (one of McNally's subsequent books, about the so-called "Blood-Countess of Transylvania", was entitled Dracula was a Woman), but they somehow carried it off better.

It would be interesting to know more precise details about the relations between the two rival schools of Vampirology represented by McNally / Florescu and Wolf. Suffice it to say that when the latter was offered the chance to revise and update his 1975 book for a paperback edition in 1993, he called it (somewhat confusingly) The Essential Dracula, rather than some variation on the Annotated title of his original version.

[Leonard Wolf: The Essential Dracula (1993)]

An attempt to gazump his competitors? Who knows? That "definitive" subtitle is presumably meant as some kind of a dig at them. In any case, Wolf's Essential Dracula may lack the imposing dimensions (and sumptuous illustrations) of its predecessor, but it makes up for that in the detail of its information on (especially) the explosion of interest in all things vampire and Dracula-related in pop culture since the 1970s. It was the first of these books I actually owned, so I do owe it a debt for bringing me up to speed on Stoker and his methods (though of course it lacks the specific information about his working notes contained in Mcnally and Florescu's Essential Dracula).

And there, one is tempted to say, the saga really needed to come to an end. It was not to be, however.

[Leslie Klinger: The New Annotated Dracula (2008)]

In 2008 Leslie S. Klinger (no relation, I assume, to the cross-dressing malingerer in M*A*S*H*), fresh from his immense (self-appointed) task of re-annotating Sherlock Holmes – three fat volumes in place of Baring-Gould's two – published The New Annotated Dracula.

Klinger’s sequel to Baring-Gould apes the latter's attempt to operate solely within the bounds of Holmesian Higher Criticism, but in a curiously half-hearted and unconvincing way. The freshness and daring of acting on this set of (basically fatuous) assumptions has turned into a kind of ponderous lip-service to the appearances, combined with an immense piling-up of often (alas) trivial period detail. Much of this would have been considered unnecessary for previous generations of readers, and there's an element of padding which would surely once have been ruthlessly edited out.

[Leslie Klinger: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (2005-6)]

In this Klinger follows the example of other "second generation" annotated texts, notably those published by W. W. Norton & Company of New York. Some of these (the various editions of fairy tales edited by Maria Tatar spring to mind) are sound enough, if - at times - a trifle underwhelming. Some, however - notably the editions of Huckleberry Finn and The Wizard of Oz by Michael Patrick Hearn - also display the interesting property of drowning their originals in ill-considered trivia. This doesn't matter so much with L. Frank Baum, whose writing is loose enough to start with, but when one finds oneself yawning over Mark Twain, then clearly something has gone wrong.

Holmesian parlour-games can be played well or poorly, but there's nothing particularly shocking about them after approximately eighty years of such horseplay. Klinger's attempts to apply the same technique to Stoker's Dracula are, however, nothing short of disastrous. Bram Stoker has been relegated to the role of editor of the “Harker Papers”, and various hints are thrown out in the notes and introduction to suggest that the Count himself (who apparently survived the - staged? - death-scene at the end of the narrative) might have been instrumental in shaping the manuscript into its present form.

All of this seems harmless enough. It’s certainly in line with the many, many attempts which have already been made to write books (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005) being one prominent example) which supplement or intersect with the incidents and characters in Stoker’s story. The interesting thing is what a trivialising effect it ends up having on the book itself.

It's not that I mind the concept of inserting one's own silly notions into "classic" texts - especially one so eccentrically written as Dracula, with its elaborate epistolary framework of transcribed journals, newspaper articles, and even primitive audio recordings. It's just that the suspension of disbelief necessary for a ghost story tends to get lost in the process.

To give just one example, Klinger's rather far-fetched theory that the abridged version of his novel which Stoker produced shortly after its publication in 1897 somehow embodies "clues" about what is and is not integral to the narrative has resulted in a seemingly endless series of notes recording every variation between the two. He also records every misprint, down to the most trivial misspellings, in the original edition (which acts as his copytext). After one has added to this a number of notes explaining the concept of a "hansom cab", giving information on contemporary railway timetables and real estate values, the tone of almost hysterical fear and excitement which characterised Stoker's novel in its original form is, to say the least, somewhat diluted.

By all means use Stoker's text to illustrate some crazy notions of your own (a la Nabokov's insane narrator in Pale Fire (1962) - coincidentally (?), also the date of Baring-Gould's Annotated Sherlock Holmes), but to do so as confusingly as this does the original book no favours.

Yes, I read it to the end. Yes, there's a lot of interesting stuff in there (including some very pretty illustrations of contemporary equipment for dealing with "madmen" such as Renfield), but I have to say that my main feeling was disappointment. Do we really need four or five competing chronologies for Dracula? Wolf's original one may well need a little revision, after 35 years of increasingly recondite theorising, but it does have the advantage of being clear and serviceable. And at least he doesn't have to pretend to believe in vampires - or, rather, the vampire - all the time ...

I think it's time to call a moratorium on some of this extracurricular activity. Mind you, I suspect even Klinger's massive tome makes more exciting reading than Vampires and Zombies: Transnational Transformations will when it eventually appears ...

[Francis Ford Coppola: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)]

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