Discussing UNESCO Cities of Literature

Heads up. I wrote about Melbourne’s UNESCO City of Literature initiative a while ago, drawing a pretty unfavourable comparison between Melbourne’s efforts to capitalise on its City of Literature status and the remarkable things Edinburgh has achieved after it became the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. Have Melbourne’s efforts improved in the last year? With the city’s Emerging Writers’ Festival kicking off today, I’ll be taking part in “EWFDigital,” a series of online panel discussions focusing on an assortment of literary topics. The panel I’m on is accessible here; the topic under discussion is of course the UNESCO Cities of Literature project. I’ve just fired my opening salvo and I’ll be keeping an eye on the Festival website to answer any questions from the “audience” until the Festival draws to a close on June 5…

Faulkner’s Structural Imagery

Returning to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for last week’s reading group, I was struck by this passage in Darl’s eighth monologue (page 89 in the Vintage Classics edition) which appears just as Anse, Cash, Jewel, and Darl first attempt to raise and bear Addie Bundren’s coffin:

We lower it carefully down the steps. We move, balancing it as though it were something infinitely precious, our faces averted, breathing through our teeth to keep our nostrils closed. We go down the path, toward the slope.

“We better wait,” Cash says. “I tell you it ain’t balanced now. We’ll need another hand on that hill.”

“Then turn loose,” Jewel says. He will not stop. Cash begins to fall behind, hobbling to keep up, breathing harshly; then he is distanced and Jewel carries the entire front end alone, so that, tilting as the path begins to slant, it begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped.

Although Faulkner claimed to have hammered out As I Lay Dying in a single six-week burst of creativity, examinations of the original manuscript have since put the lie to that story. In our group discussion, then, one of the questions raised was whether the novel as published also undermines Faulkner’s claim insofar as its evident complexities and nuances make a six-week creation implausible. I pointed to the above passage as one nuance that seems to me to show enough self-reflexivity on Faulkner’s part — enough consciousness of what his novel was doing as he went about piecing it together — for the novel to then display some self-awareness, via imagery, of its own structure. With its dozen or so narrators each detailing events in the wake of Addie Bundren’s death, the novel at once establishes Addie as an absence and yet conveys a sense of the presence she once held. It locates ghostly traces of the dead woman in the midst of those who once knew her, much the same way that her runaway coffin lingers like a spirit in this gathering of her husband and three sons. The coffin thus offers a slight and subtle visual expression of the structural principle upon which the entire novel rests — a tip of the hat to the absence that animates the novel as a whole.

What’s particularly striking about the above passage, though, is that this sort of structural self-awareness isn’t a device that Faulkner reserved solely for As I Lay Dying. In fact, it caught my attention last week less because I opened As I Lay Dying with an interest in its structure than because I remembered encountering the same sort of device at play when I last read Light in August. Here’s the now-famous passage from that novel (page 255 in the Vintage Classics edition) with which the persecution of the deracinated Joe Christmas begins:

Looking, he can see the smoke low on the sky, beyond an imperceptible corner; he is entering it again, the street which ran for thirty years. It had been a paved street, where going should be fast. It had made a circle and he is still inside of it. Though during the last seven days he has had no paved street, yet he has travelled further than in all the thirty years before. And yet he is still inside the circle. ‘And yet I have been further in these seven days than in all the thirty years,’ he thinks. ‘But I have never got outside the circle. I have never broken out of the ring of what I have already done and cannot ever undo,’ he thinks quietly, sitting on the seat, with planted on the dashboard before him the shoes, the black shoes smelling of negro: that mark on his ankles the gauge definite and ineradicable of the black tide creeping up his legs, moving from his feet upward as death moves.

An unwavering street forms a straight line locked inside a circle. Walk the line as Joe has been walking for some thirty years and sooner or later you’ll collide with the circle that has surrounded you the entire time. The line within the circle isn’t just a visualisation of Joe’s dilemma and the doom that awaits him; it too translates into imagery the structure of a novel. The first nine chapters of Light in August offer almost no attention to Joe Christmas. Instead, they follow the travails of Lena Grove, her runaway lover Lucas Bunch, her friend Byron Burch, and the Reverend Hightower, essentially sketching out the inhabitants of the small town of Jefferson — the townsfolk at whose hands Joe will ultimately be persecuted — while Joe is left to stalk around in the background. The significance of the unwavering street and the suggestion that Joe has been walking it all his life only come to occupy the centre of the novel in chapter ten. As the novel observes the interactions of those other characters, then, it obtains an almost literally circumspective view of Jefferson before it throws Joe Christmas into the heart of the town, drifting slowly around the various townsfolk in a way that draws the circle into which Joe’s straight line finally and fatefully collides.

Formal Bias and Frankenstein

Before Danny Boyle’s theatrical adaptation of Frankenstein ended its run in London last Sunday, I managed to catch one of the dozen or so performances that were broadcast into cinemas worldwide. There was a lot to like — outstanding performances and set design — but especially pleasing was what I originally thought of as the adaptation’s fidelity to its source material. Notwithstanding the abridgement of certain scenes, the erasure of peripheral characters like Robert Walton and Henry Clerval, and the dramatisation of events in chronological sequence rather than the explication of events in retrospect, Mary Shelley’s narrative survived largely intact. The creature escapes from Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory in Geneva only to be persecuted by wider society; he observes the De Laceys from a distance and is befriended by the old blind patriarch before the younger De Laceys turn against him; he returns to Geneva where he kills Frankenstein’s brother and orders Frankenstein to create for him a bride; and, when Frankenstein refuses, the ensuing struggle between he and his creature takes the two of them on their cataclysmic journey to the North Pole. For the most part, Boyle’s adaptation of Shelley’s novel appears to be an extremely faithful one.

In a sense, though, the fidelity of the translation from the page to the stage is precisely what makes the adaptation essentially and radically different. It’s not possible to make a faithful visual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, since Shelley’s Frankenstein invests so much importance in the essentially abstract and non-visual nature of its own artform. The narrative as a whole propelled by the creature’s efforts to persuade others to see beyond his monstrous appearance and to engage with him — to understand his plight — on exclusively rational terms; and the climax in particular is propelled by Victor Frankenstein’s overpowering inability to look beyond the creature’s monstrosity even after acknowledging his capacity for rational thought. As the novel works towards its conclusion, then, we as readers are increasingly urged to either side with Frankenstein or stand apart from him. Do we too despise the creature for his monstrosity in spite of his rational capabilities, or do we feel some sort of pity for the creature by crediting him as a rational being crippled by his own monstrosity?

The novel itself, however, is biased towards the creature simply by virtue of being a novel. The words on the page, unmediated by physical expression, convey the rational outpourings of the creature with the utmost lucidity, while at the same time denying us a visualisation of the physical monstrosity that prevents Frankenstein from engaging with the creature on rational terms. For that reason, any visual adaptation of Frankenstein invariably loses the novel’s formal bias and instead assumes a bias against Frankenstein’s creature; and I think that’s why, as I reflected on Danny Boyle’s adaptation, I found myself much less sympathetic towards the creature — much more distracted and put off by his visceral monstrosity — than I was after reading Mary Shelley’s words. As faithful to its source material as Boyle’s adaptation may otherwise be, that simple switch from one artform to another generated a production that was in fact only superficially faithful and very different in its substance.