The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd
Philip Womack wonders why Peter Ackroyd has meddled with a classic
A door creaks open; wind whistles. An indistinct form can just about be discerned through the swirling fog; the stench from the river fills the nostrils. And what unholy sight is this – sparks, blue sparks, like fire from heaven, contained in some devilish machine – what student of the dark arts practises his foul deeds here? The fog lifts, the form becomes clearer … oh, never mind, it’s only Peter Ackroyd.
But what on earth is he doing? There’s a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein attached to some electrodes. I know, I’ll ask him. It is my duty, as a reviewer, after all. I step forward, gingerly, over some gutted editions of Milton and Coleridge. “Mr Ackroyd?” I cough.
“Who disturbs me here?” He looks up, eyes glinting with demon light.
“Oh . . . it’s just, er, your reviewer. I just wondered . . .”
“Too late!” With a maniacal cry he pulls back a lever; he seems animated by supernatural enthusiasm; I shield my eyes against the blinding electric force; when I can see clearly once more, I find in place of the old book a glossy, shining hardback, with the name of Shelley evaporated. “You can buy it for sixteen ninety nine,” says Mr Ackroyd. Overcome by hellish fear, I flee the wharves, to the safety of my room and my Penguin Classic.
Peter Ackroyd’s last novel was the sleek, eerie The Fall of Troy, which convincingly re-created the life of the dodgy archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Here he is on somewhat shakier ground: he has decided to tackle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I have nothing against retellings, on principle – they are as old as literature itself. Usually they throw some new slant upon the subject (one thinks, recently, of Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Penelopiad). Alas, here Ackroyd has done little more than fillet Shelley’s work and give it an ending of bathetic absurdity.
We are asked to imagine that Victor Frankenstein was a real person. This in itself is not a problem, but its consequences are. The early parts of the book are very well researched, scuttling along at a great pace, bringing to life the bustling, mud-sodden England of the 19th century. Frankenstein meets, at university, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and forms a great attachment to him; he is also fired by the poet’s imagination, seeing himself and his arts as a kind of poetry. Liberty and the pursuit of science for the good of mankind are his driving forces; he wishes to harness nature, to make it a moral force; and to do this he decides to bring back to life a corpse which will become a perfect being.
Of course, we all know what happens next. Poor old Victor gets a little upset about what he’s done, and refuses to acknowledge his naughtiness. Prospero and Caliban, Prometheus, James Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner – all hover in the background, all whispering nervously into the reader’s ear. Quite why Frankenstein (in Ackroyd’s novel) decides so violently to deny the monster (and therefore a part of himself) is never quite satisfactorily explained.
The monster, rejected, is understandably a little put out, and decides, a bit like Satan when he got thrown out of Paradise, that evil will be his good, and goes on a bit of a killing spree. Heavens above! What is Victor to do? The only sensible suggestion, it seems, is to go on a tour of Italy with his new chum Lord Byron, and with Shelley and his lovely wife Mary. The writing is tight and thrilling, and Ackroyd is excellent at creating suspense, the sense that “a frightful fiend” does close behind one tread.
But, Mr Ackroyd, sitting there in your lair, scribbling away at excellent biographies and still more excellent histories, I am afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for your creation – or rather re-creation. The work as a whole denies Mary Shelley the spark of her own fire; I am afraid that I see it rather as an abhorred creature, to be cast out like the loathed monster. And if it comes back to haunt me, so be it; but I would advise any reader wishing to delve into the arcane to stick with the original.
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is published by Chatto & Windus