Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Le Fanu was a genius.part one

In writing Dracula as a series of journal entries Stoker set himself two problems.
The first is that in a journal which has not been retrospectively tampered with, you can’t have prolepsis. Stoker handles this impressively and I think there’s only one place in the book where he slips up.

His other challenge is that he has focalised his story though the limited perspectives of the participants. Along with the problems of creating separate voices with differing attitudes and characters, he still has to find a way to give the reader essential information so the story can move forwards. When Harker records that Mina is growing languid and pale, and Mina records bad dreams and bad sleep, the reader knows Drac’s got to her, but since this is ‘revealed’ in a dramatic sequence later, the heroes seem slow in noticing the obvious significance of what they are recording. Stoker's clumsiness makes his heroes seem dim witted.

Le Fanu, on the other hand, exploits the problems a first person narrator creates for the writer, to create a character, Laura, not only in what she does in her story, but in the way she tells it.

We play the game: Laura, the narrator of Carmilla, is a real person, telling us about events that happened to her eight years ago when she was nineteen.

We know nothing about Laura except what she tells us. The paratext sets up expectations which the story seems to frustrate. All we are told about Laura is that she was: “a person so clever and careful ….. Much to my regret, however, I found that she had died in the interval.” Her narrative of events is described as being told with such conscientious particularity.

The Laura of the story does not seem clever. She goes out of her way to show she isn’t. I’d argue she is ‘careful’ in what she reveals. If the story exhibits “conscientious particularity” it does so in what the narrator hides and fudges. 8 years have passed since the story ends. We are explicitly told this is being narrated retrospectively at someone else’s request. But from the start of the story Laura exonerates herself and muddles the issues. She does it surreptitiously but consistently. She has two strategies that can be described as characteristics and once established are then exploited by Le Fanu at the very end of the story.

The first, used to exonerate herself and excuse her lack of comprehension, is her insistence on how isolated she and her father were. The isolation of the schloss is partly the trappings of the gothic story and serves its own function in the narrative but the geographical isolation bleeds into racial isolation, (her father is English) which exonerates her from not knowing the local stories about vampires, which would have rung the alarm bells much earlier. (Not that Laura has much to do with alarm bells). The geographical distance from “society” allows her to repeatedly tell her addressee that she has to accept Laura’s naivety as the result of her upbringing in such an isolated spot. Carmilla’s behaviour, beliefs, etc would be judged differently by a more worldly wise person. Though how such a person might have judged her is never clarified.

Her second habit is that when reporting what happens she relies heavily on phrases like “It appeared” or “apparently” or ‘what looked like” where straight description would be justified. For Laura, things aren’t simply what they are; they are always potentially something else. However, she never seems to want to cut through “appears to be” and reach “was”. Her description of Carmilla’s behaviour is therefore nebulous. Laura insists on its ambiguous nature. And given the fact that she has had eight years to think about it, she’s either very confused, or out to obfuscate.
Part two later.

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