Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why Le Fanu was a genius.part two

Stoker pretends his heroes have altered nothing in their journals.
“there is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.”

There is to be no retrospective rearrangement. This is one of the ways he ‘guarantees’ the “authenticity” of the story. Laura, however, is writing eight years after the facts she relates. The game allows her to tell us what she knew at the time as she unfolds the story, but it also allows her to have the benefits of hindsight.

And that’s exactly what she avoids. ‘Carmilla’ is in many ways much more opaque than ‘Dracula’. Exactly what her relationship to Carmilla was remains vague. It’s vague because Laura keeps it vague, but why she does so is what leaves the text open. The vagueness gives the story its slightly dream like or out of focus quality.
After eight years, what are her final words on the subject?

The following Spring my father took me on a tour through Italy. We remained away for more than a year. It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations-sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.

“The light step of Carmilla” is suggestive; not only of familiarity, but of someone who listened eagerly and cared enough to distinguish footsteps so she could identify the ones she wanted to hear. ‘Ambiguous alterations’ are an apt description of her portrayal of Carmilla’s behaviour and her reactions to it. Throughout the story she alternates between fascination and repulsion. And then there’s “reverie” and ‘fancy’. A reverie is a waking dream but without negative overtones. What does she dream that leads to the sound of those familiar footsteps. And is she frightened or hopeful? It’s impossible to tell.

Something very strange happens towards the end of the story. For most readers it’s become obvious that Carmilla is a vampire, and she is the same young woman who destroyed the general’s ward. The general tells Laura what is obvious to everyone else:

"She called herself Carmilla?" asked the General, still agitated.
"Carmilla, yes," I answered.
"Aye," he said; "that is Millarca. That is the same person who long ago was called Mircalla, Countess Karnstein.

However, that night Laura can still record:
and I was glad, being unspeakably fatigued when we reached home. But my satisfaction was changed to dismay, on discovering that there were no tidings of Carmilla.

The story wraps itself up in a sudden orgy of explanations which might signal that Le Fanu had lost control of his material. But there’s enough evidence to suggest that Le Fanu knew he could play his narrator off against what she was narrating. When the Countess Karnstein’s tomb is found and opened and the body destroyed, Laura’s language becomes uncharacteristically factual. What she doesn’t say is louder than what she does.

The next day the formal proceedings took place in the Chapel of Karnstein. The grave of the Countess Mircalla was opened; and the General and my father recognised each his perfidious and beautiful guest, in the face now disclosed to view.

What follows is a series of declarative sentences with subjects like, the face, the body, her eyes, the flesh, the head. But who is this happening to? “The vampire”. A “guest” perfidious and beautiful. Nowhere in the description is Carmilla’s name mentioned. Either the thought of her friend being hacked , burnt and scattered is too much, or she is simply refusing to accept that the body in the box was Carmilla’s. It’s no wonder she’s still waiting for her step at the door.

In The Conclusion that follows Laura reverts to being vague.

I cannot think of it without agitation. Nothing but your earnest desire so repeatedly expressed, could have induced me to sit down to a task that has unstrung my nerves for months to come, and reinduced a shadow of the unspeakable horror which years after my deliverance continued to make my days and nights dreadful, and solitude insupportably terrific.

That “It” floats. What is the unspeakable horror? What happened when Carmilla stayed with her, or what was done to the Vampire’s body? ‘My Deliverance’ suggests she is saved, but from what? From Carmilla the vampire, or Carmilla the devoted friend? From being vampirised or from being in love with a vampire?
Before the reader can stop to ask, she breathlessly rushes on piling up bits of vampire lore and quaint antiquarian details. Hidden in the pile:
The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victim. But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent. In ordinary ones it goes direct to its object, overpowers with violence, and strangles and exhausts often at a single feast.

Is that the unspeakable horror? That what she took as genuine was something “resembling love”, “an artful courtship”; that the predator wanted sympathy and consent. Is Laura appalled at how close she was to being consumed or appalled that she was seduced by something that saw her as a meal? OR did she offer sympathy, consent, love even and regrets that Carmilla was taken from her?

She babbles on and “tidies up”, explaining the already obvious, but the narrative suspends the real questions and leaves them unanswered.
Would the sound of Carmilla’s “light footsteps” at her door terrify her or make her happy?

The story lives in an artful refusal to close.

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