October 25, 2020

rediscover Mary Shelley through pandemic apocalypse tales and novels


He published the highly influential and debated Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus with only 18 years. He lived an agitated love marked by infidelities, accidents and fatal diseases with the writer Percy Bysshe Shelley. And her family life was marked by an absent mother, the feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft (who died after giving birth to her), and by several years of rejection of her father, the anarchist bookseller and writer William Godwin.

Mary Shelley’s creative legacy and vital turbulence have made her, as the writer and translator Gonzalo Torné affirms in his introduction to the collection of short stories Love and revive, into a pop star of English literature. This interest generated around the author, which has also germinated in a recent biopic, facilitates the recovery of some of his works.

For decades, the most popular novel (and first feature) of its author and some of her fantastic stories have drawn attention, but the bicentennial of the publication of her debut had a dynamic and partially diversifying impact: the publication of a biography, of several essays, of critical editions of the same Frankenstein or from the nouvelle Mathilda. This impact has continued with a trickle of editorial news. Hermida Editores offers a volume of select stories, the aforementioned Love and revive, while Akal has edited a full translation (and accompanied by a critical introduction) of the monumental display of apocalyptic literature The last man.

Brief romances, fantasies and despair

In his prologue to Love and revive, Torné explains that this publication does not aspire to discover a new Mary Shelley. The purpose is practical: to provide “a substantial selection, with the least possible gray, listless or to curdle pages” of the short narrative of the writer. As Torné explains, his own taste coincides mainly with the best known and most praised stories, so stories such as The immortal mortal, The transformation or The dream, already recovered decades ago by the Valdemar publishing house through the volume Gothic tales. Add other less publicized pieces like The parvenue, where the problems of women of the time are staged in an especially dramatic way to reconcile marked destinies (such as marriage and care for relatives) that can collide.

The fantasy element emerges in several of the selected compositions: we find transformist goblins, reanimations after centuries of freezing and elixirs that provide extraordinary longevity. The fascination with the ruined splendors of the Greco-Latin culture also appears. Conflicts are often resolved romantically: in The immortal mortal, the protagonist’s suicidal impulse leads him to fantasize about a trip to the ends of the Earth that can refer to the frozen landscapes of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus.

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As is often the case in the romantic realm, Mary Shelley’s short narrative has certain tendencies that we could figuratively qualify as bipolar: intense joys and ecstatic enthusiasms alternate, sometimes abruptly, with abysmal melancholy that suck out any illusion. However, and although the passages of anguish and despair are frequent, there are moments of lightness and even some happy endings. Because catharsis should not always be associated with sadness.

In a modern reading, Shelley’s stories can be more or less exquisite entertainment. Those most fond of literary terrors will not find in them the chills generated by the works of authors of slightly later generations, such as Sheridan Le Fanu and her ghost stories. The author of Frankenstein proposes more fantasy and love than horror. And it does so by spicing up imaginative situations with autobiographical echoes and some implicit or explicit threads of social denunciation. We can find a critical and unusually stinging lunge at androcentrism in the outcome of The bride of modern Italy, that shows us how a woman is the object of extreme and passionate desires … that are easily disposable for the leading men when circumstances turn adverse. The woman, on the other hand, remains chained because she is not allowed to decide for herself.

In a modern reading, Shelley’s stories can be more or less exquisite entertainments

The plague as the end of all (human) things

If some of Shelley’s stories deal with courtly romances and dynastic litigation, she developed these materials as a tour de force long haul in The last man. The remains of literary elaboration of personal experiences also mark a work that can be considered a fantasy built on the tragic death of the author’s loved ones. The death of loved ones, and the consequent feeling of being alone in the world, is transferred to the pages of a novel starring a man who contemplates how all of humanity (without exceptions?) Is perishing after the outbreak of an indomitable plague pandemic.

The last man it can be considered one of the most immersive experiences in the imaginary of literary romanticism. It includes everything we can expect (flowery speeches, intense loves and destructive passions, lonely despair, abundant literary and mythological references) and includes it in enormous numbers. If in the minds of some great authors of romanticism there was a struggle (passionate, of course) between optimism and pessimism, this proposal clearly takes the second option. It becomes almost an agonizing experience, conveniently exhausting given that it ends up dealing with what seems like the sad last moments of humanity.

The fatalism that the reading transmits not only has to do with the vital wounds of its author, or with the nature of the narrative. It seems to show a general disenchantment that is also political and that is not without friction or contradictions. Without being able to distinguish exactly at what points the author subscribes to the vision of her narrator, at which points she would disagree, and how important her economic dependence on conservative fortunes may have in all of this, admiration for some individuals of great capacities (but not exempt of selfish blindness and destructive drives, such as his beloved Percy Shelley or his friend Lord Byron) who always come from illustrious lineages.

The admiration for sensitivity and cultural formation is also accompanied by potential gestures of social elitism (there are several references to “crowds” always in need of leadership that can be beneficial or evil) rarefied by a morbid attraction to death as a mechanism of equalization.

‘The last man’ can be considered one of the most immersive experiences in the imaginary of literary romanticism

The England of the late 21st century that is drawn more than two centuries in advance is republican, but Shelley projects a disappointment in it that does not only concern revolutionary movements. It even seems to distrust the horizon of progressive improvement of the species through the expansion of citizen rights and education. The religious, at least in its most sectarian forms, also receives its corresponding share of criticism in the form of a sinister cult of extinction led by a tyrant.

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Fans who embrace his romantic rhetoric will find a narrative marathon that doesn’t quite fit with what we usually understand as science fiction. Yes, a feathered mixture of airplane and balloon appears as an advanced method of transportation in a world dominated by ships. However, the absence of technology, even the lack of relevance of a medicine implicitly resigned to the ravages of the epidemic, is curious and surprising in a work signed by the creator of Frankenstein.

Perhaps Shelley felt that anticipation games could distract from the human factor. His vision can also be linked to the tendency to imagine the future from the frames of the present: part of his own context, his literary references and his creative parameters. And imagine a world to come without great changes, conceived from the relative statism of a society that had not known the technological accelerations of the second and third industrial revolutions, which is as fragile as any other human construction when dangerous microbes enter the fray.

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