The first time I met the dreaded doppelganger in literature, as opposed to life, was in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Now, I can usually tell if a book is not going to be worth persisting with before the end of Chapter One. I just get bored and give up. Sometimes I will keep going into the next chapter, or skip to the end and various random ‘middles’ hoping to come across some dramatic twist or intriguing development worth struggling on for. If the end and the middles are as bad as the beginning I put the book down and rarely pick it up again. Life is too short to be noble and conscientious.
Occasionally I will come across a book so unutterably wrong in some way that it really annoys me, and I am afraid Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those. Inevitably these annoying novels will also be ones that the literati think highly of; almost certainly they will have hitched a lift on the English Literature exam syllabus. I was force to read Frankenstein and work up intelligent-sounding essays about it, not once but twice. The first time was for a resit of A Level English Language & Literature (passed Grade A – yay!) and the second for an Open University Literature course. I was hoping against hope the dratted thing would be more digestible the second time around. It wasn’t. Wuthering Heights is another example.
Before I go on, let’s be sure what a doppelganger is or could be.
A doppelganger can be an exact double – an identical copy of the original – or it can be a complement. A complement would have different or opposing characteristics to the original, but would in some way complete it – yin and yang, two halves of one whole like Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and his Picture. The ‘scary’ version could be thought of as Jung’s Shadow archetype – an entity which encompasses all the qualities one lacks in conscious life or cannot bear to confront. The monster in Frankenstein is a species of Shadow being the alter ego of his creator, the scientist Victor Frankenstein.
It seems to me that in the end there is a very little difference between the frighteningly familiar and the frightfully foreign. Whether a doppelganger appears to be your mirror-image or a Creature from your worst nightmares, coming face to face with it is a dreadful experience.
Since yesterday’s personal-experience post on doppelgangers I have been trying to decide
a) what exactly the trouble is with Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, and
b) why these two novels are nevertheless still read today, and continually cited as examples of great literature.
Most of my ‘thoughts’ were scribbled down with the dawn chorus this morning, when still half asleep. This is the untangled version.
I think it is to do with editing.
Oh, hang on, there’s more…
Taking (b) first.
I think some novels succeed initially and go on to achieve permanence in the literary canon solely because they arise from a first-rate idea. A single stroke of imaginative genius is the glue that holds the whole shambling creation together. The novel grips readers by means of that one core idea or image alone. The core image is usually embodied in one central character, more often than not male. In Frankenstein, of course, it is the Creature, a hideous, unlovable mishmash of a being who craves the love and attention of his ‘father’. In Wuthering Heights it is the violent, obsessive and tormented Heathcliff.
It is like one imagination gripping another – like the Vulcan mind-meld – I was going to say frogs mating but thought better of it! – once melded, the two minds are never entirely separated. When you think of all the novels that persist, that will never be cast upon that great slush-pile in the sky regardless of their overall quality and effectiveness, they have a unique central character. Think of the impossible but wonderful Mr Darcy; ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’ Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe. They are all unique, contradictory, many-dimensional characters. They have their faults, they have their shining virtues and because of this we believe in them. But this is only one element in the construction of a novel.
Now back to (a):
To me there are three main elements.
The first is imagination – the great idea, the inspiration. This element is pure ‘art’. You can learn to write good prose, or if you are lucky you will have been born with a facility and an ‘ear’ for words, just as artists have an eye for colour and form, and musicians have an ear for music. Nobody can give you imagination. You are either born with it or you are not. The eternal problem is that, as with intelligence and sense of humour, those with the least are convinced they have the most.
The second is the acquired skill or innate gift of the writer, which allows him or her to transform a brilliant idea into a great book. This element is part art and part craft. It is the skill you use to avoid pulling your reader up short – rudely catapulting him out of his suspended disbelief, as it were. You will use this part of your skill to avoid anachronisms, infelicities of style, contradictions and repetitions – anything that reminds the reader that he is reading a book, and that the book has a writer. He needs to remain immersed in the world you are conjuring up for him. He doesn’t need to overhear you prattling away in the background, providing a running commentary. Neither Mary Shelley nor Emily Bronte could be criticised for their ability to use the English language or produce a well-turned paragraph.
The third, and in some ways the most challenging, element is the ability to edit. Editing is also part art and part craft and a good writer will be editing himself as he goes along, but it’s difficult. A writer can gain a great deal from a professional editor; someone who can view his work with a calm and dispassionate eye. For me it is in this element that Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights both fall short. For me: maybe not for you.
When you start to write, one of the first things you realise – and a fascinating realisation it is – is that a story can go on and on for ever if you let it. Novels are expanding universes of words. For every twist your plot takes there is an infinite number of alternative twists. For every new character there is an infinite amount of back-story. You can never start a story at the beginning. There is no beginning, only the point at which you have chosen to jump in. You can never end a story. There is no end, only the point at which you decide to abandon your characters. There is no limit on the number of characters involved in your plot. They are infinite in number. You have chosen to ignore the many and focus on the few. There is no single, fixed plot to your story. It could go any which way. In writing you choose either this road or the road less travelled by. You have to make these decisions throughout the process – what to keep and what to kill.
Sometimes an author fails to notice that he/she is writing not one novel, but several, and that an interference pattern has been set up. Try to combine three potential – and temptingly related – novels into one actual novel is asking for trouble. Like cats in a bag, they will fight, and at the end you will be left with clouds of multi-coloured fur, a little heap of broken claws and a ragged ear or two. Part of the art is to recognise and extract the right story strand from a great imaginative tangle.
I also feel that a novel, article, poem, short story – whatever – has its own innate geometry, and that a good writer (or a good editor) will be able to sense, feel or see that geometry – or will at least be able to sense, feel or see when it is being distorted. It’s like the statue being present inside the block of stone. It’s like skiing downhill in the mist – you sense a tree or something ahead, and swerve. Or like when you take a wrong turn and drive off in the wrong direction. Suddenly the sun’s in the wrong place and the light is all wrong. It’s that playing piano in the dark thing – you need to believe in it and trust it.
The other thing is that the fact that you have written a passage, even if it is the best passage you (or anyone) ever wrote in your (or their) entire life is not enough to justify it remaining in your story. It either fits or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it goes. Kill Your Darlings. Seize that red pen and strike them through. For me, both Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights are rambling and out of shape. They don’t make sense – or at least, the effort required of the reader to try to make them make sense is too great. The cost-benefit ratio is too high.