I suppose I ought to consider this an education in [Classic] Gothic Literature—a movement whose influence I’ve always only encountered in books, though mostly as tone or a small plot detour. But I don’t think I’ve ever really read something that was so solidly Gothic. So. For this installment of the ever-enlightening Classics Circuit, the parameters were simple: read “original” Gothic literature—that is, pre-Victorian, in the age of the Romantics. I had two in my shelves, bought early this year: Zastrozzi by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1810) and Transformation by Mary Shelley(1831), both from Hesperus Press. [Yes, I think of them as a celebrity literary Gothic-Romantic power couple.]
[If you’ll allow me, I’ll be lazy and won’t be dwelling much on the plot of Zastrozzi, because it is all sorts of WTFery, briefly described in this oh-so-reliable Wiki entry, and I will have too much fun lacerating it. Also, please note that the Hesperus Press edition of Mary’s book is actually a translation, but for purposes of this Classics Circuit stop, I will only be focusing on the title story.]
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Percy wrote Zastrozzi when he was seventeen, and it was published when he was 18. I refuse to offer the pithy “it shows”—but maybe, you know, this was before he realized he was a far better poet than he would ever be a fictionist? Because, dammit, Zastrozzi is all sorts of messy and crazy and just weird. Parts of it deliberately weird, most of it funny, a whole lot of it confused with what it wanted to do to itself. Also, the blood that gushed in this novel—and there are buckets—is, well, purple. Yes. Purple. This is a novel where people weep and wail out their monologues as they do so, where people slipping into a fevered coma upon hearing bad news, where the blood is purple.
However, a third of this slim novel—mostly about a kidnapping, foiled escapes to old women he meets, the thugs, his freaking kidnapping—is not really the point, because all those, they’re unnecessary, because they’re not really the story. I don’t think it’s even about Verezzi, or Zastrozzi.
The story is mostly about Matilda, Contessa di Laurentini, who’s madly in love with Verezzi, who happens to hold one hell of a burning torch for Julia, La Marchessa de Strobazzo. Zastrozzi, too, yes, being his vengeance-y self [his reasons for vengeance too tacked-on for me, btw] [also, yes, it must be said that Zastrozzi can rightfully labeled as the catalyst, or, at least, the grand manipulator of the narrative]. It’s all Matilda, for me, and not only because I stopped falling asleep with this book once Matilda came on the scene with all her wild-love yumminess.]
Yeah. It’s about love and revenge, yes, seemingly competing instincts but, if exercised with the same kind of passion, exerts the same kind of destructive energy. All in the desperate Matilda. As Zastrozzi instructs her:
Love is worthy of any risk—I felt it once, but revenge has swallowed up every other feeling of my soul—I am alive to nothing but revenge.
First of all, here’s another teeth-gritting story where the angelic woman is pitted against her sly and lusty counterpart. The ideal wife, with her virtue a mantle around her, a contrast to the woman who loves too much and discovers that her love can drive her too too intensely. It’s the mostly-absent Marchessa against our Contessa, and guess whose team I was on? Though, yes, although I am all for her desperate loving, I wanted to take her aside and say, “Honey, you sure you want to go all ninny for that Verezzi loser?”
[In fact, later on in the novel, when Matilda cunningly and complicatedly succeeds in making Verezzi love her back, his love is described as “a Lethean torpor,” emphasizing the fact that, hell, Matilda will never win. Oh, how happy Matilda was when he saw that Verezzi finally, after a long struggle and seduction, loved her.]
Zastrozzi fans Matilda’s jealousy, turning it into murderous rage. This is Matilda’s weakness—loving Verezzi and not being loved back—and Zastrozzi pounces on this, because of some grand scheme of his that frankly doesn’t make sense to me. Still, however, Matilda needed a Zastrozzi to push her love of Verezzi and hatred of Julia to an extreme. [Because it never occurred to her to, you know, hate Verezzi, or at least try to leave well enough alone?]
‘Oh Julia! hated Julia! words are not able to express my detestation of thee. Thou hast destroyed Verezzi. Thy cursed image, reveling in his heart, has blacked my happiness for ever, but ere I die, I will taste revenge—oh! exquisite revenge!’
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Love and vengeance as bedmates, too, is the focus of Mary’s “Transformation”—it was apparent to me, however, that Mary is the better writer this round. It’s a concise, well-crafted, near-mythical tale of, as our narrator Guido describes it in retrospect, “an impious tempting of providence, and soul-subduing humiliation.”
Briefly, Guido is a wastrel, spendthrift, and prodigal adopted son all rolled into one. He loses his bride, thinks himself a victim of other people’s machinations, and plots sweet, sweet vengeance. In a pivotal scene, Guido all brood-y and shit on a cliff, he goes:
Revenge!—the word seemed a balm to me. I hugged it—caressed it—till, like a serpent, it stung me.
There are many similarities, yes, when I looked for them—but the main difference [aside from the writing skill, haha] is the reversal of the characters’ roles. Mary’s Guido is Percy’s Matilda, overcome by his emotions, lost in the intensity of his feelings. However, it helps that Guido tells this story years into the future, giving the tale a wiser edge, or, at least, one of self-awareness [as seen in what I quoted above].
Mary’s Zastrozzi comes in the form of a grotesque dwarf who comes to Guido on a cliff, offering temptation—better yet, offering a chance for vengeance—Guido can reclaim his beautiful bride [who kept daintily insisting that he behave himself], thumb his nose at his adopted father [who has nothing but love for him], and sneer at the townspeople who drove him out of his home [never mind that he habitually went on binges and orgies]:
‘Oh, you cousin of Lucifer!’ said he; ‘so you too have fallen through your pride; and, though bright as the son of morning, you are ready to give up your good looks, your bride, and your well-being, rather than submit to the tyranny of good.’
Offers from grotesque dwarves don’t augur well. Look at Rumplestiltskin, dammit. The dwarf offers untold riches to fund Guido’s vengeance, in exchange for three days of living in Guido’s body. The struggle in Guido—will common sense win out or his thirst for revenge? And then, when the revenge won out, the three days he waits for his body to return—the suspicion, the panic, the fear.
And, damn, is this book rife with symbolism. Makes me all dorky-giddy. Guido, in the body of that grotesque dwarf, gets the nerve to return to his hometown, encounter the people he’d left behind and hurt. Most especially, his confrontation with the dwarf in his booty-ful body. Wee!
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Yes, I realize that these two works are not considered among these two’s masterpieces, or even their key works—for one, Percy’s a poet [and, man, does his novella know that], and, well, Mary’s got Frankenstein. But, ye know, I decided to go hipster and read their more obscure[d] books. Also, these were the books already in my shelves. Heh.
But, I like what I’ve read. Although Percy’s juvenilia had me stifling mad attacks of the giggles, the quiet dignity—the self-aware Gothic-y yumminess—of Mary’s stories were amazing. Percy’s bored me at first, and then it drove me batshit crazy, but I have nothing but respect for Mary’s writing. You know, I’ve long hemmed and hawed about reading Frankenstein, but, dammit, I think that I will very, very soon.
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This post is one of many stops for the Gothic Literature Classics Tour of the Classics Circuit. Check out the tour stops before me, and wait with bated breath those that are a-coming!