19 August 2014

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

One somehow doesn't except eighteenth-century authors -- even if they are Mary Shelley -- to have a good sense of what the end of the world might look like. But the apocalypse might be one of those timeless things that can be just as persuasively portrayed in 1814 as in 2014. Although this novel is way too long and has a lot of pretty boring bits, it also anticipates pretty much every 20th/21st century disaster/apocalypse film/novel in really surprising ways. I am Legend, Children of Men, Atlas Shrugged, even This is the End, amusingly, all owe a debt to Mary Shelley's vision of the final days of human life.

Shelley, meanwhile, is clearly drawing on both the idea and the techniques of her father in his bizarro sci-fi novel, St. Leon, particularly in doing a kind of before-and-after, where the novel begins with an (unfortunately lengthy) description of "normal" life -- so as to give you a sense of what is lost (think, too, of films like Cloverfield -- usually this kind of thing is kept down to 20 minutes or so, because it is basically "thick" description with little to no narrative momentum). Both Godwin and Shelley unfortunately produce rather dreary version of a fairly typical romance to do this, and that's just something you have to plow through. Godwin, thankfully, has occasional moments of comic irony, whereas his daughter tends to be somewhat humorless. But Godwin also doesn't have to patience to really follow St. Leon through centuries of his artificially extended life (ie, to take the device to its natural conclusion). Shelley, on the other hand,  is admirably committed to letting the plague destroy the world s l o w l y (which certainly contributes to the realism, though unfortunately the fervent language of Romantic-era passionate feeling is not extremely conducive to suspenseful terror), and to devote to these epic circumstances a monumental amount of pages, letting the text transpire in what comes to feel like an almost inhuman, planetary time. Although it may come across as overwrought, this is arguably one of the few circumstances that actually merits such lofty prose:

Did God create man, merely in the end to become dead earth in the midst of healthful vegetating nature? Was he of no more account to his Maker, than a field of corn blighted in the ear? Were our proud dreams thus to fade? Our name was written "a little lower than the angels;" and, behold, we were no better than ephemera. We had called ourselves the "paragon of animals," and, lo! we were a "quint-essence of dust." We repined that the pyramids had outlasted the embalmed body of their builder. Alas! the mere shepherd's hut of straw we passed on the road, contained in its structure the principle of greater longevity than the whole race of man. How reconcile this sad change to our past aspirations, to our apparent powers!

At the same time, the book is almost touchingly a product of its own time. Although it's meant to be set in the distant future (2100!), its author simply cannot imagine a time in which the French Revolution will not be a major reference point. Europe is, of course, still battling the savage Orient (the Turk!), and America is  still an uncultivated wilderness. Occasional clumsy references to her own present via things the character has "read about in history books" evoke somewhat condescending smiles in the reader, but they also make the novel a fascinating testament to the central concerns of its own time.

Although it is a real slog, I also think it probably ought to be required reading for scholars of the period.

No comments: