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13 August 2009

The Last Man and the Green Man

Cover of The Last Man
I've been reading Mary Shelley's The Last Man for what seems like months, but have now finished it. It's mentioned in the reading list for the Comparative Literature syllabus, for its imagining of a world without people: specifically, what is the meaning of a city without people? It sounded interesting, and I'd never heard of it so gave it a go. The initial reaction to the book (when it was published) was terrible, but the critical quotations in the Oxford Classics introduction express disgust with the subject matter, rather than the technique. The subject matter, eventually, is a plague that gradually kills off all but the narrator. So there's lots of disease and death. The Introduction suggests that the book has now become more popular because we are less alarmed about looking at the possible end of the world. Maybe. But there's also a clear wish-fulfillment at work: of course we wish Mary Shelley had written something else as good as Frankenstein; we wish she had written something that could be construed as a critique of patriarchy.

The big problem with the book, though, is that it's at least three books in one, and it takes forever for the big story to start. There's apparently a roman-a-clef going on, with characters who represent Percy Shelley, Byron and others. This at times suggests a strong emotional drive - Mary Shelley saw so many people die too young. But this also maybe gives rise to the second problem: the variability of peoples' characters. That might not matter in a less conventional novel, but this is essentially a standard Victorian form. You just get the feeling that whenever she needs to move things on she just recasts.

And the interesting stuff about adjusting to a world without people comes right at the end; a tiny proportion of the book. By then I was forcing myself to read on, not taking the time to think about the issues. But it didn't strike me as being particularly focused.

One thing that's not mentioned in the introduction is the attitude to religion: there's a token theism, but strikingly no reference to Christianity at all, which must have been strange and contributed to the book's poor reception. Although, obliquely, the last hundred pages or so can be read as a rewind of the Genesis creation myth.

Anyway, I have now moved on to something lighter: Simon Armitage's translation of Gawain and the Green Knight. It really is lighter, and I suppose I ought to be thinking about it in terms of translation theory, but for now I'm just enjoying the story.

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