31 maio 2010

Nabokov and the Art of Translation

 Two grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

The howlers included in the first category may be in their turn divided into two classes. Insufficient acquaintance with the foreign language involved may transform a commonplace expression into some remarkable statement that the real author never intended to make. "Bien etre general" becomes the manly assertion that "it is good to be a general"; to which gallant general a French translator of "Hamlet" has been known to pass the caviar. Likewise, in a German edition of Chekhov, a certain teacher, as soon as he enters the classroom, is made to become engrossed in "his newspaper," which prompted a pompous reviewer to comment on the sad condition of public instruction in pre-Soviet Russia. But the real Chekhov was simply referring to the classroom "journal" which a teacher would open to check lessons, marks and absentees. And inversely, innocent words in an English novel such as "first night" and "public house" have become in a Russian translation "nuptial night" and "a brothel." These simple examples suffice. They are ridiculous and jarring, but they contain no pernicious purpose; and more often than not the garbled sentence still makes some sense in the original context.      
The other class of blunders in the first category includes a more sophisticated kind of mistake, one which is caused by an attack of linguistic Daltonism suddenly blinding the translator. Whether attracted by the far-fetched when the obvious was at hand (What does an Eskimo prefer to eat—ice cream or tallow? Ice cream), or whether unconsciously basing his rendering on some false meaning which repeated readings have imprinted on his mind, he manages to distort in an unexpected and sometimes quite brilliant way the most honest word or the tamest metaphor. I knew a very conscientious poet who in wrestling with the translation of a much tortured text rendered "is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" in such a manner as to convey an impression of pale moonlight. He did this by taking for granted that "sickle" referred to the form of the new moon. And a national sense of humor, set into motion by the likeness between the Russian words meaning "arc" and "onion," led a German professor to translate "a bend of the shore" (in a Pushkin fairy tale) by "the Onion Sea."  

The second, and much more serious, sin of leaving out tricky passages is still excusable when the translator is baffled by them himself but how contemptible is the smug person who, although quite understanding the sense, fears it might stump a dunce or debauch a dauphin! Instead of blissfully nestling in the arms of the great writer, he keeps worrying about the little reader playing in a corner with something dangerous or unclean. Perhaps the most charming example of Victorian modesty that has ever come my way was in an early English translation of "Anna Karenina." Vronsky had asked Anna what was the matter with her. "I am beremenna" (the translators italics), replied Anna, making the foreign reader wonder what strange and awful Oriental disease that was; all because the translator thought that "I am pregnant" might shock some pure soul, and that a good idea would be to leave the Russian just as it stood. But masking and toning down seem petty sins in comparison with those of the third category; for here he comes strutting and shooting out his bejeweled cuffs, the slick translator who arranges Scheherazade's boudoir according to his own taste and with professional elegance tries to improve the looks of his victims. Thus it was the rule with Russian versions of Shakespeare togive Ophelia richer flowers than the poor weeds, she found. The Russian rendering of

There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples
if translated back into English would run like this:
There with most lovely garlands did she come
Of violets, carnations, roses, lilies.

The splendor of this floral display speaks for itself; incidentally it bowdlerized the Queen's digressions, granting her the gentility she so sadly lacked and dismissing the liberal shepherds; how anyone could make such a botanical collection beside the Helje or the Avon is another question.

But no such questions were asked by the solemn Russian reader, first, because he did not know the original text, second, because he did not care a fig for botany, and third, because the only thing that interested him in Shakespeare was what German commentators and native radicals had discovered in the way of "eternal problems." So nobody minded what happened to Goneril's lapdogs when the line 

“Tray, Blanche and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me”
was grimly metamorphosed into
“A pack of hounds is barking atmy heels.”

All local color, all tangible and irreplaceable details were swallowed by those hounds.
But, revenge is sweet—even unconscious revenge. The greatest Russian short story ever written is Gogol's “Overcoat" (or "Mantle," or "Cloak," or "She-nel"). Its essential feature, that irrational part which forms the tragic undercurrent of an otherwise meaningless anecdote, is organically connected with the special style in which this story is written: there are weird repetitions of the same absurd adverb, and these repetitions become a kind or canny incantation; there are descriptions which look innocent enough until you discover that chaos lies right round the corner,and that Gogol has inserted into this or that harmless sentence a word or a simile that makes a passage burst into a wild display of nightmare fireworks. There is also that groping clumsiness which, on the author's part, is a conscious rendering of the uncouth gestures of our dreams.

Nothing of these remains in the prim, and perky, and very matter-of-fact English version (see—and never see again— "The Mantle," translated by Claude Field).). The following example leaves me with the impression that I am witnessing a murder and can do nothing to prevent it:

Gogol: . . . his [a petty official's] third or fourth-story flat...displaying a few fashionable trifles, such as a lamp for instance—trifles purchased by many sacrifices. . . .
Field: . . . fitted with some pretentious articles of furniture purchased, etc. . . .

Tampering with foreign major or minor masterpieces may involve an innocent third party in the farce. Quite recently a famous Russian composer asked me to translate into English a Russian poem -which forty years ago he had set to music. The English translation, he pointed out, had to follow closely the very sounds of the text—which text was unfortunately K. Balmont's version of Edgar Allan Poe's “Bells,.' What Balmont's numerous translations look like may be readily understood when I say that his own work invariably disclosed an almost pathological inability to write one single melodious line. Having at his disposal a sufficient number of hackneyed rhymes and taking up as he rode any hitch-hiking metaphor that he happened to meet, he turned something that Poe had taken considerable pains to compose into something that any Russian rhymester could dash off at a moment's notice. In reversing it into English I was solely concerned with finding English words that would sound like the Russian ones. Now, if somebody one comes across my English version of that Russian version, he may foolishly retranslate it into Russian so that the Poe-less poem will go on being balmontized until, perhaps, the "Bells" become "Silence." Something still more grotesque happened to Baudelaire's exquisitely dreamy "Invitation au Voyage" {"Mon amie, ma soeur, connais-ttt la douceur ") The Russian version was due to the pen of Merejkovsky, who had even less poetical talent than Balmont. It began like this:

My sweet little bride.
Let's go for a ride;

Promptly it begot a rollicking tune and was adopted by all organ-grinders of Russia. I like to imagine a future French translator of Russian folksongs re-Frenchifying it into:

Viens, mon p'tit,
A Nijni
so on, ad malinfinitum.

Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators—and this has nothing to do with my three categories of evil or, rather, any of the three types may err in a similar way. These three are: the scholar who is eager to make the world appreciate the works of an obscure genius as much as he does himself; the well meaning hack; and the professional writer relaxing in the company of a foreign confrere. The scholar will be, I hope, exact and pedantic: footnotes—on the same page as die text and not tucked away at the end of the volume—can never be too copious and detailed. The laborious lady translating at the eleventh hour the eleventh volume of somebody's collected works will be, I am afraid, less exact and less pedantic; but the point is not that the scholar commits fewer blunders than a drudge; the point is that as a rule both he and she are hopelessly devoid of any semblance of creative genius. Neither learning nor diligence can replace imagination and style.

Now comes the authentic poet who has the two last assets and who finds relaxation in translating a bit of Lermontov or Verlaine between writing poems of his own. Either he does not know the original language and calmly relies upon the so-called "literal" translation made for him by a far less brilliant but a little more learned person, or else, knowing the language, he lacks the scholar's precision and the professional translator's experience. The main drawback, however, in this case is the fact that the greater his individual talent, the more apt he will be to drown the foreign masterpiece under the sparkling ripples of his own personal style. Instead of dressing up like the real author, he dresses up the author as himself.

We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chiooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author's manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author's part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude. I have lately tried to translate several Russian poets who had either been badly disfigured by former attempts or who had never been translated at all. The English at my disposal is certainly thinner than my Russian; the difference being, in fact, that which exists between a semi-detached villa and a hereditary estate, between self-conscious comfort and habitual luxury. I am not satisfied therefore with the results attained, but my studies disclosed several rules that other writers might follow with profit.

I was confronted for instance with the following opening line of one of Pushkin's most prodigious poems:

Yah pom-new chewed-no-yay mg-no-vain-yay

I have rendered the syllables by the nearest English sounds I could find; their mimetic disguise makes them look rather ugly; but never mind; the "chew" and the "vain" are associated phonetically with other Russian words meaning beautiful and important things, and the melody of the line with the plump, golden-ripe "chewed-no-yay" right in the middle and the "m's" and "n's" balancing each other on both sides, is to the Russian ear most exciting and soothing—a paradoxical combination that any artist will understand.

Now, if you take a dictionary and look up those four words you will obtain the following foolish, flat and familiar statement: "I remember a wonderful moment." What is to be done with this bird you have shot down only to find that it is not a bird of paradise, but an escaped parrot, still screeching its idiotic message as it flaps on the ground? For no stretch of the imagination can persuade an English reader that "I remember a wonderful moment" is the perfect beginning of a perfect poem. The first thing I discovered was that the expression "a literal translation" is more or less nonsense. "Yah pom-new" is a deeper and smoother plunge into the past than "I remember," which falls flat on its belly like an inexperienced diver; "chewed-no-yay" has a lovely Russian "monster" in it, and a whispered "listen," and the dative ending of a "sunbeam," and many other fair relations among Russian words. It belongs phonetically and mentally to a certain series of words, and this Russian series does not correspond to the English series in which "I remember" is found. And inversely, "remember," though it clashes with the corresponding "pom-new" series, is connected with an English series of its own whenever real poets do use it. And the central word in Housman's "What are those blue remembered hills?" becomes in Russian "vspom-neev-she-yes- yah," a horrible straggly thing, all humps and horns, which cannot fuse into any inner connection with "blue," as it does so smoothly in English, because the Russian sense of blueness belongs to a different series than the Russian "remember" does.

This interrelation of words and non-correspondence of verbal series in different tongues suggest yet another rule, namely, that the three main words of the line draw one another out, and add something which none of them would have had separately or in any other combination. What makes this exchange of secret values possible is not only the mere contact between the words, but their exact position in regard both to the rhythm of the line and to one another. This must be taken into account by the translator.

Finally, there is the problem of the rhyme. "Mg-no-vain-yay" has over two thousand Jack-in-the-box rhymes popping out at the slightest pressure, whereas I cannot think of one to "moment." The position of "mg-no-vain-yay" at the end of the line is not negligible either, due as it is to Pushkin's more or less consciously knowing that he would not have to hunt for its mate. But the position of "moment in the English line implies no such security; on the contrary he would be a singularly reckless fellow who placed it there.

Thus I was confronted by that opening line, so full of Pushkin, so individual and harmonious; and after examining it gingerly from the various angles here suggested, I tackled it. The tackling process lasted the worst part of the night. I did translate it at last; but to give my version at this point might lead the reader to doubt that perfection be attainable by merely following a few perfect rules.

Moments in Film, a Guardian series

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1979)
Apocalypse NowDawn helicopter attack
Apocalypse Now was method filmmaking: the film that was as insane as the war itself. And never more so than during the making of the film's showpiece: the scene where insanely gung-ho Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his Air Calvary helicopters swarm out of the dawn light to flatten a Vietcong village, speakers blasting out Wagner's 'Ride Of The Valkyries' as they go (the great film critic Pauline Kael bizarrely tried to dissuade Coppola from using the music on the grounds that it had already been used in a European arthouse movie).
Having already set up the hugely expensive scene, Coppola tried to bully the US secretary of defence into providing a lifting helicopter for the scene. The helicopters they did have were borrowed from Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and were called away in the middle of the shooting of the scene to be used in a real war against Communist guerrillas. "We just heard they're taking away five of our helicopters," Coppola rages in the documentary Hearts Of Darkness, clearly no longer able to realise he was only making a film about a war. When he did have the choppers, all he could do was complain about the incompetence of the Filipino pilots.
But the result is stunning, the craziness and the appeal of war brought together. "Men play strange games to break up the boredom of being in the war," Duvall once said, explaining Kilgore, the man who insists on having his troops surf in the middle of battle. But the real genius of the scene comes not from the grandiose explosions, or even the strange beauty of the attack helicopters, but from some subtle acting: the incredulous expression on Martin Sheen's face as he watches Kilgore in action.


Tolkien in Russian


RIP Dennis Rider, Easy Hopper

'You're Sicilian, ha?'
Only in a movie written by Quentin Tarantino, complained critics, would you get Dennis Hopper playing the nice guy. Hopper is Clifford Worley, an alcoholic ex-cop. Christopher Walken is Vincenzo Coccotti, a mobster who arrives at Clifford's trailer wanting to know the whereabouts of Clifford's son. After Clifford has been repeatedly punched, then has his hand slashed open by one of Coccotti's henchman (James 'Tony Soprano' Gandolfini), he is still smiling at Coccotti.
Clifford: You're Sicilian, ha? Ya know, I read a lot. Especially about things... about history. I find that shit fascinating. Here's a fact I don't know whether you know or not. Sicilians were spawned by niggers.
Coccotti [twitching, very slowly taking in what Clifford has just said]: Come again?
Clifford Worley: It's a fact. See, Sicilians have black blood pumpin' through their hearts. If you don't believe me you can look it up. Hundreds of years ago, you see, the Moors conquered Sicily. And the Moors are niggers.
Coccotti: Yes...
Clifford: Way back then, Sicilians were like wops from northern Italy. They all had blonde hair and blue eyes, but then the Moors moved in there, and they changed the whole country. They did so much fuckin' with Sicilian women that they changed the whole bloodline forever. That's why blonde hair and blue eyes became black hair and dark skin. It's amazing to me to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, that Sicilians still carry that nigger gene. It's written, it's a fact, it's written.
Coccotti: [laughing, and signalling to his henchmen to laugh along] I love this guy.
Clifford: Your ancestors are niggers. Yeah, and your great-great-great-great grandmother fucked a nigger, yeah, and she had a half nigger kid...Now, if that's a fact, tell me, am I lying? Cause you, you're part eggplant.
Coccotti [still laughing]: You're a cantaloupe.
He gets up, kisses Clifford's head, collects a gun and unloads six bullets into his head.    

People who eat ‘junk food’ aren’t junkies... Indeed

The idea that the food industry has turned us into fat, helpless beings desperate for our next fast-food fix is based on a degraded view of human beings.

“Despite what Kessler suggests, our psychology is far more complex than that of rodents” 

“The constant struggle between the desire to eat and the pressure to stay thin is leading to a screwed-up attitude to food”

“Food should be a pleasure, and the desire to perfect that pleasure is surely a good one”

Read all from Spiked

25 maio 2010

Towel Day!

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value -- you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-tohand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal; you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

Twitter ; Towel Day on Flickr ; TowelDay.org

22 maio 2010

This is how I feel about my job

"[W]omen write when the baby naps, while the children are at school, after the dishes are done and the lunches are packed and the house is at last quiet. It teaches us a kind of efficiency, to be sure, but also a resignation to frustration: the omnipresent awareness that no matter how smoothly the thoughts are flowing, they will have to stop when the school bus comes."

21 maio 2010

Where's the Balrog, David Malki?

Click to enlarge and get all the collective nouns - astounding work, David ;)

20 maio 2010

The terrible persistence of Volcanoes

Simon Winchester for Lapham's Quarterly

The map is almost uncannily similar: a spray of black dots showing the recordings of a foul gray haze spreading all across Europe, from Helsinki to Naples, from Heligoland to Majorca, and reaching eventually to Aleppo and Damascus—and all caused by clouds of ash from an immense volcano erupting far across the sea in Iceland. 

This was a map drawn not this year, but created from data collected in 1783. The volcano, called Laki, erupted for eight dismal months without cease. It ruined crops, it lowered temperatures and drastically altered the weather. It killed 9,000 people, it drenched the European forests in acid rain, it caused skin lesions in children and the deaths of millions of cattle and, by one account, it was a contributing factor (due to hunger-inducing famines) to the outbreak six years later of the French Revolution.

Volcanoes, on the other hand, do not end. They may not kill so widely—the total number of casualties from the hundred greatest of the world’s volcanoes barely approach the hundreds of thousands of deaths from one almighty earthquake—but they remain standing, haughtily reminding those below of their terrible potential. They then can and do erupt for long and debilitating periods—Eyjafjallajokull, which is causing such uncertainty and apprehension in today’s Europe, poured out its gases and rock ash for two full years when it last erupted in 1821. They are gigantic spigots which once opened, can be turned off only when some kind of equilibrium is restored in the hadean chambers beneath them—and even then they are prone to be opened once again when pressure below become unsustainable. 

The geographical extent of a volcano’s wind-borne ash-clouds, and the duration of the eruptions, are often such as to effect changes in society itself. Tambora, which erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 1815, remains a classic of its kind. It was immense: almost 40 cubic miles of pulverized rock were hurled into the sky, producing clouds which darkened, cooled and polluted a world that was already well populated and widely civilized. The consequences ranged from the dire—a lowering of temperature that caused frosts in Italy in June and snows in Virginia in July, the failure of crops in immense swathes across Europe and the Americas and the infamous “year without summer” of 1816—to the frankly ludicrous. Irish migrants, promised better weather in New England, found it on landing to be every bit as grim as the Connemara and Cork they had left, and so either went home, or pressed on in hope to California.

Seventy years later, nearby Krakatoa had world-wide effects too, both short-term physical and the long-term societal. A series of tsunamis (which killed 40,000 locally) were noticed swelling the waters as far away as Portland Bill and Biarritz. The bang of its detonation was clearly heard (like naval gunfire, said the local police officer) 3,000 miles away on Rodriguez Island. But then came a year’s worth of awe-inspiring evening beauty—astonishing sunsets of purple and passion fruit and salmon that had artists all around the world trying desperately to capture what they managed to see in the fleeting moments before dark. A Londoner named William Ashcroft left behind almost 500 watercolors that he painted, one every ten minutes like a human film camera, from his Thames-side flat in Chelsea; Frederic Church, of the Hudson River School, captured the crepuscular skies over Lake Ontario in their full post-Krakatoan glory; and many now agree that Edvard Munch had the purple and orange skies over Oslo in mind when ten years afterwards he painted, most hauntingly, The Scream.

Most important of all, however, is the fact that truly gigantic volcanic explosions—those that rank 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Scale (Tambora was on this scale a 7, Krakatoa a 6, while the eighteenth century Laki and today’s Eyjafjallajokull rate merely as twos)—often bring about the wholesale extinctions of species. Such events only occur about once every 100,000 years. Toba, a few miles up the road from Tambora, was one such: it erupted 72,000 years ago, and so changed the climate that humankind was reduced to no more than a thousand breeding pairs, almost eliminating us before we had had much of a chance to get going. 

And today, there is Yellowstone—a VEI 8 volcano with a record of past fury, standing there innocently, just waiting to explode again. Signs of its imminent eruption are everywhere—though imminent in this case signifies at least a quarter of a million years, by which time humankind will be extinct anyway.

I mentioned this once to an audience in Kansas City, adding the quarter-million-year caveat as a form of comfort. It did not work. It merely prompted a middle-aged woman to rise, choleric, incredulous and demanding. “Extinct!” she spluttered. “What on earth do you mean? Even Americans will be extinct?”

18 maio 2010

No longer Lost in La Mancha

But I'll  always miss Jean Rochefort

Good news! We bumped into the great Terry Gilliam last night at a party in Cannes for the Doha Film Institute, and he revealed to us exclusively that Ewan McGregor has joined the cast of his long-delayed film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
McGregor will take on the role that Johnny Depp had been set to play in the original, aborted version back in 2000. Depp had still been attached to the role for this version, but with Pirates Of The Caribbean 4 eating into his schedule, and a September start date looming for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam has clearly decided to go with McGregor instead.
McGregor will play, if the current version remains faithful to the original attempt, a 21st century advertising executive who travels back in time to 17th century Spain, where he meets Don Quixote and becomes involved in adventures with him. Robert Duvall has been on board the revamped film, as Quixote, for some time, replacing Jean Rochefort. But the addition of McGregor is brand new.
"Robert Duvall is one of the greats, no question - and he can ride a horse!" laughed Gilliam. "And Ewan has gotten better over the years. He was wonderful in The Ghost. There's a lot of colours to Ewan that he's not been showing recently and it's time for him to show them again. He's got a great sense of humour and he's a wonderful actor. He's wonderfully boyish and can be charming - when he flashes a smile, everybody melts. He wields it like a nuclear bomb!"

No one can really say what makes an effective screenplay

Robert Towne on the Plight of Screenwriters

No one can really say what makes an effective screenplay, because no one really knows what makes a screenplay effective. Certainly part of the problem stems from the fact that screenplays can’t be judged by reading them. They may read well or badly, but that often says more about the reader than the screenplay.
The only way a screenplay can be evaluated, almost by definition, is not on the page, but by viewing the movie it caused to be made. It certainly can be read and even enjoyed, but you’re stuck with the inescapable fact that it was written to be seen.
“Causing the movie to be made,” incidentally, is no small thing. From it stems the historic hatred Hollywood has always displayed for the screenwriter. No matter what is said about how a movie gets made, one fact is inescapable: until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else, like actors, can do theirs. Until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else has a job. In other words, he is the asshole who keeps everybody else from going to work.
The hatred on their part usually takes the form of contempt for him because he’s not good enough to put them to work—and fear of him because they need him to go to work. Meanwhile, their wrath at being kept waiting is likely to assume various forms. In a sort of mini-Dante-esque exercise, we might say studio execs and agents rage at being kept in limbo, ambitious actors and producers fulminate about doing time in purgatory, and aging movie stars and all directors swear you’ve damned them to hell.
Another reason for their anger is the pervasive tendency to underestimate the true difficulty of the screenplay form. It started with contempt for the form itself, born and bred in those decades when novelists and playwrights would come out to a California bungalow and condescend to knock out a script in a couple of weeks for big bucks so they could go back to their daytime job and do some really serious writing. It’s rare, however, that anyone has an understanding of how disciplined a good script must be, and how much work goes into achieving that discipline.
Then, too, the usual readers for the screenwriter’s script—studio execs, producer, director, cast, and crew—could not exactly be said to approach their task with enlightened disinterest. There is hardly anything more threatening to them than this 120-odd page document. Generally, the writer’s professional colleagues, particularly actor, director, and producer, ask three questions as they read his work, none of which anyone is in a position to answer: 1) Will this script be any good as a movie?, 2) Will it make me look good?, and 3) Will I work again if I do it?
Most screenwriters have never been an ongoing part of a motion-picture production, and most production personnel know it. They therefore know that a screenplay is a peculiar act of prophecy by someone who’s no more licensed to work with a crystal ball than he is experienced in working on a film. That he would presume to write something that’s going to cost fifty million dollars, be cast with actors he doesn’t know and has never met, made with a director and crew he doesn’t know and has never met, on locations that may or may not exist, in weather conditions that may make it impossible to shoot, can only confirm their suspicions about him. The mere fact of writing the screenplay is an act of astonishing arrogance and proves the writer should never have written it in the first place.
However, I think it is true that narrative skill in screenwriting may be at an all-time low. There was an undeniably greater story sense evidenced by the preceding generation of filmmakers. It may have been due in part to the fact that directors like George Stevens and producers like Darryl Zanuck (who also wrote)—for that matter, everyone from Ernst Lubitsch to William Wellman—began their careers in silent pictures. Without sound, they were obliged to think very carefully about making the story and motivation clear. This obsession with story and with clarity never abandoned them when they abandoned silent film.
Why are the director, the producer, the writer less skillful at filming a story now than then? Some of it lies in the disadvantages of present training. A large part of directing talent today comes from the world of music videos and commercials. Directors generally work in thirty- to sixty-second “bytes,” as they say, and therefore narrative skill takes a distinct back seat to visual impact. It’s also regrettably true that the effect of their sixty-second visual/aural barrages is to limit their attention span even as they limit the television audience’s attention span. They don’t allow the actor or the audience to do any “work”—visually they do it for them with shock cuts and long lenses and wild juxtaposition of imagery—so very often, an actor working in motion pictures for a director honed and toned in MTV is shot more like a perfume bottle than a person.
But there are other reasons for the dearth of affecting dramatic screenplays. To look at what I believe is the most critical one, it helps me to go back to the time when I first started looking at movies.
San Pedro, California, in the early ’40s was a big seaport and a small town. It was full of fishermen, merchant marines, cannery workers, dock workers, shipyard workers, soldiers at Fort MacArthur, sailors from everywhere, first-generation Slavs, Italians, Portuguese, Germans, Filipinos, Mexicans, and even a sprinkling of blacks and Jews. Only if you were five years old could you count on English not being the second language of your peers.
It was with just such a crowd of my peers that one Saturday morning in 1941 I took my half-dozen DiCarlo bread wrappers, my dime, and myself to the Warner’s Theater on sixth street in San Pedro to see a bunch of Saturday serials, and Sergeant York. Alvin York was a religious pacifist from a rural Kentucky community so shut off from the outside world in 1917 that it didn’t have electricity, phones, or movies—and for whom New York, let alone Europe, was as far away as Mars.
Still, kids in small-town San Pedro found that they shared common values with a rural Kentuckian like York. Like him, our folks, like most Americans then, didn’t believe in sticking their noses into other people’s business. They were God-fearing, wanting mainly a chance at a decent job, five thousand dollars in the bank, and the opportunity for their children to have an education and a better life than they had had. These were York’s values, and they were ours. They were the truths we held to be as self-evident as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If all this is redolent of a Norman Rockwell portrait, a Rush Limbaugh wet dream, its validity didn’t lie in the likelihood that it was or would come true. Like most dreams, its greatest significance was our belief in it. We took heart and example from Sergeant York: his beliefs mattered and his actions counted. And even when our society changed dramatically in the ’60s and ’70s, many films—The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown among them—found receptive audiences. They did so by dramatizing the disparity between the Establishment’s view of the country and what many Americans were beginning to take to be the awful truth: Vietnam, Watergate, perceptions of hideous racial inequality. Again, a series of shared beliefs, in this case focusing on what was wrong with the country, created a sense of communion between filmmakers and filmgoers.
We share no such beliefs today. That, in fact, is pretty much at the heart of the screenwriter’s difficulty now: it’s tough to write effectively without common ground between you and your audience. Shared beliefs, like shared experience and shared myths, provide that ground. They give us substance and structure, allow us to interpret and make sense of experience, tell us how we should and shouldn’t behave, help us find significance in our lives. It is belief that makes the real world real and not a surrealistic nightmare. It is belief that makes us think there’s such a thing as truth. It is belief that makes drama—“make-believe”—possible.
For me, this is the problem the contemporary screenwriter faces: how can he tell a compelling story when there’s nothing the audience believes to be self-evident? How can he create an illusion without a contrasting reality against which to gauge the effectiveness of the illusion? It’s difficult to lie credibly without belief in the truth.

On avait dit que ce serait l'avènement d'une ère nouvelle de liberté, de l'activisme politique et la paix perpétuelle. On avait tort.

Sept idées plus ou moins reçues sur Internet

Internet a toujours œuvré pour le bien

FAUX. Internet a élargi le champ des possibles, et nous y avions placé tous nos espoirs. Comme pour toute histoire d'amour naissante, nous croyions que le nouvel objet de notre affection -ou plutôt, de notre fascination- était capable de changer la face du monde. On nous présentait alors Internet comme l'outil ultime de promotion de la tolérance, la solution miracle qui allait mettre fin à tous les nationalismes, et transformer la planète en «village global» super-connecté. En 1994, un groupe d'aficionados mené par Esther Dyson et Alvin Toffler publièrent un manifeste modestement sous-titré «Une Magna Carta pour l'ère du savoir» et qui promettait l'essor de «“quartiers électroniques” reliés entre eux non pas géographiquement, mais par des intérêts communs». Nicholas Negroponte, alors à la tête du MediaLab du MIT, prédisait en 1997 qu'Internet allait faire tomber les frontières et inaugurer une nouvelle ère de paix dans le monde.

Internet tel qu'on le connaît aujourd'hui -et tel qu'il existe depuis une vingtaine d'années- a effectivement été le moteur de nombreux changements. Le nombre de produits et de services qu'on peut trouver en ligne aujourd'hui est incroyable; communiquer à travers le monde entier n'a jamais été aussi facile, les factures de téléphone ont désormais été remplacées par des abonnements Skype à bas prix; Google Translate est capable de traduire des sites Web en espagnol, mandarin, maltais, et plus de 40 autres langues. Cependant, tout comme les générations précédentes ont été déçues de constater que ni le télégraphe ni la radio ne tenaient les promesses du changement annoncé par leurs supporters les plus enthousiastes, nous doutons de voir un jour ce monde d'amour, de paix, et de liberté qu'Internet devait façonner.

Plus qu'un doute, une certitude. Pire: en favorisant les transactions de nombreux réseaux transnationaux, Internet a aggravé les choses, plutôt que les améliorer. Récemment, lors d'un rassemblement consacré à l'éradication du commerce illicite d'animaux en voie d'extinction, Internet a été identifié comme le principal moteur du commerce mondial d'espèces protégées. Aujourd'hui, le Net est un endroit où les militants homophobes serbes utilisent Facebook pour s'organiser pour lutter contre les droits des homosexuels, et où les socio-conservateurs d'Arabie Saoudite mettent en place des équivalents en ligne de la Commission pour la promotion de la vertu et la prévention du vice. Autant pour la «liberté de se connecter» saluée par la secrétaire d'Etat américaine Hillary Clinton dans son discours sur Internet et les droits de l'homme dont on nous a tant rebattu les oreilles.

C'est triste de le constater, mais un monde connecté n'est pas forcément un monde plus juste.

Grâce à Twitter, on va renverser les dictatures.

#FAUX. Un tweet n'a jamais renversé et ne renversera jamais un gouvernement; un peuple, oui. Et ce qu'on appris jusqu'à présent, c'est que les sites de réseaux sociaux peuvent être très utiles mais aussi très nuisibles aux activistes opérant à l'intérieur de régimes totalitaires. Ceux qui se sont enflammés pour la multiplication de toutes ces manifestations virtuelles vous assureront que les services en ligne comme Twitter, Flickr et YouTube ont facilité la circulation de l'information, autrefois strictement contrôlée par l'état, notamment lorsqu'il s'agit de photos et de vidéos accablantes prouvant certains abus commis par la police ou la justice. Rappelez-vous ces dissidents birmans qui avaient fait circuler des photos prises avec des téléphones portables et qui montraient la façon dont la police maîtrisait les manifestants, ou encore ces blogueurs russes de l'opposition qui avaient lancé Shpik.info, un site à la Wikipedia permettant à quiconque d'ajouter photos, noms, et coordonnées des supposés «ennemis de la démocratie» -juges, policiers, et même certains hommes politiques- complices d'avoir muselé la liberté d'expression. L'année dernière, celui qui était alors le Premier ministre britannique, Gordon Brown, a même déclaré que le génocide rwandais aurait été impossible si, à l'époque, Twitter avait existé.

Mais un meilleur accès à l'information signifie-t-il nécessairement pouvoir redresser les torts plus facilement? Pas forcément. Ni le régime iranien ni celui de la Birmanie ne se sont effondrés à la suite de la publication sur certains réseaux sociaux de photos pixellisées prouvant le non-respect des droits de l'homme sur leur territoire. Mais à l'instar de leurs opposants tout de vert vêtus, les autorités iraniennes ont elles aussi décidé de profiter du Net: après les manifestations qui ont eu lieu à Téhéran, un site a été créé où figurent les photos des opposants, invitant les internautes à contacter la police pour les identifier. Grâce à de nombreuses photos et vidéos uploadées sur Flickr et YouTube par les manifestants et leurs sympathisants étrangers, les services secrets iraniens ont pu réunir des preuves incriminant des dizaines d'opposants au régime. Ni Facebook ni Twitter n'offrent la sécurité nécessaire pour une révolution réussie, et ces sites pourraient même devenir un moyen pour certains dirigeants de prévoir et d'étouffer une insurrection. Si les Allemands de l'Est avaient tweeté ce qu'ils ressentaient en 1989, qui sait jusqu'où aurait été la Stasi pour faire taire les opposants?

Et même lorsque Twitter et Facebook contribuent à des semi-victoires, on ne peut pas parier à coup sûr que ça marchera une seconde fois. Prenez la figure emblématique des utopistes du genre: début 2008, un groupe Facebook créé par un ingénieur colombien de 33 ans a conduit à des manifestations massives rassemblant plus de 2 millions de personnes dans les rues de Bogota pour protester contre la brutalité des rebelles marxistes des Farc. (Le New York Times en avait d'ailleurs fait ses choux gras: «Facebook fait descendre les Colombiens dans la rue, dans un pays qui n'a pas l'habitude des protestations publiques.») Mais en septembre dernier, lorsque ces mêmes «révolutionnaires virtuels» ont essayé d'organiser un événement similaire contre le président vénézuélien Hugo Chavez, accusé d'avoir financé les Farc, ils se sont cassés le nez.

Si ce genre de campagnes «bis» échouent, ce ne sont pas Facebook et Twitter qu'il faut blâmer, mais plutôt les difficultés inhérentes à la création d'un vrai mouvement politique. Certains estiment que le Web a facilité les choses en termes d'organisation; c'est vrai, mais en partie seulement, car si l'on veut profiter pleinement des avantages qu'offre Internet, cela requiert de la discipline, des objectifs clairement définis, une hiérarchie, et des procédures opérationnelles (prenez la campagne présidentielle d'Obama, par exemple). Mais pour un mouvement politique désorganisé et sans véritable programme, Internet ne fait qu'enfoncer le clou en révélant ses points faibles et augmenter le risque de voir éclater des luttes intestines. Hélas, tout ça ressemble beaucoup à ce qui est arrivé au mouvement vert iranien.

Google défend la liberté sur Internet.
SEULEMENT QUAND ÇA L'ARRANGE. Si la Fédération internationale des droits de l'homme devait élire son chouchou parmi les 500 premières entreprises américaines, Google -leader écrasant de la recherche sur Internet et pionnier dans de nombreux domaines, de la cartographie mondiale aux réseaux sociaux- serait parmi les favoris. Récemment, après avoir refusé de céder aux exigences de censure de la Chine, Google a décidé de déplacer les serveurs de son moteur de recherche chinois à Hong Kong, et promis de protéger coûte que coûte l'identité des dissidents qui se servent de Gmail pour communiquer. Avec cette prise de position -applaudie par une grande partie du monde occidental- Google semble appliquer à la lettre son fameux slogan «Don't be evil» (Ne faites pas le mal).

N'oublions pas cependant que comme toute entreprise, le but de Google, c'est de gagner de l'argent: ils ne se sont pas installés en Chine pour y prêcher la liberté de surfer, mais pour vendre des espaces publicitaires à un pays dont le marché online est aujourd'hui le plus important au monde. Et c'est seulement au bout de quatre ans que Google a décidé de lever la censure de ses services en Chine. Mais si l'entreprise avait réussi à percer davantage le marché chinois, aurait-elle pris le risque de défier le gouvernement?

Parfois, Google agit par principe. Au mois de mars, ses dirigeants se sont joints à Freedom House pour organiser à Washington une série de conférences sur des sujets comme «l'influence des médias online dans les mouvements sociaux» et «partis politiques et élections 2.0», et invitant des blogueurs du Moyen-Orient à y participer. L'été dernier, Google a pris la défense de Cyxymu, un blogueur géorgien devenu la cible d'importantes cyberattaques (apparemment, des nationalistes russes à qui son point de vue sur la guerre entre la Russie et la Géorgie en 2008 ne plaisait pas) en laissant en ligne son blog hébergé chez eux. Après l'incident, Google s'est même vanté sur son blog orienté politique publique de sa volonté de «donner la parole aux "réfugiés numériques"».

Mais sa réputation de justicier de la liberté online reste assez mitigée. Par exemple, son système de filtrage en Thaïlande -qui applique les lois strictes du pays interdisant à quiconque d'insulter la monarchie- est particulièrement opaque et suscite de nombreuses critiques de la part des internautes thaïlandais. En Inde, Google doit faire face à la pression considérable (et compréhensible) du gouvernement qui exige le retrait du contenu mis en ligne par les extrémistes et les nationalistes sur le réseau social Orkut. Pourtant, certains Indiens accusent Google d'excès de zèle en matière d'autocensure, car l'entreprise craindrait, selon eux, de perdre un marché important. La position de Google sur la défense de la liberté online est en fin de compte une attitude pragmatique fondée sur des principes, et dont les règles sont souvent appliquées au cas par cas. Il serait naïf -et même dangereux- de penser que Google deviendra un jour une organisation à la Radio Free Europe.

Avec Internet, les gouvernements ont davantage de comptes à rendre.
PAS NÉCESSAIREMENT. De part et d'autre de l'Atlantique, de nombreux mordus du Net qu'autrefois les débats politiques laissaient totalement indifférents ont, du jour au lendemain, décidé de jouer les cellules de surveillance de leur gouvernement. Du site britannique TheyWorkForYou aux Kenyans de Mzlando, en passant par divers projets affiliés à la Sunlight Foundation américaine, comme MAPLight.org, des milliers de sites indépendants ont commencé à surveiller l'activité politique mondiale, certains proposant même des études comparatives entre les promesses de campagne et les votes des parlementaires.

Mais tous ces efforts ont-ils abouti à une politique meilleure, ou plus honnête? Les résultats sont, jusqu'à présent, plutôt mitigés. Même les geeks les plus idéalistes commencent à comprendre que les principaux obstacles qui empêchent la mise en place d'une politique plus ouverte et participative  ne sont pas d'ordre technologique mais pathologique, et bien enracinés dans nos institutions. Les nouvelles technologies ne permettent pas forcément d'obtenir des informations politiques exclusives, mais plutôt de rendre plus accessible ce qui est déjà disponible. Les gouvernements exercent toujours un contrôle considérable sur ce qui sera rendu public ou non. Le gouvernement Obama, champion autoproclamé de l'ouverture, suscite de nombreuses critiques de la part de comités américains pour la transparence pour avoir rendu public le nombre de chevaux et d'ânes présents sur le territoire américain, tout en refusant de divulguer des informations plus sensibles sur les concessions pétrolières et gazières.

Et même les dossiers les plus détaillés, lorsqu'ils sont enfin dévoilés, ne conduisent pas forcément à des réformes politiques, comme le fait remarquer Lawrence Lessig dans un article incisif publié sur The New Republic l'année dernière. Si l'on cherche à établir une cohérence entre informations, transparence et responsabilités, bricoler des tableaux Excel ne suffit pas. Ce qu'il faut, c'est construire des institutions démocratiques saines ainsi que des systèmes efficaces de pouvoirs et contrepouvoirs. Internet peut aider, mais dans une certaine mesure seulement. Car trop souvent, ce n'est pas l'info qui manque, mais la volonté politique.

Internet stimule la participation politique.
TOUT DÉPEND CE QU'ON ENTEND PAR «PARTICIPATION POLITIQUE». Internet a certainement créé de nouvelles façons de communiquer et d'échanger des idées, mais nous ignorons encore si cela aura un véritable impact sur l'intérêt des citoyens pour la démocratie, et sa pratique. Là où certains voient un renouveau de l'engagement civique, d'autres parlent de «slacktivism», une façon péjorative de désigner cet activisme politique superficiel «pour se donner bonne conscience», et qui semble se développer de plus en plus sur le Net depuis quelques années -parfois même au détriment des vraies opérations plus efficaces. Et alors que certains applaudissent ces toutes nouvelles campagnes censées stimuler la participation et l'engagement civique -comme l'Estonie qui va mettre en place un système de votes par SMS dès 2011- d'autres, comme moi, doutent que si certains citoyens se désolidarisent complètement de la vie politique, c'est parce qu'ils trouvent insupportables de devoir se déplacer deux ou trois fois par an pour aller voter.

Le débat sur l'influence d'Internet sur la participation fait écho à une controverse bien plus ancienne, sur les effets socio-politiques du câble sur les ménages. Bien avant l'invention des blogs, experts et chercheurs se disputaient déjà pour savoir si oui ou non le petit écran transformait les gens en maniaques du divertissement, passifs et apolitiques, préférant regarder un James Bond ou une redif de Happy Days plutôt que le journal de la nuit, ou bien en citoyens obsessionnels et hyperactifs scotchés en permanence à CNN. A l'époque, comme aujourd'hui, l'argument-phare, c'était qu'avec tous ces obsédés de la télé totalement désengagés de la vie politique, et ces drogués de la news accros à l'info condensée, la démocratie à l'américaine était en train de devenir une niche politique. Internet, c'est le câble sous stéroïdes; il n'a jamais été aussi facile de se brancher sur la vie politique, ou bien de la zapper complètement.

Il y aussi le risque que nos sources d'infos deviennent de plus en plus subjectives, comme nos amis Facebook par exemple, réduisant considérablement les différents points de vue auxquels nous sommes exposés encore aujourd'hui. Selon une étude menée au début de l'année par le Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, les trois quarts des Américains qui consomment de la news en ligne déclarent qu'une partie de ces infos provient de mails ou de sites de réseaux sociaux. Actuellement, moins de 10% des Américains disent ne consulter qu'une seule source pour se tenir au courant de l'actualité. Mais au vu de la crise que traverse la presse traditionnelle face à Internet, tout cela pourrait rapidement changer.

Internet, c'est la mort de l'actu internationale.
SEULEMENT SI ON LAISSE FAIRE. Ce ne sont certainement pas les organes de presse -qui se battent actuellement pour leur survie et se voient obligés de fermer de plus en plus de bureaux à l'étranger- qui vous le diront, mais jamais l'humanité n'a eu accès plus rapide à l'actu internationale qu'aujourd'hui. Des agrégateurs comme Google News viennent peut-être ébranler les business modèles de CNN et du New York Times, entraînant la suppression de postes coûteux comme les correspondants à l'étranger, il n'empêche que des milliers de sources du monde entier sont désormais accessibles en un clic. Combien de gens liraient AllAfrica.com ou l'Asia Times Online si Google News n'existait pas?

On a beau dénoncer le rôle que joue Internet dans la suppression de certains services de presse, il faut néanmoins reconnaître et applaudir les effets incontestablement positifs du Web sur la qualité de la recherche en matière d'actu internationale aujourd'hui. Le «fact-checking» instantané, la possibilité de suivre une même affaire via des dizaines de sources différentes, et l'accès gratuit à des archives complètes -inimaginable il y a encore 15 ans.

Le vrai danger de tous ces bouleversements dans le milieu de l'actu internationale, c'est l'absence de modérateurs intelligents et respectés dans le métier. Internet est peut-être le paradis des drogués de la news qui savent faire le tri, mais la plupart d'entre nous se sentent un peu perdus dans cet océan d'actu. Même les lecteurs les plus éclairés ne connaissent pas forcément la différence entre le Global Times, un journal nationaliste chinois publié sous l'égide du Parti communiste, et l'Epoch Times, un autre journal chinois publié lui par les dissidents du Falun Gong.

Internet nous rapproche.
FAUX. La distance a encore de l'importance. Dans son best-seller, The Death of Distance, publié en 1997, Frances Cairncross, alors journaliste au magazine Economist, prédisait qu'en révolutionnant la façon de communiquer, Internet allait «améliorer la compréhension, encourager la tolérance, et, en fin de compte, promouvoir la paix dans le monde». Mais annoncer la mort de la distance, c'était prématuré.

Même dans un monde ultra-connecté, un consommateur a toujours besoin de se sentir proche de ce qu'il consomme. Un étude publiée en 2006 dans le Journal of International Economics a par exemple montré que pour des produits disponibles en ligne comme la musique, les jeux vidéo ou la pornographie, plus le pays d'origine du site les proposant était éloigné des États-Unis, moins les internautes américains seraient susceptibles de le visiter. (En chiffres: +1% d'éloignement = -3.25% de visites)

A l'instar des préférences des utilisateurs, l'attitude de certains gouvernements et entreprises -souvent motivés autant par l'argent et les droits d'auteur que par des considérations politiques- pourraient également signifier la fin d'un Internet «unique». Notre liberté de surfer sur des sites indépendamment de leur situation géographique est en péril, même au sein du monde «libre». On assiste à de plus en plus de tentatives, notamment de la part de sociétés et de leur ribambelle d'avocats, d'interdire l'accès aux étrangers à certaines parties du web. Par exemple, le contenu accessible aux Britanniques via le très novateur iPlayer de la BBC est de moins en moins facilement consultable en Allemagne (en France, seul le player radio est accessible, NDLE). Grâce à une initiative gouvernementale, les Norvégiens peuvent consulter sur Internet quelque 50.000 livres (sous copyright), mais à la seule condition d'habiter en Norvège. Le gouvernement paie déjà 675.000 euros de redevance par an, et n'a pas l'intention de subventionner le reste du monde.

En outre, de nombreux pionniers du web, comme Google, Twitter et Facebook, figurent parmi les entreprises américaines que les gouvernements étrangers craignent le plus. Les hommes politiques chinois, cubains, iraniens, et même turcs, parlent déjà de «souveraineté de l'information» -un euphémisme, puisqu'il s'agirait de remplacer des services online offerts par des sociétés occidentales par leurs propres produits plus limités mais plus faciles à contrôler, morcellant davantage le Web. Nous rentrerons bientôt dans l'ère du Splinternet (de «split» scinder et «internet», que l'on peut traduire par Scindernet, Séparnet ou Sectionet).

En vingt ans, Internet n'a jamais fait tomber ni dictateur, ni frontière, et n'a certainement pas marqué le début d'une ère post-politique de décisions rationnelles. Internet a accéléré et amplifié certaines forces à l'œuvre, fragilisant la politique et la rendant plus imprévisible. De plus en plus, Internet ressemble à une version survoltée du monde réel, avec ses promesses et ses périls, tandis que la cyber-utopie que nous avait prédit la première génération d'internautes semble plus que jamais illusoire.
Evgeny Morozov
Traduit par Nora Bouazzouni

I Want My Keyboard (steampunked ,)

The Sojourner, already aged likea fine wine

The Scrabble keyboard

From DataMancer ;)

15 maio 2010

Europe's Wildlife - Portugal Blue ;)

And more at National Geographic

Azores, Portugal
Caretta caretta; Naucrates ductor
Trailed by pilotfish, a young loggerhead cruises Atlantic waters around the Azores, where all sea turtles are protected by the EU. Juveniles typically reside within 15 feet of the surface, where waters are warm.

Madeira Islands, Portugal
Monachus monachus
Once common in the Mediterranean, the monk seal is now the world's most endangered seal species. In the protected waters of the Madeira Islands, its population has increased from six to 35 individuals since the late 1980s.

14 maio 2010

Why do vampires still thrill?

“Unclean, unclean!” Mina Harker screams, gathering her bloodied nightgown around her. In Chapter 21 of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Mina’s friend John Seward, a psychiatrist in Purfleet, near London, tells how he and a colleague, warned that Mina might be in danger, broke into her bedroom one night and found her kneeling on the edge of her bed. Bending over her was a tall figure, dressed in black. “His right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.” Mina’s husband, Jonathan, hypnotized by the intruder, lay on the bed, unconscious, a few inches from the scene of his wife’s violation.

Later, between sobs, Mina relates what happened. She was in bed with Jonathan when a strange mist crept into the room. Soon, it congealed into the figure of a man—Count Dracula. “With a mocking smile, he placed one hand upon my shoulder and, holding me tight, bared my throat with the other, saying as he did so: ‘First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions . . .’ And oh, my God, my God, pity me! He placed his reeking lips upon my throat!” The Count took a long drink. Then he drew back, and spoke sweet words to Mina. “Flesh of my flesh,” he called her, “my bountiful wine-press.” But now he wanted something else. He wanted her in his power from then on. A person who has had his—or, more often, her—blood repeatedly sucked by a vampire turns into a vampire, too, but the conversion can be accomplished more quickly if the victim also sucks the vampire’s blood. And so, Mina says, “he pulled open his shirt, and with his long sharp nails opened a vein in his breast. When the blood began to spurt out, he . . . seized my neck and pressed my mouth to the wound, so that I must either suffocate or swallow some of the—Oh, my God!” The unspeakable happened—she sucked his blood, at his breast—at which point her friends stormed into the room. Dracula vanished, and, Seward relates, Mina uttered “a scream so wild, so ear-piercing, so despairing . . . that it will ring in my ears to my dying day.” 

That scene, and Stoker’s whole novel, is still ringing in our ears. Stoker did not invent vampires. If we define them, broadly, as the undead—spirits who rise, embodied, from their graves to torment the living—they have been part of human imagining since ancient times. Eventually, vampire superstition became concentrated in Eastern Europe. (It survives there today. In 2007, a Serbian named Miroslav Milosevic—no relation—drove a stake into the grave of Slobodan Milosevic.) It was presumably in Eastern Europe that people worked out what became the standard methods for eliminating a vampire: you drive a wooden stake through his heart, or cut off his head, or burn him—or, to be on the safe side, all three. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, there were outbreaks of vampire hysteria in Western Europe; numerous stakings were reported in Germany. By 1734, the word “vampire” had entered the English language.

In those days, vampires were grotesque creatures. Often, they were pictured as bloated and purple-faced (from drinking blood); they had long talons and smelled terrible—a description probably based on the appearance of corpses whose tombs had been opened by worried villagers. These early undead did not necessarily draw blood. Often, they just did regular mischief—stole firewood, scared horses. (Sometimes, they helped with the housework.) Their origins, too, were often quaint. Matthew Beresford, in his recent book “From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth” (University of Chicago; $24.95), records a Serbian Gypsy belief that pumpkins, if kept for more than ten days, may cross over: “The gathered pumpkins stir all by themselves and make a sound like ‘brrl, brrl, brrl!’ and begin to shake themselves.” Then they become vampires. This was not yet the suave, opera-cloaked fellow of our modern mythology. That figure emerged in the early nineteenth century, a child of the Romantic movement. 

In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron, fleeing marital difficulties, was holed up in a villa on Lake Geneva. With him was his personal physician, John Polidori, and nearby, in another house, his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley; Shelley’s mistress, Mary Godwin; and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was angling for Byron’s attention (with reason: she was pregnant by him). The weather that summer was cold and rainy. The friends spent hours in Byron’s drawing room, talking. One night, they read one another ghost stories, which were very popular at the time, and Byron suggested that they all write ghost stories of their own. Shelley and Clairmont produced nothing. Byron began a story and then laid it aside. But the remaining members of the summer party went to their desks and created the two most enduring figures of the modern horror genre. Mary Godwin, eighteen years old, began her novel “Frankenstein” (1818), and John Polidori, apparently following a sketch that Byron had written for his abandoned story, wrote “The Vampyre: A Tale” (1819). In Polidori’s narrative, the undead villain is a proud, handsome aristocrat, fatal to women. (Some say that Polidori based the character on Byron.) He’s interested only in virgins; he sucks their necks; they die; he lives. The modern vampire was born. 

The public adored him. In England and France, Polidori’s tale spawned popular plays, operas, and operettas. Vampire novels appeared, the most widely read being James Malcolm Rymer’s “Varney the Vampire,” serialized between 1845 and 1847. “Varney” was a penny dreadful, and faithful to the genre. (“Shriek followed shriek. . . . Her beautifully rounded limbs quivered with the agony of her soul. . . . He drags her head to the bed’s edge.”) After “Varney” came “Carmilla” (1872), by Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish ghost-story writer. “Carmilla” was the mother of vampire bodice rippers. It also gave birth to the lesbian vampire story—in time, a plentiful subgenre. “Her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses,” the female narrator writes, “and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine.’ ” “Varney” and “Carmilla” were low-end hits, but vampires penetrated high literature as well. Baudelaire wrote a poem, and Théophile Gautier a prose poem, on the subject. 

Then came Bram (Abraham) Stoker. Stoker was a civil servant who fell in love with theatre in his native Dublin. In 1878, he moved to London to become the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, owned by his idol, the actor Henry Irving. On the side, Stoker wrote thrillers, one about a curse-wielding mummy, one about a giant homicidal worm, and so on. Several of these books are in print, but they probably wouldn’t be if it were not for the fame—and the afterlife—of Stoker’s fourth novel, “Dracula” (1897). The first English Dracula play, by Hamilton Deane, opened in 1924 and was a sensation. The American production (1927), with a script revised by John L. Balderston and with Bela Lugosi in the title role, was even more popular. Ladies were carried, fainting, from the theatre. Meanwhile, the films had begun appearing: notably, F. W. Murnau’s silent “Nosferatu” (1922), which many critics still consider the greatest of Dracula movies, and then Tod Browning’s “Dracula” (1931), the first vampire talkie, with Lugosi navigating among the spiderwebs and intoning the famous words “I do not drink . . . wine.” (That line was not in the book. It was written for Browning’s movie.) Lugosi stamped the image of Dracula forever, and it stamped him. Thereafter, this ambitious Hungarian actor had a hard time getting non-monstrous roles. He spent many years as a drug addict. He was buried in his Dracula cloak. 

From that point to the present, there have been more than a hundred and fifty Dracula movies. Roman Polanski, Andy Warhol, Werner Herzog, and Francis Ford Coppola all made films about the Count. There are subgenres of Dracula movies: comedy, pornography, blaxploitation, anime. There is also a “Deafula,” for the hearing-impaired: the characters conduct their business in American Sign Language while the lines are spoken in voice-over. After film, television, of course, took on vampires. “Dark Shadows,” in the nineteen-sixties, and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in the nineties, were both big hits. Meanwhile, the undead have had a long life in fiction. Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” and Stephen King’s “ ’Salem’s Lot” are the best-known recent examples, but one source estimates that the undead have been featured in a thousand novels.

Today, enthusiasm for vampires seems to be at a new peak. Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” novels, for young adults (that is, teen-age girls), have sold forty-two million copies worldwide since 2005. The first of the film adaptations, released late last year, made a hundred and seventy-seven million dollars in its initial seven weeks. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels (“Dead Until Dark,” plus seven more), about a Louisiana barmaid’s passion for a handsome revenant named Bill, were bought by six million people, and generated the HBO series “True Blood,” which had its début last year and will be back in June. Also from last year was the haunting Swedish movie “Let the Right One In,” in which a twelve-year-old boy, Oskar, falls in love with a mysterious girl, Eli, who has moved in next door. She, too, is twelve, she tells Oskar, but she has been twelve for a long time. A new Dracula novel, co-authored by the fragrantly named Dacre Stoker (a great-grandnephew of Bram), will be published in October by Dutton. The movie rights have already been sold. 

The past half century has also seen a rise in vampire scholarship. In the nineteen-fifties, Freudian critics, addressing Stoker’s novel, did what Freudians did at that time. Today’s scholars, intent instead on politics—race, class, and gender—have feasted at the table. Representative essays, reprinted in a recent edition of “Dracula,” include Christopher Craft’s “ ‘Kiss Me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ ” and Stephen D. Arata’s “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” 

Other writers have produced fantastically detailed annotated editions of Stoker’s “Dracula.” The first of these, “The Annotated Dracula” (1975), by Leonard Wolf, a Transylvanian-born horror scholar, dealt, for example, with the scene of Dracula’s assault on Mina by giving us the Biblical sources of “unclean, unclean” and “flesh of my flesh”; by cross-referencing “my bountiful wine-press” to an earlier passage, about Transylvanian viniculture; by noting, apropos of Dracula’s opening a vein in his chest, that this recalls an old myth about the pelican feeding its young with blood from its bosom; by telling us that the vein Dracula slashed must have been the superficial intercostal; by exclaiming over the sexual ambiguity of the scene (“Just what is going on here? A vengeful cuckoldry? A ménage à trois? Mutual oral sexuality?”), and so on. None of this information is needed by the first- or second-time reader of “Dracula.” Indeed, it would be a positive hindrance, draining away the suspense that Stoker worked so hard to build. 

The fullness of Wolf’s commentary did not discourage others. In 1979, a second annotated edition came out, and in 1998 a third. Last October, a fourth—“The New Annotated Dracula,” by Leslie Klinger, a Los Angeles tax and estate lawyer who has a sideline editing Victorian literature—was published by Norton ($39.95). What could Klinger have found to elucidate that his predecessors didn’t? Plenty. In the scene of Mina’s encounter with Dracula, for example, he honorably cites the earlier editions, and then he goes on to alert us to a punctuation error; to conjecture, revoltingly, about the source of the mist in which Dracula enters Mina’s bedroom (“Perhaps this was not a vapor but rather a milky substance expressed from Dracula’s body”); to speculate that Jonathan Harker’s excitement, upon awakening from his swoon, may be a form of sexual arousal; and to question the medical accuracy of Stoker’s claim that Harker’s hair turns white as he listens to Mina’s story: “In fact, whitening is caused by a progressive decline in the absolute number of melanocytes (pigment-producing cells in the skin, hair, and eye), which normally decrease over time.” Even that old sentimental convention does not get past him.

What is all this about? Why do publishers think that readers will care? One could say that “Dracula,” like certain other works—“Alice in Wonderland,” the Sherlock Holmes stories (both, like Klinger’s “Dracula,” published in Norton’s Annotated Editions series; Klinger was the editor of the Holmes)—is a cult favorite. But why does the book have a cult? Well, cults often gather around powerful works of the second rank. Fans feel that they have to root for them. What, then, is the source of “Dracula” ’s power? A simple device, used in many notable works of art: the deployment of great and volatile forces within a very tight structure.

The narrative method of “Dracula” is to assemble a collage of purportedly authentic documents, most of them in the first person. Many of the materials are identified as excerpts from the diaries of the main characters. In addition, there are letters to and from these people—but also from lawyers, carting companies, and Hungarian nuns—plus telegrams, “newspaper” clippings, and a ship’s log. This multiplicity of voices gives the book a wonderful liveliness. A long horror story could easily become suffocating. (That is one of the reasons that Poe’s tales are tales, not novels.) “Dracula,” in a regular, unannotated edition, runs about four hundred pages, but it is seldom tedious. It opens with four chapters from the diary of Jonathan Harker describing his visit, on legal business—he is a solicitor—to the castle of a certain Count Dracula, in Transylvania, and ending with Harker howling in horror over what he found there. Then we turn the page, and suddenly we are in England, reading a letter from Mina—at that point, Harker’s fiancée—bubbling to her friend Lucy Westenra about how she’s learning shorthand so that she can be useful to Jonathan in his work. This is a salutary jolt, and also witty. (Little does Mina know how Jonathan’s work is going at that juncture.) The alternation of voices also lends texture. It’s as if we were turning an interesting object around in our hands, looking at it from this angle, then that. And since the story is reported by so many different witnesses, we are more likely to believe it. 

In addition, we are given the pleasure of assembling the pieces of a puzzle. No one narrator knows all that the others have told us, and this allows us to read between the lines. One evening, as Mina is returning to a house she is sharing with Lucy in Whitby, a seaside resort in Yorkshire, she sees her friend at the window, and by her side, on the sill, “something that looked like a good-sized bird.” How strange! Mina thinks. It’s not strange to us. By then we know that the “bird” is a bat—one of the Count’s preferred incarnations. (Dracula will destroy Lucy before turning to Mina.) Such counterpoint, of course, increases the suspense. When are these people going to figure out what is going on? Finally, most of the narration is not just first person but on-the-moment, and therefore unglazed by memory. “We are to be married in an hour,” Mina writes to Lucy as she sits by Jonathan’s bed in a Budapest hospital. (That’s where he landed, with a brain fever, after escaping from Castle Dracula.) He’s sleeping now, Mina says. She’ll write while she can. Oops! “Jonathan is waking!” She must break off. This minute-by-minute recording, as Samuel Richardson, its pioneer (in “Pamela”), discovered a century and a half earlier, lends urgency—you are there!—and, again, it seems a warrant of truth.

But the narrative method is not the only thing that provides a tight receptacle for the story. Most of this tale of the irrational is filtered through minds wedded to rationalism. “Dracula” has what Noël Carroll, in “The Philosophy of Horror” (1990), called a “complex discovery plot”—that is, a plot that involves not just the discovery of an evil force let loose in the world but the job of convincing skeptics (which takes a lot of time, allowing the monster to compound his crimes) that such a thing is happening. No people, we are told, were more confident than the citizens of Victorian England. The sun never set on their empire. They were also masters of science and technology. “Dracula” is full of exciting modern machinery—the telegraph, the typewriter, the “Kodak”—and the novel has an obsession with railway trains, probably the nineteenth century’s most crucial invention. The new world held no terrors for these people. Nevertheless, they were bewildered by it, because of its challenge to religious faith, and to the emotions religion had taught: sweetness, comfort, reverence, resignation. 

That crisis is recorded in work after work of late-nineteenth-century fiction, but never more forcibly than in “Dracula.” In the opening pages of the novel, Harker, on his way to Castle Dracula, has arrived in Romania. He complains of the lateness of the trains. He describes a strange dish, paprika hendl, that he was given for dinner in a restaurant. But he is English; he can handle these things. He does not yet know that the man he is going to visit has little concern for timetables—the Count has lived for hundreds of years—and dines on something more peculiar than paprika hendl. Even when the evidence is in front of Harker’s face, he cannot credit it. The coachman driving him to Castle Dracula (it is the Count, in disguise) is of a curious appearance. He has pointed teeth and flaming red eyes. This makes Harker, in his words, feel “a little strangely.” Days pass, however, before he forms a stronger opinion. The other characters are equally slow to get the point. When Professor Abraham Van Helsing, the venerable Dutch physician who becomes the head of the vampire-hunting posse, suggests to his colleague John Seward that there may be a vampire operating in their midst, Seward thinks Van Helsing must be going mad. “Surely,” he protests, “there must be some rational explanation of all these mysterious things.” Van Helsing counters that not every phenomenon has a rational explanation: “Do you not think that there are things in the world which you cannot understand, and yet which are?” Throughout the novel, these self-assured people have to be convinced, with enormous difficulty, that there is something beyond their ken. 

According to Nina Auerbach, in “Our Vampires, Ourselves” (1995), Dracula’s crimes are merely symbols of the real-life sociopolitical horrors facing the late Victorians. One was immigration. At the end of the century, Eastern European Jews, in flight from the pogroms, were pouring into Western Europe, thereby threatening to dilute the pure blood of the English, among others. Dracula, too, is an émigré from the East. Stoker spends a lot of words on the subject of blood, and not just when Dracula extracts it. Fully four of the book’s five vampire-hunters have their blood transfused into Lucy’s veins, and this process is recorded with grisly exactitude. (We see the incisions, the hypodermics.) So Stoker may in fact have been thinking of the racial threat. Like other novels of the period, “Dracula” contains invidious remarks about Jews. They have big noses, they like money—the usual. 

At that time, furthermore, people in England were forced, by the scandal of the Oscar Wilde trials (1895), to think about something they hadn’t worried about before: homosexuality. Many scholars have found suggestions of homoeroticism in “Dracula.” Auerbach, by contrast, finds the book annoyingly heterosexual. Earlier vampire tales, such as Polidori’s story and “Carmilla,” made room for the mutability of erotic experience. In those works, sex didn’t have to be man to woman. And it didn’t have to be outright sex—it might just be fervent friendship. As Auerbach sees it, Stoker, spooked by the Wilde case, backed off from this rich ambiguity, thereby impoverishing vampire literature. After him, she says, vampire art became reactionary. This echoes Stephen King’s statement that all horror fiction, by pitting an absolute good against an absolute evil, is “as Republican as a banker in a three-piece suit.”

According to some critics, another thing troubling Stoker was the New Woman, that turn-of-the-century avatar of the feminist. Again, there is support for this. The New Woman is referred to dismissively in the book, and the God-ordained difference between the sexes—basically, that women are weak but good, and men are strong but less good—is reiterated with maddening persistence. On the other hand, Mina, the novel’s heroine, and a woman of unquestioned virtue, looks, at times, like a feminist. She works for a living, as a schoolmistress, before her marriage, and the new technology, which should have been daunting to a female, holds no mysteries for her. She’s a whiz as a typist—a standard New Woman profession. Also, she is wise and reasonable—male virtues. Nevertheless, her primary characteristic is a female trait: compassion. (At one point, she even pities Dracula.) Stoker, it seems, had mixed feelings about the New Woman. 

Whether or not politics was operating in Stoker’s novel, it is certainly at work in our contemporary vampire literature. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series openly treats vampires as a persecuted minority. Sometimes they are like black people (lynch mobs pursue them), sometimes like homosexuals (rednecks beat them up). Meanwhile, they are trying to go mainstream. Sookie’s Bill has sworn off human blood, or he’s trying; he subsists on a Japanese synthetic. He registers to vote (absentee, because he cannot get around in daylight). He wears pressed chinos. This is funny but also touching. In “The Vampire Chronicles,” Anne Rice also seems to regard her undead as an oppressed group. Their suffering is probably, at some level, a story about AIDS. All this is a little confusing morally. How can we have sympathy for the Devil and still regard him as the Devil? That question seems to have occurred to Stephenie Meyer, who is a Mormon. Edward, the featured vampire of Meyer’s “Twilight,” is a dashing fellow, and Bella, the heroine, becomes his girlfriend, but they do not go to bed together (because of the conversion risk). Neither should you, Meyer seems to be saying to her teen-age readers. They are compensated by the romantic fever that the sexual postponement generates. The book fairly heaves with desire.

But in Stoker’s time no excitement needed to be added. Sex outside marriage was still taboo, and dangerous. It could destroy a woman’s life—a man’s, too. (Syphilis was a major killer at that time. One of Stoker’s biographers claimed that the writer died of it.) In such a context, we do not need to look for political meaning in Dracula’s transactions with women. The meaning is forbidden sex—its menace and its allure. The baring of the woman’s flesh, her leaning back, the penetration: reading of these matters, does one think about immigration?

The novel is sometimes close to pornographic. Consider the scene in which Harker, lying supine in a dark room in Dracula’s castle, is approached by the Count’s “brides.” Describing the one he likes best, Harker says that he could “see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips,” and hear “the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth.” It should happen to us! Harker is not the only one who does not object to a vampire overture. In Chapter 8, Lucy describes to Mina her memory of how, on a recent night, she met a tall, mysterious man in the shadow of the ruined abbey that looms over Whitby. (This was her first encounter with Dracula.) She speaks of her experience frankly, without shame, because she thinks it was a dream. She ran through the streets to the appointed spot, she says: “Then I have a vague memory of something long and dark with red eyes . . . and something very sweet and very bitter all around me at once; and then I seemed sinking into deep green water, and there was a singing in my ears, as I have heard there is to drowning men . . . then there was a sort of agonizing feeling, as if I were in an earthquake.” This is thrilling: her rushing to the rendezvous, her sense of something both sweet and bitter, then the “earthquake.” But Lucy is a flighty girl. The crucial testimony is that of Mina, after Dracula’s attack on her. “I did not want to hinder him,” this honest woman says. Her statement is echoed by the unsettling notes of tenderness in Seward’s description of the event: the kitten at the saucer of milk; Mina’s resemblance, with her face at Dracula’s breast, to a nursing baby. The mind reels.

“Dracula” is full of faults. It is way overfull. Many scenes are superfluous. The novel is replete with sentimentality, and with oratory. Van Helsing cannot stop making soul-stirring speeches to his fellow vampire-hunters. “Do we not see our duty?” he asks. “We must go on,” he urges them. “From no danger shall we shrink.” His listeners grasp one another’s hands and kneel and swear oaths and weep and flush and pale. 

To these tiresome characteristics of Victorian fiction, Stoker adds problems all his own. The on-the-spot narration forces him, at times, into ridiculous situations. In Chapter 11, Lucy has a hard night. First, a wolf crashes through her bedroom window, splattering glass all over. This awakens her mother, who is in bed with her. Mrs. Westenra sits up, sees the wolf, and drops dead from shock. Then, to make matters worse, Dracula comes in and sucks Lucy’s neck. What does she do when that’s over with? Call the police? No. She pulls out her diary, and, sitting on her bed next to the rapidly cooling body of her mother, she records the episode, because Stoker needs to tell the reader about it. 

None of this, however, outweighs the strengths of the novel, above all, its psychological acuity. The last quarter of the book, where the vampire-hunters, after the attack on Mina, go after Dracula in earnest, is very subtle, because at that point Mina’s dealings with the fiend have rendered her half vampire. At times, she is coöperating with her rescuers. At other times, she is colluding with Dracula. She is a double agent. Her friends know this; she knows it, too, and knows that they know; they know that she knows that they know. This is complicated, and not always tidily worked out, but we cannot help but be impressed by Stoker’s representation of the amoral contrivances of love, or of desire. In this bold clarity, “Dracula” is like the work of other nineteenth-century writers. You can complain that their novels were loose, baggy monsters, that their poems were crazy and unfinished. Still, you gasp at what they’re saying: the truth.

Each of the annotated editions of “Dracula” has had its claim to attention. Leonard Wolf’s “The Annotated Dracula,” with six hundred notes, was the first, and it also did the job—which somebody had to do eventually—of picking through the psychoneurotic aspects of the novel. The next version, “The Essential Dracula,” edited by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, had its own originality. These two history professors from Boston College had unearthed Stoker’s working notes for the novel. They drew no important conclusions from that source, but never mind. They had a sexy new theory: that Stoker based the character of Dracula on a historical personage, Vlad Dracula—also known as Vlad Tepes—a fifteenth-century Walachian prince who, in defending his homeland against the Turks, acquired a reputation for cruelty unusual even among warriors of that period. Tepes means “the Impaler.” Vlad’s preferred method of dealing with enemies was to skewer them, together with their women and children, on wooden stakes. A fifteenth-century woodcut shows him dining at a table set up outdoors so that he could watch his prisoners wriggle to their deaths. McNally and Florescu’s theory gave journalists a lot of exciting things to write about, and their articles were featured: if it bleeds, it leads. As a result, “The Essential Dracula” was very popular. (To add to the fun, Florescu claimed that he was an indirect descendant of Vlad.) The Vlad hypothesis has since been discredited. As scholars have figured out, Stoker, while working on “Dracula,” read, or read in, a book that discussed Vlad, whereupon he changed his villain’s name from Count Wampyr to Count Dracula, and moved him from Austria to Transylvania, which borders on Walachia. He picked up other details, too, but not many. This has not put later writers off Vlad’s story. Matthew Beresford, in “From Demons to Dracula,” acknowledges that Stoker’s character “was not modeled, to any great extent, on Vlad Dracula.” Yet he offers a whole chapter on the Walachian prince, including a long description of impalement methods, complete with illustrations. After reading this, you could impale someone yourself.

In 1998 came “Bram Stoker’s Dracula Unearthed,” by Clive Leatherdale, a Stoker scholar. This book did not get much attention, but it holds the record for annotation: thirty-five hundred notes, totalling a hundred and ten thousand words. Leatherdale’s edition was also remarkable for its practice—common among fans, if not editors, of cult books—of treating the novel as if it were fact rather than fiction. When Harker, invading the cellar of Castle Dracula, finds the Count sleeping in his dirt-filled coffin, Leatherdale’s note asks, “Is he lying on damp earth in his everyday clothes, or in his night-clothes, with no sheeting to prevent earth-stains?” This is a creature who has lived for centuries, and can fly, and raise storms at sea, and Leatherdale is worried about whether he’s going to get his clothes dirty? The practice of “Dracula” annotation is both quite serious (Leatherdale, like the others, did a lot of work) and also, unashamedly, an amusement. It is an exercise in showing off—a demonstration of the editor’s erudition, energy, interests—and a confession of love for the text.

Leslie Klinger, in his new annotated edition, claims that he has fresh material to go on. He has examined Stoker’s typescript, which is owned by a “private collector.” This source, he says, has yielded “startling results.” In fact, like McNally and Florescu with Stoker’s working notes, Klinger draws no important conclusions from his archival discovery, and he admits that he spent only two days studying the typescript. As with the McNally-Florescu version, however, the real sales angle of this edition is not a new source but a new theory. Klinger not only assumes, like Leatherdale, that all the events narrated in the novel are factual; he offers a hypothesis as to how Stoker came to publish them. Here goes. Harker, a real person (with a changed name), like everyone else in the book, gave his diary, together with the other documents that constitute the novel, to Bram Stoker so that Stoker might alert the English public that a vampire named Dracula, also real, was in their midst. Stoker agreed to issue the warning. But then Dracula got wind of this plan, whereupon he contacted Stoker and used on him the methods of persuasion famously at his disposal. Dracula decided that it was too late to suppress the Harker documents entirely, so instead he forced Stoker to distort them. He sat at the desk with Stoker and co-authored the novel, changing the facts in such a way as to convince the public that Dracula had been eliminated. That way, the Count could go on, unmolested, with his project of taking over the world.

Many of Klinger’s fifteen hundred notes are devoted to revealing this plot. When Stoker makes a continuity error, or fails to supply verifiable information, this is part of the coverup. The book says that Dracula’s London house is at 347 Piccadilly, but in the eighteen-nineties the only houses on that stretch of Piccadilly that would have answered Stoker’s description were at 138 and 139. Clearly, Klinger says, Stoker is protecting the Count. Then, there’s a problem about the hotel where Van Helsing is staying. In Chapter 9 it’s the Great Eastern; in Chapter 11 it’s the Berkeley. Again, Klinger concludes, Stoker is covering his characters’ traces. He altered the name of the hotel—presumably, he had to prevent readers from running over to the place and checking the register—but then he forgot and changed the name again. 

At first, you think that maybe Klinger’s book is not actually an annotated edition of “Dracula” but, rather, like Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” a novel about a paranoid, in the form of an annotated edition. But no: Klinger, in his introduction, lays out his conspiracy theory without qualification. So are we to understand that he himself is a maniac, whose delusions the editors at Norton thought it might be interesting to publish?

No again. Preceding Klinger’s introduction there is a little note, titled “Editor’s Preface”—exactly the kind of thing that readers would skip—in which he tells us that his great hypothesis is a “gentle fiction.” (He used a similar contrivance, he says, in his Sherlock Holmes edition.) Recently, in a book-tour appearance at the New York Public Library, Klinger again admitted that his theory was a game. “If you like that sort of thing, there’s a lot of that in there,” he said. April fool!

That’s too bad, first, because it means that a serious novel has been taken as a species of camp, and, second, because it discredits Klinger’s non-joke, scholarly footnotes, of which there are many, and carefully researched. Even after the other annotated editions, this volume gives us useful information. Maybe we didn’t need to be told what Dover is, or the Bosporus, but when Klinger writes about the rise of the New Woman, or about the popularity of spiritualism in the late nineteenth century, this gives us knowledge that Victorian readers would have brought to the novel, and which could help us. It won’t, though, because readers, having had their chain pulled by the conspiracy theory, will disregard those notes, if, improbably, they have bought the book. Every generation, it seems, gets the annotated “Dracula” that it deserves. This is the postmodern version: playful, “performative,” with a smiling disdain for any claim of truth. It found the perfect author. A tax attorney would know about gentle fictions.

Whoosh! Why is the curtain blowing so strangely? Oh, my God! There is a man in my study, with a briefcase—he claims he is a lawyer, from Los Angeles—and, by his side, another, taller figure, in black, with pointy teeth. They say they want to help me revise my article. I must break off!
The New Yorker, March 2009