Wednesday, 3 February 2010

It's pronounced Fronkensteen!

There has been some speculation that Victor Frankenstein was Jewish, although there seems to be no evidence for this in the text. But it is interesting that the Jewish tradition does contain a precedent for Frankenstein's creature in the Golem.

The most well-known version of this story is that of Rabbi Loew who was supposed to have created a golem to protect the Jews of Prague in the sixteenth century. The Golem was - like Adam - made from clay and then given life by the magical means using the Kabbalah - the mystical powers of the Hebrew alphabet. He is brought to life using the word EMETH (truth) scratched into his forehead, and stopped by rubbing out the first letter and leaving METH (death). He is destroyed by rubbing out all the letters.

But Frankenstein's creature is not an I-must-obey robot creation. He is autonomous. In the movies he tends to be a shuffling precursor to George Romero's zombies, but in the book, he has feelings and desires. He is not so much undead and as unalive. He is like the not-quite-human-enough androids of Bladerunner. Like Pinocchio, he wants to be a real boy.

The German name of Frankenstein that Mary borrowed, may simply sound as if it might be Jewish, and certainly accounts for the misunderstanding that Frankenstein is German and that the action takes place in some Gothic castle with lederhosen-clad peasants banging at the door waving a variety of agricultural implements. It is this classic idea so beautifully sent up in Young Frankenstein. But Frankenstein is not German or Austrian. He is Swiss.

And moreover, he is French-Swiss. Well - sort of. At the beginning of Chapter 1 Victor says 'I am by birth a Genevese.' Two pages on, he says, 'I, their eldest son, was born in Naples'. So he was born in Naples, but his family is from Geneva (where it all began for Mary with that teenage nightmare at the Villa Diodati) and that is where he has spent most of his life.

He does go to university in Ingolstadt in Bavaria and that is where he creates the monster, but when the monster escapes into the countryside, it is a family of French exiles he happens across. This is where he learns to talk and, presumably, to talk French. Paradise Lost is being read in the cottage - but then so is Goethe's The Sorrows of Werther. It is not made clear whether these texts are translated or not, but when the creature meets Frankenstein on the alpine glacier, French seems the most likely language for that conversation.

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