The monster reveal’d

Issue 1/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Frankensteinin muistikirja (‘Frankenstein’s notebook’, Kirjayhtymä, 1996). Ern(e)st Hemingway and Gertrud(e) Stein – the narrator in these extracts – meet the famous creature in Paris. According to Juha K. Tapio in this, his first novel, Mary Shelley’s monster has been leading an interesting life during the past few centuries

My first impression was that there wasn’t anything particularly monstrous about him. I have already said that his age was hard to determine, but there was something about him that tempted one to apply the word ‘elderly’ to him. He was up in years, no doubt about that, but in a rather special, indefinable way – which made it hard to infer, at least from his outward appearance, what stage he had reached in terms of normal human life. It had to do with something outside of time. He was tall and a little more raw-boned than the average person, and this made one wonder, looking at him, what kind of body his very fashionable clothing concealed his suit and tie conformed to the latest style. This was certainly not the misshapen and monstrous creature I vividly remembered from Mary Shelley’s description.

It was obvious that the past decades had brought about an inevitable evolution.

‘Hello there, Hem,’ Frank Stein said. He and Hemingway shook hands in a cordial fashion. ‘And welcome, Miss Stein,’ the creature continued in his deep, resonant voice. ‘What a great pleasure it is to meet you, at long last. Ernst has told me so much about you and your works. And I have heard that Picasso has painted a most impressive portrait of you. Surely that wasn’t an unfounded rumor?’

I took Frank Stein’s outstretched hand in mine, noticing the large diamond ring that adorned the ring finger of his left hand. It wasn’t the only ring on his hands. His handshake in response to mine was warm and firm. To my secret relief, he did not indulge in excessive chivalry, did not raise my hand to his lips to kiss the back of it in some exaggeratedly romantic manner (for some reason, I had entertained the notion that this might happen).

‘No, it wasn’t,’ I said, and nodded. It was a portrait of me, not of me as I am, but as I will undoubtedly in the fullness of time; a compliment rather typical of Pablo.

‘I have read some of your works,’ Frank Stein continued. ‘Such beauty, such simplicity! A rose is a rose is a rose, yes, indeed …’

The flattery did not impress me; if it had some ulterior purpose or meaning, I would find out soon enough.

After we had been invited to have a seat in comfortable armchairs in the small, but pleasantly furnished drawing room, and had exchanged the customary polite remarks to break the ice, I glanced around me to gain a better impression of our surroundings.

Although it was clearly quite large, the apartment did not appear particularly grand or spacious. The drawing room was crowded with furniture, as if our host, after years of itinerant existence, had made an effort to avoid any empty space between objects, in order to establish firmer ties to reality in this manner. As a result, the apartment felt quite intimate. The tables and chairs were of dark wood and showed the occasional sign of wear and tear. The most prominent feature of the room, however, was a big bookcase containing a multitude of special and even rare volumes. Its contents were truly a collector’s treasure trove, works vying with each other in rarity from almost every conceivable area of human knowledge, among them an enviable collection of old leather-bound classics. In addition to well-preserved volumes by the previous century’s Romantics, there was also a remarkable set of works by the eighteenth century’s Gothic novelists, books by ‘Monk’ Lewis, Walpole, and Miss Radcliffe, and all of Mary Shelley’s published works. Altogether, the contents of this bookcase were an impressive testimonial to the fact that Frank Stein had made a thorough study of his native period’s cultural atmosphere.

This wealth of literature must have impressed Ernst, in whose opinion assiduous reading was of vital importance to a writer’s career.

I had heard that one of the objects in the room was particularly dear to its owner: an old clock that looked like a church steeple, its wooden case skillfully hand-carved by Swiss masters. At regular intervals, it showed a procession representing the passage of time: Death, waving his scythe, followed by figures depicting the four ages of human life – just as on its medieval models. The procession took place on the hour, and during that visit, it delighted our eyes three times. It was a peculiar memento mori for a creature that had, presumably, vanquished death.

There were many more clocks and hourglasses, many of them old and decorative, and a couple of those automatons the nineteenth century found so fascinating, in full working order. One of them was a small box theater showing a circus with acrobats, clowns, strongmen and musicians (even an animal tamer, armed with whip and stool, in a cage with a tigress); the other was a pirouetting ballet dancer who moved her tiny hands above her head in time to her graceful turns. Stein seemed almost obsessed by these toys, clocks, and similar objects. Come to think of it, they weren’t mere toys, those almost-perfect animated machines. So, why not? They were charming, and it is a pity that the likes of them are hardly manufactured anymore. In those past, happier times, even machines were made beautiful; in our mechanized age of mass production, such charm has supposedly become redundant …. Our factories stink, and no one could call their great machines beautiful – perhaps with the exception of motor cars. Motor cars can be quite nice.

Are you really immortal? I could taste the bittersweetness of that question. For the time being, I kept it to myself, enjoying it like a cough drop.

‘So you have taken a look at my memoirs?’ asked Mr Stein. He spoke good English, with a slight French accent in which one could also hear traces and nuances from other European tongues.

I nodded. ‘I certainly have. I have read every word. They are quite remarkable. Mr Stein. Not to say exceptional.’

Frank Stein sighed.

‘Quite remarkable, yes, I have to admit that. There are times when it seems to me 1 don’t even know, myself, how much of it all is a dream, how much of it is true. It’s as if I had lived my life up to now in some kind of frenzy or ecstasy. I must have been like one of those Romantic seekers with whom Byron and Shelley populated their long poems. In that respect, my story is quite an ironic reflection of the fate of my creator, Victor Frankenstein. But the more time I spend here in Paris, the more temporal distance I gain from all those past events … the more dreamlike and remote it all seems.’

Stein waved his hand as if to wipe away his past.

‘I know that my name is Frank Stein – I gave it to myself and I know that this is the present… and that this place is known as Paris. Those seem to be the only things that seem at all significant anymore.’

Then he asked Hemingway how his writing was going, and the latter replied that he was working on a novel, his first one, but that he wasn’t making much progress on it – which was indeed true, he had been more successful with his short stories (‘the German magazines are buying them by the dozen, I couldn’t tell you why … and they pay, quite handsomely, too’). He cleared his throat as if he had encountered a subject he didn’t particularly want to dwell on.

‘I’ve written some poems, too, and I’ve almost finished a novel called Unfamiliar Territory it’s largely based on my newspaper stories, about Spain, and Italy, and the war.’

‘Actually, Miss Stein,’ Frank Stein said abruptly, turning toward me, ‘I had the temerity to try to contact you a couple of weeks ago. I called to arrange a visit in your store: you may remember that 1 was looking for certain old editions of Poe and Nerval, among other things. But then some other, more urgent business intervened and kept me from keeping the appointment.’

He smiled, almost apologetically.

‘Now I don’t need to pretend anymore ….’

‘Oh, I see,’ I said. ‘You are that Mr Stone.’ I remembered an ‘important customer’ from a few weeks ago who never showed up’.

‘Why did you use a pseudonym?’

Stein waved his hand again.

‘A name is a name is a name. Picasso. Braque. Duchamp. Hemingstein. What’s so great about a name? Some names sound more familiar, or famous, or important than others …. But only because the persons using them have achieved something exceptional or worthy of note. Stone – Stein. In other languages, I could call myself other things: Sten, Pierre, Roche, perhaps even Rochefort. … Mr Pebble might be really sweet.’ Stein chuckled.

I nodded; names were not important, they were not our true being. Actions were decisive; actions, and the choices we made. We are verbs, not nouns ….

Ernst smiled in a curiously sweet and sour fashion:

‘You just said “Hemingstein”.’

‘I did?’ Suddenly, Frank Stein looked embarrassed, at a loss.

‘Oh, that doesn’t matter,’ I said. And all three of us burst out laughing.

At last, we had broken the ice.

I thought, this conversation is certainly a pleasant way to pass the time, but I still don’t have any solid proof that this man sitting there is indeed who Ernst claims he is. True, he is tall and rather rustic-looking; face looks as if it had been carved with a hatchet and finished with a chisel. But, so what? I can’t see anything out of the ordinary. A strong jaw, dark, deep-set eyes, a very wide forehead; dense, bushy eyebrows; black, coarse hair, turning a little grey at the temples; a nose like a hawk’s beak. But nothing monstrous, Alice; nothing to make you stop and turn around to take another look if he’d happen to pass you in the street…. Or you just might do so, Alice dear, but you wouldn’t be staring at a monster, but simply let your eyes rest for a moment on a male creature endowed with a curious but by no means repellent physique ….

It was as if Frank Stein had guessed what I was thinking.

‘Miss Stein is getting impatient,’ he said, after our conversation had twisted and turned hither and thither for a while -demonstrating. that he was, for a man his age, quite perceptive.

‘I can see a question in Miss Stein’s eyes: Who is this man? How can I know that he is the person he claims to be? What do you think, Ernst, should I show her the proof?’

Ernst nodded and lit a cigarette. I noticed that there was a slight tremor in his hands. He took a couple of quick puffs from his cigarette, leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, rested the thumb of his right hand against his temple and let the cigarette burn between his fingers. Clearly, what we were about to see wasn’t news to him.

Frank Stein got up and started to disrobe.

First he took off his tie and suit coat and then began steadily to unbutton his shirt with his thick fingers. After the shirt, he took off his shoes and pants, until he stood before us in his underwear. With quiet determination he peeled off his vest and stood there in his boxer shorts. To my secret relief, he did not divest himself of this last article of clothing (even though a peek behind it might have had its own, and not just purely scientific, interest!)

Now he stood before us almost stark naked, and I noticed that I found it hard to avert my gaze from his body. Being a woman, I am not given to false modesty; I don’t find anything objectionable in nudity as such. However, in terms of size and muscularity, the body we were seeing was of a caliber that could easily have caused a mild dizziness, if not a complete fainting fit, in a weaker and less experienced female. And the scars left by the sewing! No wonder if even I blanched a little as I recognized those reddish, but certainly fully healed scar lines for what they were – boundaries of discrete body parts in the human picture puzzle that claimed to be Frankenstein’s monster ….

Did the pieces of that puzzle ever quarrel? Were the body parts gathered from different individuals now living in complete harmony? Had it taken them time to get used to a shared life in the same body, had there been complications? Were there tensions, interior conflicts between the parts of this superhuman body? Questions I hadn’t been able to ponder much when I reached out gently to perhaps touch those scars, those ridges of flesh, healed long ago yet still clearly visible.

‘May I…?’

‘By all means, Miss Stein,’ the creature said. ‘Touch as much as you like.’

My fingertips descended onto the scar tissue that divided his left arm from his torso and followed it across the shoulder to the back, where it disappeared into the armpit. There were similar scars around his neck and on his legs, above the knees and around his abdomen, separating the thighs from the rest of the body (although I knew of the existence of the latter only by hearsay, from Ernst’s report, since modesty prevented Frank from showing them directly). He also had a scar around his right wrist, but none on his left, which brought two things to my mind: first, that Doctor Frankenstein had acquired a whole left am I, and secondly, that this probably was why Frank Stein was left-handed. Later on, Frank confirmed my guess.

It probably goes without saying, but I had never seen anything like this in my whole life.

During my medical studies, I had, of course, observed a whole lot of different scars and wounds, from completely healed ones to fresh ones and everything in between; I had, in fact, seen the full spectrum of physical trauma, but this … this was something from another planet.

As if the scars wouldn’t have been enough all by themselves, I now noticed that his limbs were slightly asymmetrical. His left wrist, for instance, was a little thinner than the right (or was it the other way around? I find that my memory fails me on that point), and there was a similar difference between his legs, one of them being a little shorter than the other. As a result, Frank Stein walked with a slight limp, although he had managed in his later years to control it or to conceal it skillfully, with the assistance of a famous Viennese podiatrist.

Thus I was able to observe with my own eyes that Doctor Frankenstein had done extremely well in his careful choice of necessary body parts and in his magnificent surgical expertise in joining them together.

‘Ernst was right,’ I muttered, sounding slightly shaken, ‘seeing is believing. And now, if you don’t mind… I have to sit down.’

Feeling a little dizzy, I sat down. For the first time since our arrival, I noticed how warm it was in the room. The room itself seemed to rotate a couple of times, with my slightly shaken person at its center. Thus I was grateful when Stein joined us again fully clothed, carrying three glasses on a tray which he placed on a low table in front of us.

I sipped the eau-de-vie and slowly felt strength returning to my limbs.

‘I am sorry,’ Frank Stein said with an apologetic smile, ‘to have upset you. I wasn’t aware …’

‘Don’t mention it,’ I said, emphasizing my words with a wave of my hand. ‘There was no alternative. I had to see those scars. How else could you have proved to me … who you are. I don’t suppose your creator, Doctor Frankenstein, provided you with a birth certificate. Or did he?’

Frank Stein laughed. It was a dry, grating laugh, like the sound of two pieces of sandpaper rubbed together. ‘No, indeed.’ He returned to his chair. ‘He didn’t even give me a name. To him, I was just The Creature. That’s how much he loved me.’

We were back to square one.

Now, as I am writing this, it occurs to me that there is no way I can be one hundred per cent certain that those scars had not been caused by some accident whose damage had been successfully repaired by a top-flight surgeon – but I greatly doubt the likelihood of that. I have never heard of anything like it, not even during the years I spent studying medicine and psychology in Baltimore.

In any case, the exhibition of scars and healed wounds had completely convinced me of the identity of this man who called himself Frank Stein. Doubts, if any, would come later. I had decided to play the game, at least for the time being.

‘So how do you feel about your creator now?’ I wondered. ‘Do you still bear a grudge, or do you regard the whole matter how should I put it? Closed?’

‘Oh, dear Miss Stein,’ Mr Stein said amiably, ‘I did bear a grudge against him for a long time, even past his demise. He had granted me life, a life that one could, in a certain sense, see as superhuman – but without any guarantee of continuity, of my being able to perpetuate my kind. He had given me a singular life but no way to have any offspring.

‘But now I see things a little differently. You see, I have had a great number of sexual experiences in my lifetime. I am not the kind of monster from whose embrace women would flee, screaming – at least, mostly that has not been the case.’ He said this with a little self-satisfied smile, to indicate his sense of still being in command of his masculine faculties.

‘But, you see – I am, indeed, sterile. I do not have any children, I could not have any – and that’s that. In the course of my long life, I have learned to accept that fact. What could I have done about it? Although my mode of creation gave me some characteristics beyond the normal, I lost the ability to sire children as a consequence. My seed is dead. This was established in a simple medical procedure to which I submitted in order to gain absolute certainty in the matter. Well, you can’t have everything, as they say. Maybe I should have continued the life-work of my creator. Perhaps I should have studied medicine to pick up where he left off, to find a cure for this infertility, to – to, God forbid, create a spouse for myself!’

‘Now, this is how I see it: the revenge I took on him consisted simply of my refusal to make that attempt. In my own mind, I denied his genius and did not continue his work, and it didn’t matter to me whether he would have liked me to do so or not, if you see what I mean? In the end, Time has decided in my favor, in more ways than one. I have had to accept that my father’s achievements have been slandered, dragged through the mud, minimized by declaring them imaginary, mere fictions … and I AM ALIVE!’

Toward the end of this outpouring, his voice had taken on a coloration of anger and disgust. Suddenly he lost control of himself. In a fit of rage, he swept a glass off the table and tossed it into the fireplace where it shattered, splashing its contents to form dark stains on the bricks. The flames of the fire leaped up greedily at this unexpected dose of alcoholic fuel.

Later I understood that he had, at that moment, cast his mind back to the time after the break-up of his relationship with his father, a time when his hatred of his maker still was like raw alcohol, not yet diluted by time, burning in his system and causing occasional outbreaks of bestial fury.

I thought about what it might be like to live forever in the hell of one’s own hatred, in a purgatory whose flames consumed oneself as much as anything else.

His own monster nature as much as anything else.

Which one of those two sides of his personality would finally emerge victorious – that nature, or its human counterpart?

. . .

That meeting, which I have just described in, I hope, sufficient detail, was not our only encounter with the peculiar creature calling himself Frank Stein. Ernst and I met Frank a few more times.

. . .

‘So, what next?’ I asked. ‘What are your plans? You can’t just rest on your laurels.’

Frank Stein shrugged his wide shoulders and sighed.

‘Oh, I don’t know. The possibilities do seem limitless. But I am afraid that my age of adventure has come to an end. A kind of emptiness has insinuated itself into my soul, all the more so now that I have finished my memoirs. An emptiness like a black hole, the gaping entrance to a cave – or a like a tumor buried in my innards, devouring the healthy tissue surrounding it … It’s as if, by writing those memoirs, I had also wiped clean the slate of my soul.

‘But that was exactly why I had to write them – to liberate myself from the ballast of the past, to gain a better knowledge of my own history. My own story. Because to know oneself and one’s own past is the key, the necessary means to prevail against the crushing pressure of the world, to transcend its attempt to control us and to thwart our actions. To rise, if you will, above the merely fictional level … Or rather, to rise beyond the fiction…

‘The most important thing to know is that there is no inevitable connection between things in this world, one that would dictate their nature exactly, implying that they can only be as they are, never otherwise (as with words, whose written and sounded form has no organic connection to the things and concepts they refer to words we use every day). We must recognize that everything in existence – including the vague construct called “I” – is after all man-made, artificially constructed, not given from above, but born and defined by certain temporal and local causations. Fundamentally, the world is just an infinite series of coincidences. It is true that the pressure of circumstances can be enormous, and that we often struggle against it in vain; but it is just as important to understand that that’s not all ….’

‘But if everything, as you say, is a fiction,’ I remarked, ‘by which I think you mean that the nature of reality is not absolute, but relative – where, then, can we find ethical guidelines for our actions? If all options are equally good or bad in all possible worlds (as a true philosopher would no doubt express this), then what compass determines our ethical choices? Conscience? If our individual identity is a mere fiction, isn’t our conscience that, too? God? Mr Stein, you have indicated that you don’t believe in the existence of such a creature.’

Frank Stein admitted that this was one of serious problems of his life, one he had pondered much without arriving at any conclusion. He was, however, certain that there was an answer, and he had decided to devote the rest of his life, if need be, to finding out what it was.

‘Another consequence,’ Frank continued, ‘of the fact that there is no firm center of identity, is, that this identity can change. We have been thrown into the world, condemned to absolute freedom. If there were something like a firm, immutable identity, we would be less free….

‘But since we are free to choose between good and evil, why, then, would we not choose the good – or what we, according to our lights at the moment of choice, imagine to be the good? The absence of absolute truth does by no means relieve us of responsibility; on the contrary, it places an even greater and heavier burden of responsibility upon our shoulders. In fact, the lack of an absolute fixed point is what makes individual responsibility possible. It is what makes us, if I may say so, true fictions….’

I admitted that I found this point of view very mature, and told Mr Stein that I was happy (and in some ways relieved) that he had adopted it as a guideline for his actions. Then our host continued, in a more lighthearted manner:

‘For the most part, I have lived off my savings, these past few years. Very recently, I have become interested in betting – Ernst can testify to that.’ This reference to Ernst’s betting habit made the writer squirm a little in his chair while listening to the clink of the ice cubes in his whisky glass. ‘At the funeral home, in Leipzig, I was able to satisfy my creativity, but it was a mortuary creativity, akin to my father’s destructive one.’ (He paused, significantly.) ‘Perhaps I should start creating something of my own – in writing, or painting….’

. . .

Newspaper clipping from The Times, November 21st, 1925

A new mortuary enterprise has opened its doors in East London. Its proprietor, Mr Frank N. Steiner, hopes to cater to clients from all levels of society.

Mr Steiner, who has spent many years as a professional in the field on the Continent, assures us that his business will perform all pertinent services in a reliable and timely fashion. Mr Steiner states that he is particularly pleased with this opportunity to serve the British people – a nation whose artistic and cultural life he has long admired.

The public may view a varied selection of caskets and funeral items at the centrally located offices of the business at 5, Belgrave Crescent.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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