Skip to main content

Once on this island

Island literature is so wonderfully stagey. Like the murder in the English village, the island is a self-contained playground for certain fantasies to run wild, and for certain conceits to be explored. I wonder who first discovered the island as the fertile ground to explore themes of civilization and degeneration? For characters to perform as a microcosm (a word I learned when reading Lord of the Flies) for society.

I traced my way to The Island of Dr. Moreau backwards: from LOST, to Bioy Casares’ Invention of Morel, to a lecture on mad doctors and vivisection (from which I learned the term apophane, or, cutting the vocal chords of an animal so that the vivisector will not be bothered by the sounds of pain by the subject under the knife), to a Penguin Classic picked up in George’s best used bookstore.

It was an unnerving and unsafe read: chanting beast-people and scientists with questionable ethics are the only companions this narrator can expect to have on a mysterious island after being rescued from a shipwreck. Moreau, a white-haired scientist who wants to transform his animal subjects into people by his knife and instruction, is attended by Montgomery, a doctor who has taken to drink and is sympathetic to the beast-people.

Prendick, the narrator, sees the beast-people exhibiting worrying signs of atavism, and the reader understands that Moreau only has the upper hand for now. Prendick is unlikeable: his lack of sympathy for the beast-people (and his despising Montgomery for his sympathy) and their animal regression demonstrates a repression and self-loathing. The beast-people are uncomfortably like him, but he is clear to emphasize their otherness. Prendick’s initial vague descriptions of the beast-people as black faced, misshapen servants wearing excited animal expressions easily mirrors the interplay of colonizer and colonized.

For Prendick, the most terrifying discovery of his narrative is how much his own civilization mirrors the beast-people’s society, how much their decay might be our own. The most uneasy part of the narrative for me was the cries of the puma in the room next to Prendick’s as she is being remade. (Moreau does not here make use of apophane.) The day after reading this I went to a craft fair and when a giant Rottweiler happily brushed by, I was unable to stop thinking about what monstrosity Moreau would have turned the dog into, and what sounds it would have made.

Comments

Annie said…
Not, I think, a book I would want to read, but nevertheless thank you for the point you make about island books. It isn't something I've thought about before and now I shall be looking out for other examples.
Ian Wolcott said…
The Last chapter of Island of Doctor Moreau, I recall, gave me the chills. I felt uncomfortable walking in crowded public spaces for a while.

Another island book: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by GB Edwards, set on Guernsey. That was probably the best book I read in 2009.

Another really wonderful island book: Mervyn Peake's Mr Pye, which is set on Sark (it's all about the Channel Islands, apparently). It's hard to find in the US, but perhaps more readily obtained in the UK. If you haven't read it yet, save it for a day when you need a break and a laugh. And have plenty of tea on hand. Pure bliss.
Thanks for the suggestion, Ian. I've seen the NYRB around - must keep my eye out for it. C
The Edwards, that is. And will also watch out for the Peake. (He did Gormenghast, didn't he?)
Ian Wolcott said…
Yes, same Peake, but a very different book. His children's book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor is great too, but very hard to find in the US.
Annie Tietje said…
I have read the first few chapters, and it raises all the hair on the back of my neck. I couldn't continue. My love for animals made me put the book down. I'm sure if I had read the puma scene I would have been in tears.

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…