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Are you pondering what I’m pondering? – The lost, Icelandic version of “Dracula”

Powers of Darkness – The Lost Version of Dracula, by Valdimar Ásmundsson (author) and H.C. de Roos (translator) (Publisher: Overlook Books; Feb. 7 2017; hardcover; 352 pp.)

This is the Icelandic version of Bram Stoker’s famous Victorian Gothic novel, Dracula. Powers of Darkness, called Makt Myrkranna, “the power of darkness” in Icelandic, was first published on Jan. 13, 1900, by Valdimar Ásmundsson, and translated and republished in English in 2017 by Hans C. de Roos after years of research. In case you are wondering – is it real?, bear in mind that Ásmundsson was real. He was the editor of the newspaper, Fjallkonan (“Mountain King”) in which his novel was first published. So what I am pondering, which you might also be pondering, as “Brain” asked “Pinky”, is whether or not this novel is built around a nice piece of artificial backstory, convincing in every way, but not in the least bit true.

Being the suspicious sort, when I saw it on Amazon I immediately thought of the whoppers of books with “faked contexts” that have been published, for instance, the “Ron Burgundy” autobiography, which looked much like the real thing but was entirely fictional, but intended as a marketing gimmick. Or more famously, the Vinland Map.

A long, complicated backstory

The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation: New Edition by R. A. Skelton (Author), Thomas E. Marston (Author), George D. Painter (Author) (Publisher: Yale University Press; January 24, 1996; hardcover; 368 pp.)

The Vinland Map is a bit of a historical and literary curiosity, and purports to be a fifteenth-century world map with a pre-Columbian depiction of “Vinland”, a section of North America’s coastline southwest of Greenland. Various scientists and historians have commented that the map cannot possibly be authentic due to the age of the paper, or the ink used, or the information in it, etc. Conversely, others say it is absolutely the real thing and shows the movement of land masses and migrations of people in the 1400s. Yale University announced the Vinland Map’s existence in 1965 and published a scholarly book about it by Yale librarians and curators at the British Museum. The map, if genuine, would have shown that Norsemen were the first Europeans to reach the New World, landing in North America centuries before Christopher Columbus. If not, well, it is an interesting fake.

And even more juicily, there are the Hitler Diaries, (German: “Hitler-Tagebücher”), sixty (!) volumes of journals purportedly written by Adolf Hitler, but forged by Konrad Kujau between 1981 and 1983. The diaries were purchased in 1983 for 9.3 million Deutsche Marks (£2.33 million or $3.7 million) by the West German news magazine Stern, but almost immediately, forensic analysis confirmed that the diaries were fakes. Massive oops.

The story behind the book

So, back to Powers of Darkness. Makt Myrkranna first appeared in Ásmundsson’s newspaper, and after that was published as a book in August 1901. (He died in April 1902.) The reception was generally positive but the book sank without fanfare. The manuscript subsequently had many different owners and in 2002, it was bought at auction by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. De Roos’ involvement with the book, making sense of the notes and the versions, and translating it,  started in 1995, and finished in Munich in 2016. Reading through the Foreword by Dacre Stoker, the great-grand nephew of Bram Stoker no less (and someone who got a bit of fame from his association with Dracula’s creator), and the copious footnotes, and the fifty-some-page background, I can say that, if De Roos and his team of Linguistics experts made this up, they did a jolly good job of it. It all rings true, backwards and forwards, cross-references, theories, proofs, writing style and all.

The fact that this novel exists, and is in many respects very different from the original novel, is because firstly, Stoker himself had not over-emphasized the licentious aspects of his novel, leaving open the option of reinterpretation.

“[The 1897 letter from Stoker to the former British Prime Minister William Gladstone] reveals precious little about Stoker’s personal thoughts about his work, except that he hoped it would ‘cleanse the mind by pity and terror.’” (Foreword, p. 4)

Secondly,  due to legal loopholes, other authors took to translating Dracula after it became a success, taking liberties with the story. Stoker himself worked with Ásmundsson to translate the work, since that legal loophole meant he could.

“Bram’s 1897 agreement with Archibald Constable, the publisher of Dracula, ‘does not include any place or country other than the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dependencies (Canada being excepted from such British Dependencies), and the said Author shall be free to licence others than the said Publishers to publish the said work…’ with no specific mention of translations. The Stoker family no longer has copies of Bram’s publishing contracts, but Bram’s agreement with Archibald Constable clearly left him [Stoker] free to sell Dracula – or any version of Dracula – for translation.” (Foreword, pp. 4-5)

A creation, not just a translation

What started out as a translation, ended up being something very different from the original: a work of fiction in its own right.

De Roos and his team compared the meaning, the intent and the author’s poetic licence of almost every word in the book, with the original. There are a whopping 325 detailed footnotes. In terms of everything that is crucial, the work differs from the original. There are obvious differences too – such as the names of the characters. It’s definitely rougher and more visceral.

The original 525-page manuscript by Ásmundsson was called The Un-Dead, and it seems to me to be a more appropriate title. Of course, due to depictions in every medium available, the whole “vampire” concept has developed into a mythology all its own, with rules and regulations, mores and philosophies. Whatever the reader had visualized before starting this novel, ends up changed.

Ásmundsson’s writing style, his typically Icelandic word choices and metaphors, and the way he interpreted Stoker’s words, giving them a different tone and subtly different meanings, led to the creation of a different kind of “Dracula”, and a different kind of hero, “Thomas Harker” (“Jonathan Harker” in the original).

With the translation from end-of-the-19th-century Icelandic into its equivalent in English, De Roos and his team added yet more dimensions and nuances to the text, taking the book even further away from Bram Stoker’s version. It is inevitable when doing translation that there is a balancing act between translation that meets the criterion of grammatical fidelity (“faithfulness” or “directness”), and translation that meets the criterion of transparency or matching the tone and style of the writing (“idiomatic” translation). You can see from the footnotes the debates that De Roos and his team got into about the direct translation options versus the idiomatic options of words and phrases. When translating literature, the translator is very much a co- or re-creator of the work. The translated work can only be as good as the translator.

In this novel, gone is “Count Dracula” with his elegant evening wear, his groomed appearance, down to his shining fangs, his red-silk-lined cloak, his cultivated manner and his terrible “bleh-de-bleh-bleh” accented English.

This Dracula is animal-like (scratching and licking), pretentious, lecherous, sniggering and plainly in it for the violence and the money, not the blood-sucking. But his English is nearly flawless.

“He was tall and old with white hair and a long, white moustache. He, too, was wearing some kind of folk costume, dark and trimmed with galloons. He held an old silver lamp in his hand, and even before I had reached the top of the staircase, he greeted me very politely in fluent, slightly accented English, saying, ‘Welcome to my house! Enter freely and merrily.’” (p.86)

He is literally un-dead, not just sleeping during the daytime, and his threat is not to people’s arteries but to their morals. And it is for that, that he gets his comeuppance.

“It had become clear that a conspiracy had been formed to thwart all that is good in society, and that there was but one man responsible for all this: Count Dracula. This Count was – as folklore imagined certain creatures to be – half-man and half-animal, and had probably lived much longer than mortal men were meant to. Van Helsing explained that such beings were endowed with powers and qualities normal people do not know, but were denied other faculties common to ordinary humans.” (The Conspiracy, p.285)

The origins of the Gothic Horror Novel

Now, gentle readers, stop reading if you are offended by talk of sex.

The literary trend to write about vampires, and the association of sex and the drinking of blood with everlasting life, started, I think, with Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (2 June 1740 – 2 December 1814), a writer who became famous for his libertine sexuality. De Sade, as a revolutionary (and also a member of the nobility dead set against the church and its morality), decided to write – very badly I might add – the most outrageous stuff he could think of in order to be blasphemous and outrage the church. (Source: At Home with the Marquis de Sade – A Life, by Francine du Plessix Gray, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998)

One of the more clinical and academic analyses of the Marquis de Sade, by Francine du Plessix Gray, 1998. It is more interesting reading than the novels written by the Marquis.

Of course, he was also a complete nutter and a pervert, but some think that his anti-establishment tactics may have had merit. In any case, there are strong similarities between the work of De Sade, and the Gothic Horror genre, including sex and sadism. Today, it is mulled over, but rarely expressed, that all that blood-sucking going on in the Twilight Saga, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1976–2003), the Carmilla web series, and so on, is actually a metaphor for having sex as an antidote to death.

From De Sade’s famously bad novels and short stories (they are just unreadably boring), an entire genre of dramatic lust and horror developed, and Stoker’s Dracula was a restrained part of this. “Restrained?” you say. Yes – just a few heaving bosoms, tender white necks, and some jumping from coffins. Nothing too ribald. Remember, Stoker lived in the Victorian era.

Much more beastly than the original

This novel, on the other hand, is decidedly ribald. When “Lucia Westeros”, the friend of our hero “Thomas Harker” and his fiancée, “Wilma”, decides to walk in her sleep to her phantom lover, Dracula, she looks, indeed, acts, as though she is well turned on. Lucia Westeros is no innocent little blossom.

“She had a very kind and amusing manner, but there was also a vain side to her, and she particularly wanted men to fancy her. […] Lucia was also of a rather frail constitution, as she had unusually sensitive feelings and, ever since she was a child, tended to walk in her sleep, which was blamed on her father being promiscuous.” (Lucia Westeros, p. 243)

“The following night, Wilma was awakened when Lucia climbed from her bed and stepped to the window. She pulled the curtains aside and stood in front of the window in her undergarments, her hair blowing in the wind, saying, ‘I come, I come, but the door is locked.’ At that moment, she tried to throw herself through the window, but Wilma had arrived by her side just in time and put her arms around her friend, pulling her back to bed. Lucia didn’t calm down for a long time. She couldn’t sleep and muttered time and time again, ’I wonder what he wanted from me’” (Baron Székely, p.250)

And those female vampires who chase after the blood of our hero in movies? In this novel there is just one, but what a woman! Harker is so distracted by his desire for her he keeps detailed notes about her in his diary which is meant for his fiancée to read – and occasionally has to put his pen down and take the equivalent of a cold shower.

“Lightning struck again, and I saw her face right next to mine; she stared straight into my eyes, her lips parted. I saw the necklace around her neck, which was bare right down to her bosom. I could see that she’d sank [sic] down on her knees by the bench on which I sat. […] I could still feel her soft feminine arms wrap around me; her breath on my face and her lips pressing on my throat.” (p.167)

The castle is not picturesque, like in the film Hotel Transylvania. It smells bad, has tortuous tunnels and weird architecture, and is locked like a fortress. The location, high in the Carpathian Mountains, is as cold, isolated, sparsely populated and foggy as Iceland itself. And the people, from the cook to the villagers and coachmen, are tough old peasants who have somehow survived the Count and his minions, like Icelanders survived rule by Denmark. Sorry, Denmark, for the allusion. This is not about a lifestyle of elegant dissipation – this is rough and ready animalistic passion, Icelandic style, at the sunset of the 19th century.

On the whole, it is fun to read – it really gallops along and, just like a good horror story, made me want to keep the lights on. Just in case. You never know.


Postscript

The translators, even though they apparently edited for ages, still left in some typos. On p. 126, Dracula responds by saying “You must be kidding”. The word “kidding” had not come into common use as meaning “joking” or “pulling my leg”, until the middle of the 20th century. In 1900, it scarcely existed, as the Google Ngram shows. And, as in the quote, above, the past participle of “sink” is “sunk”, not “sank”. But, despite little things like that, visible only to a nitpicking reader like me, the book is very lovely to hold and definitely a high-end product.

Project website:

www.powersofdarkness.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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