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Book Review

A Faustian Bargain for Literary Acclaim

THE MERCIFUL WOMEN By Federico Andahazi; Translated from the Spanish by Alberto Manguel;Grove Press $22, 192 pages

October 24, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1815, an Indonesian volcano, Mt. Tambora, blew its top, killing 50,000 people and shrouding the atmosphere worldwide with dust and ash. All the West knew was that 1816 was eerily, frighteningly cold. In Boston, snow fell in each of the 12 months. In Switzerland, miserable summer weather forced a group of English literati to stay indoors and darkened their mood sufficiently to induce the birth, or one of the births, of the gothic novel.

It was a scandalous household that occupied the Villa Diodati on Lake Leman near Geneva: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who had eloped with Shelley) and her stepsister, Jane Clairmont, (who was sleeping with Byron). Yet in Argentine novelist Federico Andahazi's "forgotten and invented history" of that summer, the loosest cannon of all was Byron's secretary and physician, John William Polidori.

Andahazi ("The Anatomist") describes Polidori (1795-1821) as a ridiculous little man who is acutely aware of his ridiculousness. Sensitive to every slight--Byron's nickname for him is "Pollydolly"--Polidori at one point jumps out of a third-story window, only to splash harmlessly into the mud below. He is insanely envious of his companions' aristocratic ease and literary talent. He is willing to sell his soul to be the author of one good poem or story.

And, because Andahazi has equipped this brief, satiric novel with all the apparatus of the gothic genre, a taker for Polidori's soul isn't hard to find. Mysterious black envelopes appear in his bedroom. The letters they contain are from Annette Legrand, the deformed, hidden third member of a set of triplets. The other two, Colette and Babette, were beauties in their time but now are hags. Which poses a problem: Just as vampires need to drink blood to live, the Legrand sisters need regular drafts of another vital fluid.

What the beauties used to obtain easily with their charms, Annette is forced to bargain for with the sisters' only remaining asset: her skill as a writer. She has picked up this ability through decades of burrowing through the libraries and publishing houses of Paris, gnawing at books like the rats she resembles. She strikes a Faustian deal with Polidori: If he gives her what she needs (aided by opium hallucinations that mask her ugliness), she will write a story for him.

"Was it not true," he rationalizes, "that literary works are the children of their authors? Why then not agree that he was the father of these pages, since he had literally spent his seed to give life to each of these fictional characters?"

Polidori persists in this project even after the bodies of murdered men turn up in the neighborhood--proof to him, if to nobody else, that the Legrand sisters are dangerous. Literary fame seems worth any risk. When Byron and the rest organize a contest among themselves for the best supernatural tale--inspiring Mary Shelley to write "Frankenstein"--Polidori, though uninvited, decides to compete.

His tale, "The Vampyre," does impress his betters, and blazes a trail that the Bram Stokers and Anne Rices of the future will follow. But what is the poor fellow to do for an encore? He proposes a "secret marriage" to Annette to ensure continued production, and she scorns him: "It is the devil who chooses the souls he wishes to buy."

What the desperate Polidori does then--and what he learns, or thinks he learns, about the muse who guides even the most celebrated writers, such as Byron and Pushkin--is the point of Andahazi's story. It's a joke, despite the portentous language and the pity we occasionally feel for Polidori. Is it a joke worth nearly 200 pages? Yes, if you're bookish yourself and able to laugh at bookishness; otherwise, "The Merciful Women" may be heavy going.

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