Friday, August 20, 2010

Love! Vengeance! Murder! : Reviewing "Zastrozzi, A Romance"

Title: Zastrozzi, A Romance
Author: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Reader: Martin Geeson
Genre: Gothic Horror
Length: 5 hours and 16 minutes
Location: Recording hosted by Librivox. It is in the public domain.
Final Verdict: 1 out of 5

I have been listening to the Librivox recording of Percy Bysshe Shelley's gothic story, Zastrozzi, on and off for about four months. It isn't War and Peace and it isn't Les Miserables - it's a five hour novella that is neither as dense nor as intellectually demanding as the aforementioned pair. As a consequence, I never felt quite right about taking so long to finally set the novella aside. But there it is. The performance is excellent... but the story is painful. I came to dread seeing the title of Zastrozzi on my iPod screen, and from there arrived at my decision: I couldn't finish it, no matter how many reasons I had for doing so.

I wavered over finally putting aside this novella for four reasons:

1) It was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I loved his poetry when I was younger, and though I've fallen out of the habit of reading it (or any kind of poem - I regret the absence of that old, deliciously romantic (as in Romantic!) poetry in my life), his name on a work of literature will still make me pick it up.

2) It was Percy Bysshe Shelley juvenilia. I love the idea of an author's juvenilia; I'm in the process of reading all of Charlotte Bronte's adolescent fiction, written before her first published novel, The Professor. 

3) It's Gothic literature. Though my relationship with that genre is of a bafflingly love-hate kind, I still count it as my favourite genre, in that I WILL read it, even if I end up hating the book and ranting about my hatred into the silence of the Internet.

And 4) the performance of the reader, Martin Geeson, riveted me. Geeson reads with such hearty enthusiasm, as if he were performing Shakespeare on some Elizabethan stage, and gives the recording a sense of irony that made Zastrozzi feel like the parody of gothic novel (might I venture, in the vein of Thomas Love Peacock? Who is one of the hundreds of authors on the top of my TBR list, x3). I really enjoyed Geeson's voice, and how it transformed Zastrozzi from straight Gothic in a satirical drama - as though the novella took itself with good humour, and mocked its excesses with clear sighted vision.

But in the end - alas! - I could not finish the story itself. It's excessive - such weeping and moaning and clashing of teeth! - and irredeemably solemn about its excess. For all its thrilling going-ons (kidnap! murder! death beds!), Zastrozzi is dull, full of repetitions, and silly (each character revolves around a single trait: vengeance, unrequited love, or grief ). I've read that readers can gain a sense of the brilliant poet Shelley was to become; however, I found that the bathos of Shelley's characters and situations, and the melodrama of his style, drowned any sense of Shelley's developed (or developing) brilliance. I sometimes felt as if I had missed a "Part One" somewhere - Zastrozzi leaps into his vengeance without explanation, and the scene is already so developed - enemies made and rivalries unfolding - that I felt lost and strange.

All in all, Martin Geeson's performance is deletable, and I anticipate finding any other recordings that he has done. But as for Shelley... I don't mean to read another word of his gothic Juvenilia.

:: eyes the sequel of Zastrozzi, as found at the Australian Gutenberg Project ::

Or at least, not at the moment.

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