Excerpt from The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

A Novel

by Peter Ackroyd

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2009, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2010, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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"I also have a solar microscope."

"Do you? Did you hear that, Hogg?"

"I have been studying the corpuscles of life."

"And where have you found them?"

"In the water of the glaciers. In my own blood. The world is full of energy."

"Bravo!" He had become very eager, and he took my shoulders in a tight grasp. "There is another place where you will find life. In the storm!" I thought that he was about to embrace me, but he released me from his grip. I recognised later that he was curiously, almost unnaturally, sensitive to the very thoughts that passed through my mind. With some people there is no need whatsoever for words. Seeing a slight tremor in my eyes, he would always look away.

"Have you noticed the voltaic battery?" he asked me now. "It recreates the lightning flash. I have been like Isaac Newton. Staring into the light."

Bysshe was openly contemptuous of the regimen of the university, and attended no lectures. I was unsure, in fact, what studies he was meant to be pursuing. To him they did not matter in the slightest. There was one task that we were assigned by rote, that of translating each week an essay from the Spectator into Latin. This he accomplished with the greatest ease, and indeed he could write Latin with as much facility and fluency as he wrote English. He told me that the secret was to imagine himself a Roman orator in the first years of the Republic. This inspired him with such fervour that the words came naturally to him in their proper order. I did not doubt it. His imagination was like the voltaic battery from which lightning issued forth.

We would take long walks in the country outside Oxford, often following the Thames upward past Binsey and Godstow, or downstream to Iffley and its curious twelfth-century church. Bysshe loved the river with a passion I have seldom seen equalled, and would extol its merits over the languid Nile and the turbid Rhine. I had thought him all fire, but there were other elements in his constitution--fluent, pliant, fertile, like the water around us. On these expeditions he would often declaim to me the poetry of Coleridge on the powers of the imagination. "The poet dreams of that which the scientist deems to be impossible," he told me. "Once it is envisaged, then it is made true." He knelt down to examine a small flower, the name of which I did not know. "It is magnificent to aspire beyond the common reach of man."

"In what endeavour?"

"Who knows? Who can tell? The great poets of the past were philosophers or alchemists. Or magicians. They cast off the vesture of the body, and in their pursuits, became pure spirit. Do you know of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus?" I noted them as worthy of study. "We must make a pilgrimage, you and I, to Folly Bridge and worship at the shrine of Roger Bacon. There is a house there said to be his laboratory. Do you know the legend? If a man wiser than Friar Bacon ever walks beside it, then it will collapse and fall. In this city of dunces, it has already stood for six hundred years. Shall we test it? We will walk over the bridge in turn, and see which one of us performs the miracle."

"It was Bacon who created the talking head, was it not?"

"Yes. The head that spoke and said, 'Time is.' Except that it spoke in Latin. It had studied the classical authors. That may account for the spirit of animation."

"But how did the lips move?"

I would put questions to Bysshe, simply to delight in the extravagance of his answers. I am quite convinced that he invented as he talked, but that did not dispel the enchantment. Indeed it contributed to it. I followed his meaning as if it were a firefly glowing in the darkness.

He would often talk to himself, in a low muttered voice. It seemed to be some form of communication with his inward being, but there were some of course who questioned his sanity. "Mad Shelley" was the epithet often used against him. I never saw any sign of madness, unless it be insanity to possess a highly charged and sensitive spirit alert to every delicate change in the atmosphere around him. His eyes would often fill with tears, when his feelings were touched by some generous gesture or by the story of another's misfortune. In that respect, at least, he did not have a common sensibility. He had the temperament of a Rousseau or of a Werther.

Excerpted from The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd Copyright © 2009 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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