Milkweed

A one-star review of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man runs: Horrible. . .Frankenstein is my fav novel of all time. The last man is the worst book i ever read. Waste of time

This says a lot, and speaks directly to why I undertook my current literary project. Yes, the novel is a hard trial to read at (many) points. But I find zero problems a dedicated editor can’t fix. The plot is the work of an expert novelist and very exciting, when you get down to it. Stripped of certain language difficulties, the pace is rapid from the start and turns relentless in the second half. Obviously the basic outlines are grim: at the end of a global pandemic, a writer is the only person left alive on Earth. Mary Shelley packs the story with romance, enriches it with infidelity, complicates it with travelogue; she throws in battlefield scenes, Mozart, a country fair, political theory, steamships. She consistently comes up with events that shock and surprise. Her dialogue has point.

Finally, her singular fictionalized portraits of the recently departed “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron, and the equally dead, possibly madder Percy Bysshe Shelley—one a close acquaintance, the other a husband: here, where his grieving widow crossed the line into roman à clef, we get close to eye-witnessing history.

Fakahatchee Grass; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

As I edit and revise the text line by line, my goal is to make every original strength more transparent to modern readers—to make it easier to see, for instance, the real affinities with Frankenstein, another tale of adventure and philosophical horror. I update old locutions that might act as stumbling blocks to present-day ears. I add contractions and possessives; I make Mankind and the like more inclusive. I give context, translate, or cut quotations and references as I judge each case merits. I sharpen visual details for readers raised on camera images. Mary Shelley has a different eye from ours, trained in a world dominated by the printing press. She lived long enough to have seen photographs (though she never sat for one, unfortunately) but that would have been years after she published The Last Man, set in a future which includes nothing of the kind.

This concern to heighten the visual content of the book, obviously carries over into thelastman.blog, where each serialized installment gets a separate illustrated post. As I’ve written before, I rejoice at the dizzying abundance of material that’s been made available on-line for all with an internet connection to experience. I spend many happy hours scrolling through digitized books and search results to find the right images to match particular chapters—and then linking back to their sources, for the curious. One hope is to inspire more curiosity at every turn.

Though I would dread exchanging my city rental apartment for the headaches of property ownership, I would love a yard to fill with native plants. Instead, I’ve planted this page with images of the National Audubon Society’s recommendations for one in my coastal plain zip code. I was very taken recently with a story they published about how the Swiss ambassador in Washington, DC has set about transforming the embassy grounds from what looked like a golf course into a native plant preserve and oasis for wildlife.

Reading this ambassador’s story, I recognized a kindred spirit. I think what I’m doing lately, with The Last Man, is a lot like what he’s after on that embassy property—to remedy a neglect that’s left it mildly picturesque but fundamentally barren, so much less welcoming a place for wild beings in transit than it could and should be. Of the two, the book might be in worse condition than a pesticide-deadened lawn. Time has laid asphalt over it. The readers come, not in great numbers but constantly. They look for that good Frankenstein food for the mind—they read—they leave disappointed (“Waste of time”). So I labor away at this natural literary gardening project; one hope is to see The Last Man nourish free-ranging readers, where they might have gone away hungry from it before.

Black-eyed Susan in a colony of flowering plants; Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s