Late Summer Update | National Book Prize & Encore

A couple of updates while I hack away at yet more deadlines while trying to squeeze in creative work, as per this, earlier, mini-essay on the travails of cramming in too much work out of necessity, but against the interests of what we can very loosely call ‘the soul’.

While the summer continues its sweaty churn without wanting to give us any respite — though thankfully, our sojourn in Helsinki seems to have spared us the worst of it — a couple of happy developments have snuck their way into the pigeon-hole of life, much like the rare but welcome evening breeze that sometimes visits us during these meterologically trying times.

Here they are.

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello is up for the National Book Prize!

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For all its deadline-based hardship, this past year has also come with a number of fun commissions. Perhaps chief of them was being asked to contribute to Awguri, Giovanni Bonello — a festschrift in honour of Judge Giovanni Bonello turning eighty, and which was made up of a collection of historical fiction inspired by Bonello’s own forays into micro-history.

It was a sandbox I got lucky with, as my corner turned out to be a delightfully sordid and sensational one. Caterina Vitale was my subject — an ‘industrial prostitute’ who took over her husband’s pharmaceutical business soon after his death, and who is said to have used her erotic advances as a way to extract handy information from well-placed Knights of the Order of St John.

So of course, I went to town with it and turned it into a vampire story. ‘Bellicam machinam vulgo petart appellatam’ — not the snappiest of titles, I must admit — was great fun to write, especially since the subject matter gave me license to employ a highfalutin’ literary style that apes the Gothic tradition in more ways than one.

Complemented by sharp-and-pretty illustrations from Marisa Attard, the bilingual collection is a solid representation of where Maltese writing is right now. The eclectic roll-call of writers, summoned to respond to intriguing prompts, also suggests that more of such anthologies may be a good way forward for the local publishing scene.

I think we just may have a shot at this prize.

Editing Encore Magazine!

Encore

Another exciting development is the news that, as of its 11th issue, I will be serving as editor for Encore Magazine — a quarterly publication dealing with arts and culture on the Maltese Islands.

While having served as the Culture Editor for MaltaToday for some years now — a post that I will continue to occupy week-in, week-out, I hasted to add — I also look forward to building on what Encore’s previous editor — my dear friend Veronica Stivala — established with the previous ten issues of the beautifully designed and put together magazine.

One of the main things I’m looking forward to with this particular project is being able to get out of the weekly grind when planning and writing articles. I’ve already been contributing to Encore for a few months now, and already the one-month deadline to pen a piece which, partly by dint of its quarterly publishing schedule, does not require one to be limited by micro-topical happenings, was something of a relief.

Coupled with always maintaining an international perspective on things — while always using the Maltese scene as a starting point — I hope we can continue to give the local cultural scene a good dose of ‘slow journalism’.

Because acceleration is the last thing we need right now.

 

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon | Introduction

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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But first, kindly indulge me in a bit of a personal reverie on what made me fall in love with Mary Shelley’s seminal novel in the first place…

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favourite novels of all time. I guess this isn’t particularly unique – what with the book being the source of one of the most perennial features of multimedia pop culture since the beginning of the 20th century – but that doesn’t of course take away from the intense love I have for the original novel.

It’s not a childhood favourite, either: I first decided to finally tick it off my virtual to-read pile for a very functional reason. I was in the final year of my Bachelor’s course in English Lit at the local Uni, and one of the elective courses I chose that year was ‘Literature and Technology’, taught by the inimitable Prof Ivan Callus, and which had Frankenstein as a required text for obvious reasons.

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

My social life at Uni was at its highest ebb at the time, but so were degrees of academic stress – what with a dissertation to complete and synoptic exams to cram for – but despite all this, I decided to put everything aside and check out the austere Everyman edition of Shelley’s groundbreaking, genre-creating work from the University of Malta library and finish it asap.

I guess I expected it to be fun-by-accident, and stylistically creaky in a similar way to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose essence – in my humble opinion – was improved and made far cooler by subsequent iterations. In other words, I suppose I was expecting to find an old-timey version of all the things that have made Frankenstein great for generations to come.

But actually, I ended up being humbled by a novel whose raw power was undeniable. She wrote this when she was nineteen! I kept saying to myself in disbelief, but there was also something peculiarly appropriate to this fact. Far from being creaky, it moves at a breakneck (if pained) pace – the work of a young woman trying desperately to give shape to the confusing mess that life can sometimes be.

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)

Despite the fact that – much like its central Creature – the novel mashes together various preoccupations (the scientist’s hubris, motherhood, absent fathers and the inability to function in the world as a context-less outcast), it also felt like a barely-edited transcription of a fever dream. Which is even more surprising given how the story is stacked together against various frame narratives – a gradual build-up with a shifting POV that immerses you deeper and deeper into, instead of alienating you from the story.

(It always saddens me to think just how outmoded this style of storytelling has become… how easily we would dismiss a novel that tries this nowadays as being ‘long-winded’ and/or accuse it of ‘taking ages to get going’.)

Thankfully, even if its pop culture counterparts sometimes loom larger – like Karloff’s original Hollywood creature – than the reputation of Shelley’s own novel (I wonder how many people familiar with the Frankenstein name even know there is a book), it’s heartening to know that Shelley is in fact getting respects from the quarters who matter. The legacy of this, her first novel, has been discussed and celebrated ad infinitum for various reasons, and I won’t get into that now.

Despite the fact that – much like its central Creature – the novel mashes together various preoccupations, it also felt like a barely-edited transcription of a fever dream

Suffice it to say that it was great to hear that Word Horde, one of my favourite indie presses, has decided to dedicate an anthology to Shelley’s influential novel, amassing an army of some of the best writers working in the genres that same book has helped give rise to.

I look forward to reading and reviewing each of the stories, as I’m fairly confident that all of the 16 writers whose short fiction makes up the contents of Eternal Frankenstein has felt a similar electric charge as I have when first experiencing Mary Shelley’s work.

Because after all, it is a charge that has run through my own fiction too. My debut novel, Two, contains a somewhat hidden but nonetheless deeply embedded debt to Shelley… and I’m confident that anything else I write in the future will contain at least a shred of Frankenstein’s legacy in one way or another.

So, despite it not being a dreary November night, I look forward to unleashing my little micro-creations (aka mini-reviews) into the world very, very soon.

I hope you enjoy them too.

Watch this space.