Saturday 5 April 2008

Murnau, Shepard & Nosferatu

Jim Shepard is an American writer who doesn't seem to get anywhere near as much attention as he should in the US, and who seems basically unknown outside of it. Each of his novels is quite unlike the others, sharing only great writing and fine insight into the way people think and feel across various times and places.

Reading his "best-of" collection of short stories, Love and Hydrogen, was almost bewildering. The variety of settings, styles, voices and ideas made the experience akin to reading one of those best-young-American-writers collections, except that:
1. all of the stories were excellent, and
2. all of the stories were by the one writer.

One of his earlier stories, not in that collection, was developed by Shepard into a whole novel, Nosferatu. It's about the life of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the German movie director who brought the movie of that name to the screen. It's amazing, weaving what was evidently a vast amount of research seamlessly into the tale. Murnau's own half-hidden homosexuality and a central act of infidelity are presented as the parasitic vampire attached to his own life, though that heavy-handed explanation does discredit to Shepard's feather-light touch.

The cover of the US hardback first edition (design by Barbara deWilde, published by Knopf) is a fine example of restraint. It uses what I presume is a boyhood picture of Murnau and some well-placed gothic type, and both avoids the obvious and yet cunningly suggests the vampiric theme implicit in the story.

My only criticism is that, in the 'flesh', a close-up look at the cover reveals the dreaded compression artifacts.

The most recent edition, on the other hand, is both obvious and dull.

If they had to use an image from the film, surely something less straightforward could have been just as effective. This simply makes the novel look like one of those throwaway novelisation-of-the-movie books that used to be everywhere before VHS came along.

To finish with, here's Murnau at work during the making of the film.

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