vathek: screwball grotesquerie

guys. guys. this book is WILD.

the whole thing is basically a sublime farce/orientalist pipe-dream of william beckford. this dude was a fascinating character- an arabian nights-obsessed dreamer with far too much money who extravagantly squandered his youth wandering all over europe having affairs with men, women & demons of all descriptions. his travel books are wonderful, apparently. i’d love to get my hands on one. he was inevitably exiled from english polite society, & ended up sequestering himself to translate arabic manuscripts for years on end.

then he made a public mockery of himself by building this gothic monstrosity, which, i mean, look at it:

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it’s hilarious & over-the-top & it collapsed in 1835. three years after beckford sold it for £300,000. i swear to GOD, william.

anyway, vathek. my edition sums it up as ‘the ruthless caliph vathek’s journey to superb damnation among the subterranean treasures of eblis’. it’s a nasty little fairy tale: the caliph is childish, rapacious, cruel. it’s also very, very funny.

this is mostly because of the hilarously deadpan nature of beckford’s prose. the novel opens thus:

“Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun Al Raschid.  From an early accession to the throne, and the talents he possessed to adorn it, his subjects were induced to expect that his reign would be long and happy.  His figure was pleasing and majestic; but when he was angry, one of his eyes became so terrible that no person could bear to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired.  For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions, and making his palace desolate, he but rarely gave way to his anger.”

full disclosure: i tried reading this several years ago, when i was fourteen or so. somehow, probably due to vague preconceptions about anything written before 1800, the humour completely escaped me & i just felt alienated. this time my cynical eighteen-year-old soul latched right onto it. i was laughing out loud.

one particularly memorable passage comes when vathek, displeased with a man who comes bearing treasure from beneath the earth, literally kicks him out of the palace; the guy, who is some sort of ambiguous demonic creature, rolls up into a ball & just… keeps rolling, as you do. he rolls in his spherical state all around the city, kicked along by vathek & a gathering horde of people, until eventually he rolls up a mountain & off the side of a precipice into an abyss.

“The ball, indeed, in passing from one apartment to another, drew every person after it that came in its way, insomuch that the whole palace was thrown into confusion, and resounded with a tremendous clamour.  The women of the harem, amazed at the uproar, flew to their blinds to discover the cause, but no sooner did they catch a glimpse of the ball than feeling themselves unable to refrain, they broke from the clutches of their eunuchs, who to stop their flight pinched them till they bled, but in vain; whilst themselves, though trembling with terror at the escape of their charge, were as incapable of resisting the attraction.”

it’s so awful & so funny.

but there’s more there than black comedy. overall the novel’s pretty fanciful- it doesn’t take itself enormously seriously- but there’s some very strange & wonderful episodes scattered throughout. a personal favourite of mine is a bit where nourounihar (naive love interest) & gulchenrouz (even more naive pretty boy) are told by their household that they’re dead, & wake by a twilight lake, believing themselves to be in the afterlife:

“She recollected also, that herself and Gulchenrouz had been sick and dying; but all these images bewildered her mind.  Not knowing where she was, she turned her eyes on all sides, as if to recognise the surrounding scene.  This singular lake, those flames reflected from its glassy surface, the pale hues of its banks, the romantic cabins, the bull-rushes that sadly waved their drooping heads, the storks whose melancholy cries blended with the shrill voices of the dwarfs, every thing conspired to persuade them that the angel of death had opened the portal of some other world.”

then there’s a scene that reaches a high baroque level of screwball grotesquerie, where vathek stages a ceremonial procession as a cover for sacrificing the city’s fifty most beautiful young boys to a demon; the machinations of vathek’s mother, carathis, who shouts at vathek whenever he reverts to decadent indolence, which is often; the terrifying underground landscapes of eblis’s halls, eblis being one of the more down-to-earth & restrained characters of those who populate this novel.

eighteenth-century literature can be a tough nut to crack; the only other novels from the period that i’ve read & can think of off the bat are candide (which is brilliant), the vicar of wakefield (which is ghastly), & robinson crusoe (which dickens accurately described as the only universally popular book that has never made anyone laugh or cry). vathek is, obviously, not a conventional novel of the period- it’s probably one of the most out-there books ever written- but there’s an impish quality to the humour & a self-indulgence to the passages of decadence that really got me. i enjoyed the hell out of it.

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5 thoughts on “vathek: screwball grotesquerie

  1. Pingback: 2018: wot i read* | unholy fool

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