Vathek by William Beckford.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Another day, another Gothic confection.
Vathek is another one of those books I probably should’ve read during a uni literature course but never did. It’s one of those novels that was written as the Gothic style of fiction took off, but it’s not as easy to set it next to a Frankenstein, say. For starters, it’s been shelved in the Orientalism section for years, even though its author knew more of the world of Islam than other fabulists of the time.
It’s also a work that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. There’s a love story in there, some intentional riffing on Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy, some big-noting about travellers’ arcana, a stab at voluptuous prose and some sheer fucking oddity, held together with minarets and eunuchs.Oh, and Beckford wrote it in French, because why not?
There’s questions over the reliability of English translations, subject as they were to the whims of cash-strapped publishers. So we’re seeing what might have been intended: the author could be particularly vague with what he wanted.
(Though you should hear him rip the piss out of Gibbon. MAN.)
But to the text. It rolls along at a fair clip, telling the story of a Caliph. Vathek the man is an absolute punisher of a human. A guy who renounces Islam in order to get some magical goodies, he’s a dude of prodigious appetites and supreme annoyance. I mean, this is him at table:
The Caliph, nevertheless, remained in the most violent agitation. He sat down indeed to eat; but, of the three hundred dishes that were daily placed before him, he could taste of no more than thirty-two.
When he doesn’t get what he wants, he rants and raves and spits the dummy, inconsolable until his Spooky Mother™ turns up to placate him with tales of Hell’s Bounty and other such matronly balms.
He has all the truculence of certain politicians, the indefatigable belief in his own brilliance. The book basically charts his course to destruction, brought about by his inability to a) leave shit alone or b) pick his battles. He’s misled by djinn and enticed to the depths of the devil Eblis’ domain. There’s no doubt that it’s what the fucker deserves, because, well, he does shit like this throughout.
Never before had the ceremony of strangling been performed with so much facility. They all fell, without the least resistance or struggle: so that Vathek, in the space of a few moments, found himself surrounded by the dead bodies of the most faithful of his subjects; all which were thrown on the top of the pile.
What we consider Gothic is hidden behind a swirl of veils and the curve of cupolas, but it’s definitely here. Aside from the standard doomed-love moves, there’s a streak of weirdness through the book that’s hard to ignore – strange visions and sections where time is out of joint, where things happen that just shouldn’t occur. Beckford’s keyed into the contrast between the Caliph’s horrendous appetites and the doom that awaits as a result of their exercise.
Is it a great book? Nah. But it’s an oddity, much like The Castle of Otranto. I enjoyed it, and was surprised at how much knowledge the author brought to bear in the creation of Vathek’s world. It felt backed by fact, which only heightens the disconnect between reality and what goes on within its pages.
It’s worth a read, though your enjoyment will probably be determined by how much child-strangling action you like in your leisure time.