Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In which I was blissfully lost in this novel's 700 pages

Ah, Gothic fiction! Just the fact that I am holding a Gothic novel is enough to call the experience orgasmic. If there's one particular subgenre that I particularly like, it's Gothic fiction, with its dark atmosphere, crazy nuns and monks, and subtle horror.

Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer is one novel that a lot of people feel is one of the (if not the) best Gothic novel ever written. Its doorstop proportion at 700 pages requires the stamina and focus from any reader.

So I pick it up thinking that I'll probably need a week at least to finish it. But hey, I finished it in 2 days. And in those 2 days, I felt that I was high on hallucinatory drugs. Maturin's narrative is so bleak, so riddled with stories within stories within stories that it's almost effortless to get lost in the story.

The wanderer in Melmoth the Wanderer is indeed the villain of this novel. Although, I felt I shouldn't disregard all the priests and monks who are so devious in their plans that it's second nature for them to engage in deception and mental and physical abuse. Like any Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer provides a sharp criticism on the apparent excesses of the Catholic church. In Maturin's novel, the Inquisition figures prominently. Innocent characters are subjected to the brutal eyes and hands of the Inquisition upon the recommendation of the clergy.

Anyway, back to Melmoth. I'm not sure how I'd identify him. He's part devil, fantastic entity, specter, and seducer. He's been around for more than a hundred years after engaging in a satanic bargain. And this Melmoth now haunts troubled individuals, tempting them and granting them favors in exchange for his release.

The stories within stories with stories is where you'll see Melmoth's dealings through the years. A Spaniard gets washed ashore in Ireland, who recounts his story about how he was forced to become a monk by a religious superior. Then a character in a story then recounts another story set in another location (e.g., India). It can get confusing, especially with the time element as several years can pass in just a few sentences.

One thing I noticed about this novel is that it can get funny at times. One moment, Maturin describes a bleak scene and then he suddenly delivers a comical retort in another. In the first chapter, an elder Melmoth is just blabbering away while in his death bed, and then, just like that, Maturin writes off his character.
'They are robbing me, – robbing me in my last moments, – robbing a dying man. John, won't you assist me, – I shall die a beggar; they are taking my last shirt, – I shall die a beggar.' – And the miser died.
As a Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer is very satisfying. You can cut the novel's dark tone with a knife. The scenes where characters are tortured and imprisoned in monasteries are textbook. Melmoth's apparitions in different places defy explanation. Although it may feel that Maturin is just all over the place with his story, I loved it. I loved how the characters go overboard with their melodrama. I loved the shifts in settings. I loved the long paragraphs and the seemingly rambling prose. I loved all its 700 pages.

Read this book if:

  1. You're into Gothic fiction.
  2. You're not intimidated by doorstops.
  3. You want to get lost yourself.


C.B. James said...

The title character sounds like a classic "wandering Jew" figure. Are there any overtones to suggest this?

I love the quote you included. It's so over-the-top fun, I can see how you became so wrapped up in those 700 pages.

Peter S. said...

Hi, C. B. James! Oh, I didn't sense any of that. Hmmm... I will Google for any criticism regarding that 'wandering Jew' figure.

Jace said...

I remember this literary term my english 11 prof drilled into our heads way back - mise en abyme. It's as you mentioned: a story within a story (sometimes within another story, STORYCEPTION.) Although 700 pages of that might be too exhausting for me to read these days haha.

Peter S. said...

Thanks for the term, Jace! Now I finally have a word for that literary device!