Vathek Paperback – Oct 11 2008
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Yet in many ways, "Vathek" also resembles a fairytale, or perhaps one of those stories you were told as a child that were designed to frighten you into good behaviour. The story of Vathek, the ninth caliph of the Abassides, is that of a fall from grace; a morality play about how pride, hubris and lust for knowledge beyond one's right to possess will inevitably lead to an individual's damnation.
The young Vathek is a ruler insatiably thirsty for knowledge, and not only partakes in various debates with scholars, but has built a tower (reminiscent of the tower of Babel) in order to study astrology. He is joined in this quest by his mother Princess Carathis, who has taught her boy everything he knows. One day Vathek acquires a pair of beautiful sabers engraved with indecipherable letters that, when translated, read: "We were made where everything is well made; we are the least of the wonders of a place where all is wonderful and deserving, the sight of the first potentate on earth."
The following day however, the words have changed into the cautionary message: "Woe to the rash mortal who seeks to know that of which he should remain ignorant, and to undertake that which surpasses his power". Naturally, Vathek is intrigued, the more so by the words and actions of the mysterious man who bought the swords to him in the first place, and will not be hindered in his ambition of tracking down the sabers' origins.
In order to obtain a key that is promised to lead him to "the talismans that rule the world"; (along with other infernal powers, secrets and treasures) Vathek commits several heinous crimes before setting off on a pilgrimage to the region of Istakhar, the seat of Eblis (or Iblis), an incarnation of the Islamic devil. Encouraged by his mother and yet given ample second-chances by heavenly forces, Vathek eventually gains a companion in his quest: a beautiful princess called Nouronihar, the daughter of an Emir, whose role in the narrative could function as either his salvation or damnation.
Told in third person by an omnipresent narrator that sometimes intrudes in order to shift the scene or discuss morality, "Vathek" has no chapter breaks, but is one complete manuscript. According to the author, it was penned in no less than three days, and there is definitely the sense that Beckford made it up as he went along: Carathis initially seems like a wise and benevolent monarch, until the narrator casually mentions that she's in league with demonic forces. In the same vein, the book is almost at a close when we are told that Vathek has a never-before-mentioned brother.
Likewise, it is filled with odd quirks, like the man who tucks himself up and is kicked like a football throughout the city, or the plan to remove a prince and princess from danger by hiding them in a valley and trying to convince them that they've died and are in purgatory. Also, there are dwarfs that are pinched to death. Really.
But there is a beautiful build-up of atmosphere here; from the five palaces of the caliph, each one pertaining to one of the sensory pleasures, to the protagonist's final destination, the vast subterranean caverns of marble "strewn over with gold dust and saffron." Populated by a cast of eunuchs, jinn, afrits, caliphs, devils, spirits and those pinch-fearing dwarfs, Beckford's imagination is on full-assault here, including treats such as damned souls tortured by their perpetually burning hearts, angels appearing as shepherd boys playing soul-rending flute music, the caliph's "evil eye" that cause weaker men to die of fright, and the phenomenon of a strange man-child character who is swept away from the evils of the world in order to dwell happily...in a nest.
By today's jaded standards, much of what is written here may seem rather tame, but can't you just imagine the original 18th century target audience reacting to this impassioned speech:
"Would you surrender this divine beauty to a husband more womanish than herself? And can you imagine that I will suffer her charms to decay in hands so inefficient and nerveless? No! She is destined to live out her life within my embraces: such is my will, retire, and disturb not the nights I devote to the worship of her charms."
Altogether, this is certainly a very odd book, though also a most intriguing one. There's no real way of gauging how someone else will react to it, but if you're an enthusiast of Gothic literature, a literary historian tracking the popularity of exoticism, a parent out for something to scare your children with, or a reader just hankering for a story that's both familiar and yet really, *really* different, try "Vathek."
Vathek was written in 1781 or 1782, while Beckford was in his early twenties. It has heavy Gothic influences, but is very recognizable as one of the "Oriental tales" of which the English reading public could hardly get enough of at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Beckford originally wrote the book in French, only later to have it translated into English by Samuel Henley in 1786 and published by Oxford World Classics.
However grotesque and bizarre the story, two of its central characters are historical. Vathek is based on al-Wathiq, an Abbasid caliph and grandson of Harun al-Rashid, and his mother Carathis is based on al-Wathiq's mother, Qaratis. That's where all historical resemblances end, however. Goaded on by his mother, Vathek seeks out occult learning in the sciences, astronomy, and other "black arts" that shock some of his fellow Muslims, including his counselor-vizier Morakanabad and the eunuch Bababalouk. He is tempted by a demon named Giaour who promises him riches beyond belief in a Palace of Subterranean Fire, and does a number of heinous things to please Giaour, including tossing fifty beautiful boys to appease its bloodlust.
Vathek then meets the kind, pious Emir Fakreddin, and quickly falls in love with his daughter Nouronihar, who is already betrothed to her young cousin Gulchenrouz. Vathek's infatuation excites Nouronihar, however, and seems equally greedy for the treasures in the Palace of Subterranean Fire. They eventually reach the Palace, ruled by Iblis (the Devil of Islamic mythology), but it turns out to be something that more resembles Dante than any kind of heavenly reward. Carathis soon joys them there, explicitly having abandoned all Hope, one assumes for eternity.
Because of all the action that takes place in an extremely short novel (this version clocks in right at 120 pages), its pace can seem hurried, confused, and frantic. This is understandable since, in several places, Beckford cites having written it in either two or three days. "Vathek" mostly seems to be a vehicle for Beckford to bandy about his criticisms of middle-class English mores and sexual morality (Nouronihar's love interest, Gulchenrouz, is often referred to as "feminine" and "effete.") It can just as easily be read as a very young Beckford trying to come to terms with how he sees himself and his ambitions in relation to those of society less forgiving of thoroughgoing aesthetes. Because of its length, I would recommend this for anyone interested in the ever-popular Georgian-era Oriental tale mixed with high Gothic romance. I don't think anyone has ever accused Beckford of being a great writer - but it is not without interest, even if it is only the interest of the fascinating eccentric who wrote it.
The novel relates the fall of the Caliph Vathek, a sybarite, into the halls of the Pre-Adamite Sultans, which is where he will find Eblis, the ruler of the underworld, and the talismans of Solomon, which have the power to control all dives and magic. Set in Arabia during the 10thc, Vathek has a palace built dedicated to the five senses; I would say it's the palace of pleasure. Also, he has a tower built that is 1,500 steps high-this is an example of how fanciful the story can be at times. Manipulated by his mother, Carathis, who is a worshiper of the dark arts and has the power to conjure spirits, Vathek is ultimately led to his own perdition. When Vathek meets the Giaour, the swarthy infidel of the underworld, who is shares traits with Mephistopheles, he pursues omniscience. The Giaour is a Jinn or a malicious spirit working for Eblis, who causes Vathek to perform deplorable deeds such as sacrificing fifty innocent children and demanding marriage to the Emir's daughter Nouronihar, to reach the gates of Eblis. It's interesting to note, Vathek has an admirable trait; throughout the story he questions his voyage for the halls of Eblis and at points, wants to renounce his endeavor altogether. The nefarious Carathis encourages him to reach his destination.
A parade of phantasmagoria smatters the narrative with strange and delightful diversions: pious dwarves bearing baskets of fruit and chirping incessantly, to the great annoyance of our Caliph, their Qur'anic verses; saucy women tricking eunuchs into flinging about on swings in a perfumed harem; great feasts, examined in exacting detail, of everything from roasted wolves and boiled thistles to pistachio-stuffed lamb and drugged sherbets; an entire city kicking about a goblin who has curled into a ball and taken to rolling about through the streets of Samarra and eventually over a cliff; a woman burning bits and pieces of mummies, rhinoceros horns, and human beings on a pyre atop a dizzyingly high tower to placate the forces of evil; divining fish; one-eyed deaf mutes getting lusty with ghouls who have risen drowsily from the grave to feast on fresh corpses. This is definitely not ALLADIN.
VATHEK is charming and potently hallucinatory stuff meant to be taken in one giant dose, like a short story. Take a couple of hours and give it your undivided attention; VATHEK rewards with that glorious sensation of `I need to read this out loud to somebody.' This is certainly not high literature, but it's not just trash (not even just `good trash') either. VATHEK is a sort of world unto its own: equal parts ARABIAN NIGHTS and CASTLE OF OTRANTO, and also something unclassifiable and gorgeous and grotesque. The prose, while unashamedly purple, suits its narrative and has an irony about it that never fails to endear. There's something almost Bulgakov-esque in its bizarre sense of humor, and the terror here is both Gothic and admirably understated. A jumble of contradictions, Vathek is as fickle as its author--and just as fascinating.
William Beckford, ostracized from high society for his homosexual affair with young `Kitty' Courtenay, was one of the wealthiest men of his generation. VATHEK is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of his own self-indulgent fantasies, here taken to their most far-flung extremes of escapism and `oriental' magnificence.
Like so many other curiosities in literature, from Byron to MELMOTH THE WANDERER, VATHEK is all the more entrancing when its unique and sometimes uncomfortably personal relationship with its author is taken into account. Its influence on the Gothic genre as a whole is evident from the first paragraph, where we are introduced to our naughty Caliph's ability to strike men dead with a single `terrible' gaze. This absurd and yet ultimately captivating sense of wonder pervades VATHEK like the cloying, and yet rapturous, odor of heady rosewater. A treat for reflective minds and those interested in literary theatrics both, I count myself an ardent admirer.
(A brief note on translations: VATHEK was originally written, despite Beckford's English heritage, in French. Quite fitting, really. As it stands, this is not LES MISERABLES, and translations of VATHEK are not dramatically varying in terms of quality. That said, the translation widely available in paperback from Penguin or Oxford is admirable and a great read, but if you can track down a copy of The Folio Society's reprint of the 1929 Grimsditch translation, you will do yourself even better. The differences are quite subtle, but they might be the difference between appreciating the novel and `not getting it.' Best not to take any chances, because, and I'll say it one last time, this is gloriously weird stuff and well worth your time.)
(From my Gothic fiction blog: [...])