Sunday, December 6, 2009

Vathek by William Beckford

I’m going to have to plumb a bit deeper than usual into the depths of weird fiction in order to review an early example of Orientalist literature- the cod-Arabian Nights fantasy Vathek, written by the demented William Beckford in 1786.

Beckford seems to have been something of a card. At one time the richest man in England, he inherited the blood money squeezed from a slave plantation in the West Indies. This allowed him to live out his insane fantasies, most of which were influenced by the then-nascent neo-Gothic movement and the recently popular Arabian Nights. According to the introduction to the Wordsworth edition-

“…he used his immense wealth to creatc what was in essence a small kingdom in Wiltshire where he indulged himself in all the human excesses. …he exercised his love of Gothic architecture by creating a monastery-like building on his estate… One entered the building through doors forty feet high, so carefully counter-weighted that they could be opened by two fantastically garbed dwarves in Beckford’s employ.”

Sounds like my kind of guy, apart from the fact that he was eventually outed as a paedophile (it does say all the human excesses). The bastard probably even specified that he was looking for dwarves when he put up his ‘help wanted’ signs, or whatever they did back then.

Anyway, to further indulge in his passion for this kind of thing, Beckford wrote Vathek, a novella in the style of the Arabian Nights. The only version he would have had access to at that time would have been Galland’s 1776 French translation- the original document that sparked an enthusiasm for all things mysterious and Eastern across Europe. Suddenly, no dignified upper-crust European was without a hookah and a funny little round cap. For some reason, another development of this was that all Oriental tales henceforth composed by Europeans were written in French! By the time Vathek was translated into English, it was being falsely claimed as being a genuine Eastern legend, because its author was now shamed and living in exile.

The titular Vathek is the Caliph of the Muslim world and the grandson of Haroun Al Raschid. Raschid was a real-life super-Caliph who reigned during Baghdad’s glorious hey-day, but he was also famously fictionalized in the Arabian Nights. By making Vathek his grandson, Beckford shows us immediately that 1) he knows his Orientalism, and 2) Vathek is a badass. It’s a bit like writing an American novel and having your protagonist be Abraham Lincoln’s grandson, or something.

Like his creator, Vathek is a hedonist. Probably unlike his creator, he can kill men stone dead with a look from his eye when angered. He builds a tower from which he can overlook all of his kingdom, and he adds five wings onto his palace, each of which caters to the pleasuring of one of the five senses. At the beginning, he’s not such a bad guy. He’s happy to share his good living and his pleasure palace with all and sundry. But when a mysterious Indian appears at the palace selling weapons that fight by themselves and other powerful items, Vathek becomes obsessed with acquiring such power. Like Faust, he makes a deal with a demon in order to gain it. And whenever he lags in his commitment to this cause (such as when he falls in love with the daughter of an Emir), his witch of a mother ensures that he continues on his path to damnation. Soon the two of them are merrily sacrificing first-borns and stripping naked in front of pyres full of mummy bones and eyes of newt. Will it all end happily?

Despite being one of the oldest texts I’ve read for the site, Vathek is a relatively smooth read. The characters do talk in a kind of mock-Shakespeare vernacular, with plenty of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, but by and large the prose rattles along at a pleasant rate. And like the Arabian Nights themselves, the novella is light on character and long on incident. The frequent detours the plot winds into are sometimes tiresome, though it’s hard to remain critical when each is so chock-full of dangerous journeys, wise Viziers, loyal eunachs and graveyards full of helpful ghouls. Even old Mohammad himself makes a brief late appearance- not sure if that’s the kind of twist that goes down well east of Suez.

Vathek himself is clearly a stand-in for Beckford, and an early Gothic anti-hero. Byron himself claimed to have modeled himself somewhat after him. His only weakness (and it’s a whopper) is his desire to experience all things and learn all knowledge. While I don’t advise you to emulate him completely, tracking down a copy of Vathek is recommended for those interested in experiencing what’s largely regarded as being the finest European imitation of the Arabian Nights.

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