William Beckford's Vathek

2024-06-25 @Literature

Vathek, a French Gothic-orientalist novel (and a novel mixture for the period), reads like an extensive, never-ceasing parable that could exist either as one of those gargantually long Arabian-Night tales; one of Marcel Schwob’s shorter stories; or, if not a compact sententious proverb, at least a single, cleverly trimmed, squeezed and juiced paragraph lacking but the philosophical blueprint.

But I like Vathek precisely for its lengthy, theatrical tableau. One of the leading Gothic works of the period, I’d not even heard of it prior to my interest in the Arabian Nights and prior to Borges' essays to the regard.

Although an Englishman, Beckford penned the novel in French. An outsourced English translation somehow saw publishing before the original, violating the ordinary flow of causality. I’m only familiar with the French original.

Based on one of the historical, ninth-century Caliphs, Beckford largely if not entirely invents a fictional narrative full of the grotesque and the occult in an otherwise Islamic ecosystem. Though written continuously without chapter breaks, one can envision a series of acts and scenes easily divided into distinct, visually ravishing sets.

In these vivid, Gothic depictions, the novel particularly shines; not so much in the dialogue or the historical framework. Examples proliferate: the palaces of the sense (something of Spenser), Carathis' tower (of all things occult and subterranean - effectively a pagan stronghold), the satirical and decadent interlude of Foudrikkin’s palace and its environs, the royal caravan, the harrowing mountains, the satanic climax.

Vathek capitalizes on the Arabian Nights tradition popularized in the earlier part of the 18th century but takes a darker approach, anticipating such 19th-century orientalists, or rather, authors catering to orientalism or the Gothic or both, particularly Poe, Byron, Pushkin; likewise Coleridge, Lermontov, Turgenev; or the later Marcel Schwob.

Beckford triggered another literary association: with Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright. Evidently Vathek shares traits with Dr. Faustus (vanity for knowledge, receptiveness to the occult, appeal to the satanic, etc). But I’d actually thought of Marlowe’s other two-part play Tamburlaine the Great.

Anticipating and influencing Shakespeare, I consider Marlowe’s plays second-rate compared to the latter, but not wishing to further digress into that point.

To a large extent, Tamburlaine does what Vathek would subsequently attain (which, by the way, I can also envision as a play). That is 1) take a historical figure and heavily refashion (or fabricate) its exploits and 2) heavily manipulate the figure’s dogmatic inclinations to powerful theatrical extent.

On Tamburlaine Marlowe imparts a conflation of Islamic, Christian and Greco-Roman pagan influx, making for however contrived, an entertaining motley of discourse and soliloquies. Vathek follows a slightly different course than Tamburlaine, but by troth, I derive much theatrical kin between the two. Read Tamburlaine with that open and directed sense of humour and you might not vomit nor even cringe over the pallidness in contrast to Shakespeare. But Christopher Marlowe, I jostle …

As for Vathek, if I’ve not made it explicitly clear in common vernacular: pretty damn good!

Questions, comments? Connect.