Wednesday 9 November 2022

Review: Vathek by William Beckford

 I’d first read Vathek the same time I read The Castle of Otranto, over ten years ago. I’d remembered Otranto as rather underwhelming but had found myself pleasantly surprised on re-read, being far more entertaining than I’d thought. I remembered Vathek as very entertaining in itself, so I was looking forward to it. Not only did it not quite live up to my memory but most of what I remembered about the book was wrong. A key part of it, in my memory, was a romance between Vathek and the feminine-boy Goulchenrouz. I’d remembered his bulky name but completely mis-remembered /invented his part in the story.

I had remembered that Vathek was a King with unrivalled curiosity, that he had an evil eye that could kill but did not do it very often and that he became obsessed with a stranger who’d brought the most unusual trinkets. I’d forgotten that those trinkets included self-walking shoes. I’d also forgotten that his response to the stranger escaping from his prison was to kick those guarding them from morning till sunset, which he later estimates at 40,000 kicks.

On a similar kicking theme, I’d forgotten that when the stranger returns a second time he rolls himself into a ball and is kicked by the entire city, essentially playing a game of schoolboy football, where kicking the ball is more important than the direction it’s kicked in. There’s the great detail of Vathek’s viziers laying down to get between him and the ball-stranger, and Vathek simply jumping over them. This book is full of fun details, like the beard-burning of inept linguistics professors and the half beard-burning of the one that was half-right.

Following these weird events, there’s a child-sacrifice party and a tower bonfire, which eventually leads to the information that the stranger is a demon called Giaour, and the entrance to Hell is just over 100 miles away. Vathek decides going to Hell is a great idea and decides to bring only the essentials; several enormous banquets, cages full of wives and all the chintz in the city. The caravan is stalked by wild animals, he lights torches to scare them off and creates an immense forest fire causing them to scatter and later to be rescued by a colony of religious dwarves who lead Vathek to the main subplot.

This is where Goulchenrouz comes in. Vathek wants to add Nouronihar to his wife collection, even make her his primary wife but she’s engaged to her cousin (ick) Goulchenrouz, a young man more feminine than her. In my recollection of the book, Vathek pivoted to fancying Goulchenrouz and seduced the young lad to his doom. What actually happened was Nouronihar’s father faking her and Goulchenrouz’s death, but Nouronihar finding her way out of the fake limbo, where she had to eat plain rice, and going off with Vathek. She was really seduced by the notion of owning the ‘carbuncle of Giamshid’ for some reason. That Nouronihar really likes her a carbuncle. Goulchenrouz found himself taken up to live in the clouds forever as the arial equivalent of a water baby.

The gang find Hell and go in, where it turns out that things aren’t very nice. They have a limited time to mooch about the halls and see wonders but in a few hours their hearts will be set ablaze and they’ll have to walk about in agony with their hand cupped over it, never to have time to enjoy anything again. I’m not sure why eternal agony seemed to surprise our characters so much after they’d literally walked the path of damnation but it did. I also found the Jesus-like burning heart to be an unusual punishment, 

The best character in the novel is Carathis. She’s Vathek’s mother and not wholly unacquainted with the dark arts. She creates a potion full of ram’s horns and old mummies to tempt Giaour and, as suspected, he delighted in “the savour of the mummies”. The lesson being, if cooking for demons, mummies are the best spice. She decides not to join Vathek on his quest as, “my taste for dead bodies, and everything like mummy is decided”, so she’ll stay home and play with them. When she gets word that Vathek has become waylaid by Nouronihar, she hunts him down by chatting with her friends in the graveyard while her servants flirt with ghosts. Later she uses magic to talk to a shoal of fish. In the end, she is summoned to Hell but unlike the others, waiting for their punishment, she decides to actually sit on those Hell thrones and has a good time catching up with all the demons she’s met before. She’s powerful, she knows what she likes and being sent to Hell is only going to make her day a little more interesting.

Beckford was 21 when he wrote this and it shows. While the novel I wrote as a 21 year old is not as violent, it is a car crash of all the cool ideas I’d had up to that point. There’s a similar quality to this book of him throwing everything in that he thought would be memorable but my poor memory of it shows that maybe it wasn’t. If The Old English Baron was an attempt to write gothic by minimising the supernatural, Vathek almost completely dispenses with the realistic. It is a wild time but its impact relies mostly on shock and there’s not much thought to be had about it afterwards. Like Beckford’s Tower, it doesn’t quite hold up.

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