sábado, 6 de marzo de 2010

The Monk

The Monk: A Romance (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
by Matthew Lewis
England, 1796

While I'm not about to backtrack from my assertion that almost all British literature in the post-Shakespeare/pre-Sex Pistols period is as overrated as that famous boy band the Beatles, even I have to admit that The Monk was a pretty cool read!  Kind of a fun gothic novel and a fundamentally anti-gothic novel all rolled into one, this 18th-century trash masterpiece takes genre stereotypes to new heights--or new lows, depending on your point of view--in its dogged pursuit of the details behind Madrid monk Ambrosio's spiritual downfall and subsequent punishment. "Lust, murder, incest, and every atrocity that can disgrace human nature, brought together, without the apology of probability, or even possibility, for their introduction" brayed one early reviewer (vii), a description that's less off base for its accuracy than for its failure to acknowledge the novelist's decidedly impish sense of humor.  The now archaic language is predictably hilarious when it comes to portraying Ambrosio's increasingly carnal tendencies (a voyeuristic gem on page 271: "The amorous Monk had full opportunity to observe the voluptuous contours and admirable symmetry of her person"), but it's similarly amusing to discover the variety of sly religious digs aimed at the unnaturalness of celibacy and the undue influence of Catholic "superstition" peppered throughout the work.  In one of the high water moments in this regard, an overprotective mother tries to shield her virginal daughter from temptation by editing out "all improper passages" in the Bible to make it a more age-appropriate means of instruction!  All howlers and morality gibes aside, The Monk was also interesting to me for its blurring of the lines between gothic and realist modes of narration.  For, in between all the supernatural episodes dedicated to Bleeding Nuns and Wandering Jews and the summoning of demons by black magic and such, Lewis also invokes a graphic form of realism that includes a sexual assault scene in a sepulcher and a torture scene in an Inquisition trial.  If The Monk doesn't exactly express a "modern sensibility" or anything like that with any consistency, it's still easy to understand why folks like the surrealists saw something of a kindred spirit in its frisky, teenaged author when you consider all the tension between his overtly fantastic scenes and his uncomfortably realistic extremes.  Wild and sometimes over the top with an ending that's pure genius! (www.oup.com/worldsclassics)

Matthew Lewis

10 comentarios:

  1. I kept thinking about the rich drinking-game possibilities of this novel. Drink whenever you encounter a Gothic stereotype! Drink whenever you find an anti-Catholic plot device! One would soon be under the table.

    On a more serious note, you make some interesting points about Lewis's later influence & some uneasy tensions in the book. I thought the Matilda character was pretty interesting too, in that in the beginning she seems genuinely pious, etc., but by the end she seems always to have been a demon. It's not so much that she goes through a character transformation, as that the beginning & end seem inconsistent in terms of who she is & always has been.

    In conclusion, Lewis: what an amusing weirdo!

  2. Fantastic review, Richard. I've been meaning to read this for quite some time - I fully expect it to be unintentionally hilarious, kind of like The Castle of Otranto was, and sometimes I worry that will bother me. But I think that if I'm in the right frame of mind, I'll be able to go along with it and enjoy the experience.

  3. My brother took a course in Gothic literature (lucky him!) so we have all these Gothic novels sitting around, including this one. This genre is so extraordinarily kitschy and ripe for parody and yet I love it and it has such staying power. This book sounds like a lot of questionable fun.

  4. Emily: You're totally right, Lewis definitely belongs to the "amusing weirdo" school of writers! Loved that. Also liked your drinking game idea. And although the revelations about Matilda's demon nature kind of strike me as a cop-out on Lewis' part, I still think she's a meaty character. I mean, why should we take Lucifer's word for her not being a woman anyway, my friend?!?

    *Ana: Thanks for the kind words! Although The Monk is definitely cheesy in parts, I
    laughed more at the language here (i.e. instead of saying somebody told a white lie, Lewis says stuff like the character "committed a violence upon the truth"!) than at any unintentional silliness in the plot. If you survived The Castle of Otranto, you should do fine with The Monk!

    *E.L. Fay: I remember your post on your brother's course! "Questionable fun" is exactly what you'll get with The Monk, but I think you'll find it both funnier and more extreme than a lot of other gothic novels mentioned as its competition. Cool read!

  5. I got sent this just last week and having now seen your thoughts on it Richard am even more excited about the prospect of reading it. These gothic novels do all sound so OTT but then thats part of the joy I am assuming.

  6. I'd been lugging around an ugly purple and white Grove Press version of The Monk for years, Simon, but I switched to that cool-looking Oxford one when the binding on my old copy started falling apart in my hands. It was a really fun read after all those years of waiting, so I'm sure you'll get a kick out of it when the time comes!

  7. Read this several years ago and loved it. It's like a roller coaster ride. I think Stephen King has mentioned somewhere how influential The Monk was to him.

  8. Few could suspect the sauciness that lurks between these covers from the title and image alone. Especially appreciate your remarks about the realist content of this novel. Those injections always strike me as punctuation marks in the text. Creates the uncomfortable possibility that what appears to be the fantastic is, in fact, not. Perhaps it is a norm, just a secret norm.

    And Emily - "amusing weirdo." I giggled out loud.

  9. *Stefanie: I dig the roller coaster ride analogy, perfect! And although I'm not really much of a Stephen King fan, that's an interesting little tidbit about him.

    *Care: It's a super fun read!

    *Frances: Where were you and Emily when I was writing this post? I could have really used those "the sauciness that lurks between these covers" and "amusing weirdo" lines, I'm telling you! Also like what you say about the The Monk's realism serving as punctuation marks in the text. It really does give it a different flavor than what I'd expected (goofy, salacious gothic...) although what I'd expected is still present, of course. Very much looking forward to reading Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer soon for comparison purposes. Do you know anything about that one? Cheers!