Melmoth the Wanderer (Oxford University Press, 2008)
by Charles Maturin
Melmoth the Wanderer, the sprawling 500-plus page Gothic classic that threatened to bore me into submission at times before its next level weirdness eventually won the day, was finally crossed off my TBR list late last week. What a fucked-up novel! A series of nested tales about the tempter-like title character who's made some sort of a pact with evil to add 150 years of life to his span of time on earth until/unless he can find another victim to buy out his contract--a supernatural Ponzi scheme of sorts--the novel is splayed out on an oversized canvas rife with colorful anticlericalism, settings which include Inquisition jail cells and ruined monasteries, a malevolent sense of humor, unwanted arranged marriages ("I will first be the bride of the grave" ), even an unexpected love story or two. I almost forgot to mention its mean streak. At its gentlest, the anticlericalism takes the form of one narrator's ribbing of an indolent priest for his yawning response to the apparent abduction of a bride to be in the bourgeois Spanish household he's assigned to. First Fra Jose asks for some wine "to slake the intolerable thirst caused by my anxiety for the welfare of your family." Then, in a follow-up worthy of Eça de Queirós, he adds: "It were not amiss, daughter...if a few slices of ham, or some poignant sausages, accompanied the wine--it might, as it were, abate the deleterious effects of that abominable liquor, which I never drink but on emergencies like these" (506). Poignant sausages, a delicious archaism! For another splash of anticlericalism which leads to a quaff of a more potent sort of humor, one need only revisit the chapter where a man condemned by the Inquisition shrieks in horror--what he refers to as "the only human sound ever heard within the walls of the Inquisition" (239)--only to be saved by a fire that breaks out where he's being held shortly afterward. The spiritual punchline, such as it is, comes with the comment that all the appeals to the saints to help prevent the catastrophe went unheeded: "Their exclamations were so loud and earnest, that really the saints must have been deaf, or must have felt a particular predilection for a conflagration, not to attend to them" (241). Another interesting example of the work's malevolent sense of humor is that even nature seems to be troubled by the presence of the Wanderer. At a key moment late in the novel while Melmoth is finishing off one character in the dead of night, the text tells us that "the wave groaned [and] the dark hill groaned in answer, like murderers exchanging their stilled and midnight whispers over their work of blood--and all was silent" (391). Of course, the novel's mean streak, seemingly so ahead of its time, is really something else. It often comes in the person of the title character whose "superhuman misanthropy" (303) makes him a spiritual ancestor of the shapeshifting villain in Lautréamont's 1868-69 Maldoror. "Beauty was a flower he looked on only to scorn," we are told, "and touched only to wither" (360). Attempting to woo the innocent Immalee, for example, Melmoth makes an extended comparison between the music of the spheres and the suffering that awaits millions of humans in his fevered imagination. "Dream of the music of those living orbs turning on their axis of fire for ever and ever," Melmoth exults, "and ever singing as they shine, like your brethren the Christians, who had the honour to illuminate Nero's garden in Rome on a rejoicing night." Immalee, ill at ease with the allusion to ancient Christians as human torches: "You make me tremble!" Melmoth, undeterred: "The eternal roar of a sea of fire makes a profound bass to the chorus of millions of singers in torture!" (351). At other times, the mean streak surfaces when Melmoth is only a lurking presence to the action. There's a story late in the novel in which a family becomes so down on its luck that it's reduced to famine. One child considers prostituting herself to help feed the family, another sells his blood to the point where he's on the verge of death. The novel's multiple narrators, keen on making comparisons between their descriptions and works of figurative art, seize the moment to explain how Everhard "lay, as Ines approached his bed, in a kind of corse-like beauty, to which the light of the moon gave an effect that would have rendered the figure worthy the pencil of a Murillo, a Rosa, or any of those painters, who, inspired by the genius of suffering, delight in representing the most exquisite of human forms in the extremity of human agony." This description, suffice it to say, isn't over the top enough for our sadistic narrator who proceeds to compare the now blue-lipped Everhard to "a St Bartholomew flayed, with his skin hanging about him in graceful drapery--a St Laurence, broiled on a gridiron, and exhibiting his finely-formed anatomy on its bars, while naked slaves are blowing the coals beneath it" to hammer home the point that "the snow-white limbs of Everhard were extended as if for the inspection of a sculptor, and moveless, as if they were indeed what they resembled, in hue and symmetry, those of a marble statue" (421-422). Maturin, you had me at "corse-like beauty"! Anyway, next level weirdness indeed but thank the deity figure that I finally made time for all these "criminals of the imagination" (250) as "the clock of eternity is about to strike" (540).
Charles Maturin (1780-1824)