Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

Hey, I read a book! Whoa! It's a gothic novel, or novel-like thing. Really, it consists of a series of stories. Our frame narrative consists of young Melmoth--not the Melmoth of the title; a descendent of the line--being told stories that in some way involve the big Melmoth, a damned soul trying to seduce others into Hell. The first story is about a guy named Stanton who gets unjustly condemned to an insane asylum; then, he hears from a Spaniard named Monçada whom he'd saved from a shipwreck, and that takes up the rest of the book. Monçada tells a LONG story about how he was made to be a monk and confined to a monastery against his will; after escaping, he takes refuge with some Jews who are pretending to have converted to avoid the inquisition, and one of them shows him a manuscript containing another story, about a woman named Immalee who grows up alone on an island off India in a total state of nature, and is visited by Melmoth who tries to corrupt her; eventually, it transpires that she's part of a Spanish family, and had been lost there during a voyage, and is taken back to Spain where Melmoth continues to do his best. Over the course of this, we also hear two MORE stories, recited to her father: one where a family whose understanding was that they'd inherit a lot of money and have been living comfortably only to be reduced to grinding poverty, and one about a woman from English nobility whose would-be fiancée no longer wants to marry her, making her sad.

And that...is about it. I'd been sort of half-wanting to read this for some time, so I just went ahead and DID IT. Whether it turned out to be worth it is another story.

So there are, it must be said, a few parts in here that are genuinely disturbing. Well, basically two: one where Melmoth is relating what it's like to be trapped in an asylum while not insane but feeling your sanity slowly slipping away in spite of yourself; and the other a brief story told to Monçada by a guy who's supposedly helping him escape about having entombed a young couple who had been living in the monastery in forbidden fashion. Fair cop there. But boy...this book is slooooow. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but most of these stories really just feel as though they're dragging on for no good reason; they're not building suspense or atmosphere, they're just...being. And boring. Like the Immalee section: there are SO MANY places where you think, okay THIS is the climax to this story, now it's over, but no it just keeps going ON AND ON and really wears out its welcome. This book is seven hundred fifty pages; it could be a lot more gripping at half that, honestly. And I'll also note that it's structurally pretty malformed: you have Stanton's story first, and you assume, okay, this'll be a lot of short-ish stories related to the frame character, but then, no, the whole rest of it is Monçado with a few other stories within. Also, I must note, Maturin doesn't seem to think it's even vital to finish them: Stanton's and Monçado's stories both just kind of stop rather than conclude: we're told that Stanton eventually escaped but learn no details, and after taking refuge with the Jews, how did Monçado escape the Inquisition and get on a ship to Ireland? Who knows. Not Maturin, apparently! I guess it's supposed to be about the journey rather than the destination, but this journey is only intermittently compelling. Also, Melmoth himself barely figures in some of the stories, and when he does, again, he only occasionally (basically with Immalee, about whose seduction he actually feels conflicted, suggesting character depth that otherwise isn't there) makes a strong impression. And I'd like to note that he succeeds in winning exactly ZERO souls, making him pretty darned incompetent as an agent of Hell.

So, you might ask, just how anti-non-CoE-religions is Maturin? The answer is: fairly significantly so. We have some stuff about Muslims and Hindus in the India sections (not clear that Maturin was aware of Buddhism), but those are kinda far-away faiths about which he doesn't even know enough to really stereotype all that much. There's also anti-Semitism (for which Monçado staying with Jews is clearly mainly an excuse), though not of an unambiguous sort, but what Jews are is kinda powerless; what he REALLY doesn't like is Catholicism (which doesn't prevent him from representing some individual Catholics sympathetically). It's actually a little weird: he doesn't like the Spanish Inquisition, obviously, but he DOES sorta-kinda like what they're doing to Jews! And yet, sort of not: he also seems to feel at least a certain amount sympathy with them for being persecuted by the Inquisition. It's kind of an ouroboros of bigotry. Whee! For the most part, it didn't bother me THAT much, at least compared to the narrative issues, though there was a bit partway through--with the Jews--that kinda made me question my commitment to seeing the book through. Even though this certainly isn't anything like the worst book I've read in recent memory, it's definitely the one I came the closest to actually giving up on. But then I had a second wind, and here I am.

Anyway, let's have a few quotes, just for fun. Here's an accurate picture of one of our capitalist plutocrats:

Have you never, as you beheld the famished, illiterate, degenerate populace of your country, exulted in the wretched and temporary superiority your wealth has given you--and felt that the wheels of your carriage would not roll less smoothly if the way was paved with the heads of your countrymen?

In spite of Maturin's prejudices, he also seems to hold beliefs that would even seem kinda progressive, as in also:

'Here the stranger had incredible difficulty to make Immalee comprehend how there could be an unequal division of the means of existence; and when he had done his utmost to explain it to her, she continued to repeat, (her white finger on her scarlet lip, and her small foot beating the moss), in a kind of pouting inquietude, 'Why should some have more than they can eat, and others nothing to eat?'—'This,' continued the stranger, 'is the most exquisite refinement on that art of torture which those beings are so expert in—to place misery by the side of opulence—to bid the wretch who dies for want feed on the sound of the splendid equipages which shake his hovel as they pass, but leave no relief behind—to bid the industrious, the ingenious, and the imaginative, starve, while bloated mediocrity pants from excess.'

Preach it, brother.  Maturin makes some token effort to say that sentiments like this aren't from HIM; they're just from the villain, but it's not very convincing.  Or how about this letter from Immalee (renamed Isidora in Europe)'s unsympathetic mother to her unsympathetic father:

Our daughter is deranged...her derangement will in no wise impede or contravene her marriage--for be it known to thee, it breaks out but at times, and at such times, that the most jealous eye of man could not spy it, unless he had a foretaught intimation of it. She hath strange fantasies swimming in her brain, such as, that heretics and heathens shall not be everlastingly damned--(God and the saints protect us!)--which must clearly proceed from madness.

More on the mindset of that mother:

'Reverend Father,' said the admiring Donna Clara . . . "I trespassed on your time merely to ask a favour also.'--'Ask and 'tis granted,' said Father Jose . . . 'It is merely to know, will not all the inhabitants of those accursed Indian Isles be damned everlastingly?' 'Damned everlastingly, and without doubt,' returned the priest. 'Now my mind is easy,' rejoined the lady, 'and I shall sleep in peace to-night.'

Though actually, Father Jose is a drunken comedy priest whom Maturin portrays surprisingly sympathetically.

Let's finish with this bit, which is pretty metal:

'Amid this scene stood two beings, one whose appealing loveliness seemed to have found favour with the elements even in their wrath, and one whose fearless and obdurate eye appeared to defy them. 'Immalee,' he cried, 'is this a place or an hour to talk of love!—all nature is appalled—heaven is dark—the animals have hid themselves—and the very shrubs, as they wave and shrink, seem alive with terror.'—'It is an hour to implore protection,' said the Indian, clinging to him timidly. 'Look up,' said the stranger, while his own fixed and fearless eye seemed to return flash for flash to the baffled and insulted elements; 'Look up, and if you cannot resist the impulses of your heart, let me at least point out a fitter object for them. Love,' he cried, extending his arm towards the dim and troubled sky, 'love the storm in its might of destruction—seek alliance with those swift and perilous travellers of the groaning air,—the meteor that rends, and the thunder that shakes it! Court, for sheltering tenderness, those masses of dense and rolling cloud,—the baseless mountains of heaven! Woo the kisses of the fiery lightnings, to quench themselves on your smouldering bosom! Seek all that is terrible in nature for your companions and your lover!—woo them to burn and blast you—perish in their fierce embrace, and you will be happier, far happier, than if you lived in mine! Lived!—Oh who can be mine and live! Hear me, Immalee!' he cried, while he held her hands locked in his—while his eyes, rivetted on her, sent forth a light of intolerable lustre—while a new feeling of indefinite enthusiasm seemed for a moment to thrill his whole frame, and new-modulate the tone of his nature; 'Hear me! If you will be mine, it must be amid a scene like this for ever—amid fire and darkness—amid hatred and despair—amid——' and his voice swelling to a demoniac shriek of rage and horror, and his arms extended, as if to grapple with the fearful objects of some imaginary struggle, he was rushing from the arch under which they stood, lost in the picture which his guilt and despair had drawn, and whose images he was for ever doomed to behold.


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