Friday, May 20, 2022

William Beckford, Vathek, an Arabian Tale (1787)

I had really wanted to read this for a long time.  Seems like a fun bit of Orientalism, maybe.

Who knows?  So there's this caliph, right?  And his name is Vathek?  And he's well-liked, but then he meets a mysterious merchant who turns out to be an evil Giaour, and a demon too.  But he shows Vathek some cool shit and impresses him.  There's a very weird scene where the Giaour turns into a ball and everyone kicks it around for a while, but the ultimate upshot is, he makes Vathek an offer: if you renounce Islam and sacrifice fifty children, I will show you hell.  I mean, who could resist an offer like THAT?  What could go wrong?  So to accomplish this, he pretends that the children are being invited to participate in sportive games, only when they approach Vathek afterwards to be awarded prizes, he surreptitiously tosses them into a pit for the Giaour, which is an extremely goofy image, for sure.  

Now, all of this is, like, the first fourth of the book, so you wonder, where how can this possible for this to go on for another hundred pages?  And the answer is, by means of extremely inept plotting.  Vathek has an even evil-er mother, Carathis, and they're going to go together to see Hell (WHY IS THIS CONSIDERED SO DESIRABLE?), only then the story unexpectedly splits off into an only semi-related thing with a couple, Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz, and Vathek suddenly decides he wants to marry Nouronihar, so they make a plan to take a drug that makes them seem dead and then when they're taken to be buried they can revive, and it's this whole THING, only then Nouronihar--who apparently wasn't that into her beau anyway--goes with Vathek anyway.  And there's another thing where suddenly there's this good djinn (who had saved the kids Vathek tried to sacrifice), and he protects Gulchenrouz from Carathis' wrath and to some sort of Elysian sort of place to have a fun life.  Vathek, Nouronihar, and Carathis, on the other hand, all go to hell to be tortured for eternity.  THAT'S WHAT YOU GET!

Right, yeah.  If that sounds like ludicrous gibberish, you should try reading the book.  In fairness to Beckford, he wrote it in his early twenties.  In further fairness, it should be noted that that doesn't excuse it from charges of being terrible.  The plotting is really baffling and terrible.  It wants, I think, to be a Faustian sort of thing, but that is not conveyed well.  And as for the Orientalism...well, there's obviously always something a bit dubious about this kind of thing, but Beckford is just bad at it.  It's mostly cribbed from this book (as the numerous footnotes make clear), and it's really ungainly, unevocative stuff.  I feel like comparing it to Clark Ashton Smith: that guy could Orientalize effectively.  Beckford, not so much.   Though I will give it this: in spite of everything, the book isn't at all anti-Islam.  The basic contours of the story could be the same in a  Christian context.

Anyway, here's a sentence from the book: "Him, however, they treated as an old poltroon; and forbore not to style him a rascally traitor."

And here's an interesting paragraph:

During these preparations, Carathis, who never lost sight of her great object, which was to obtain favour with the powers of darkness, made select parties of the fairest and most delicate ladies of the city; but in the midst of their gaiety she contrived to introduce serpents amongst them, and to break pots of scorpions under the table.  They all bit to a wonder, and Carathis would have left them to bite, were it not that to fill up the time, she now and then amused herself in curing their wounds with an excellent anodyne of her own invention; for this good princess abhorred being indolent.

Who?  What?  When?  Why?  Where?

And another:

The dwarfs interrupted this delectable soliloquy by leaping instantly upon her, and scratching her face with their utmost zeal.  But Nerkes and Cafour betaking themselves to the succour of their mistress, pinched the dwarfs so severely in return, that they both gave up the ghost, imploring Mahomet to inflict his sorest vengeance upon this wicked woman and all her household.

Yes, the dwarfs were pinched to death.  Also, a lot of people in Vathek "give up the ghost."  It is a usage of which Beckford is fond. 

And one more:

They sauntered together in the meadow, and amused themselves with culling flowers, and passing a thousand pleasantries on each other.  But the bees, who were staunch Mussulmans, thinking it their duty to revenge the insult on their dear masters the Santons, assembled so zealously to do it with effect, that the Caliph and Nouronihar were glad to find their tents prepared to receive them.

...actually, this one might be intended as a joke.  And in fairness, it's kind of endearingly goofy if it is. It's difficult to say.  But ANYWAY, in spite of some amusingly batty moments like these, the book as a whole is a bad slog.  The fact that a book has survived a long time tends to mean there's probably something worthwhile about it, but that is not always the case.  I suppose if you want you could hype it as an early fantasy novel, but what good does that do anyone?

3 Comments:

Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

Caliph Vathek is a historical figure, a grandson of Harun Al-Rashid, no less. Beckford's demonization of his mother Carathis is a bit nasty, since she was a slave-woman; the evil courtesan is an unfortunate archetype.

Alan Moore makes the same point regarding Vathek's temptation, in the Orlando section of "LoEG: The Black Dossier" (2007): "Here I witnessed Vathek bargain with the demon Eblis for a vision of Hell's treasures, whereafter his heart burned eternally. This seemed unfair, since frankly, Hell's treasures were rather... suburban." (Google 'vathek loeg orlando' for picture.)

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Wathiq

10:26 AM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

I knew he was based on a real person, but as that wikipedia entry notes, Beckford's version is pretty much completely fictionalized.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

I agree it has little relevance to your enjoyment of the novel. However, the connection to Harun Al-Rashid allows us to indulge in Alan Moore's little game that ties all fiction together into one big narrative. I think that is neat.

3:50 AM  

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