I seem to have embarked on a re-exploration of the gothic genre. After finishing a re-read of The Castle Of Otranto by Horace Walpole a couple of days back, Last night I finished Vathek by William Beckford, a novel which also stems from the trend for Orientalist fiction which played upon the exoticism of an imagined Arabic setting, largely inspired by translations of The Thousand And One Nights.
It's the story of the Caliph Vathek, a sensualist and seeker of knowledge whose quest for novelty leads him into the snares of a diabolical plot. Promised the jewels and talismans of the pre-Adamic kings, he embarks on an inverted pilgrim's progress with a suitable ending.
Vathek was written in a burst of inspiration over the course of roughly three days. It shows. There are many holes in the plot, which is episodic and frequently seems to lose itself in byways. Vathek is depicted as having the power to strike down his foes with a look from one of his eyes when angered; yet he never uses this power at any point in this book. As mentioned above, he is portrayed as a seeker of knowledge; yet, his chief motivations in the course of the novel are greed and lust. We are suddenly informed that he has a brother more than two-thirds of the way through the story. At a certain point, as if realising he could meander about forever, Beckford visibly reins in his plot and forces a conclusion.
But these cavils are beside the point; style is the measure of Beckford's success here, and this novel has style in excess, weaving a sustained cavalcade of visions that must also be the result of its rapid, intense composition. The lush, sybaritic Palaces of the Senses, the many depictions of lavish banquets, the darkly comedic scenes of sorcerous doings by Vathek's mother Carathis and her minions, various scenes of Vathek's villainy and blasphemy and finally the portrayal of the devil and hell itself are all rendered with a fine eye for arresting, original detail. A vein of dark humour, occasionally tending to farce, runs through the story, giving us permission not take it all much more seriously than Beckford seems to have.