Review: Vathek

Surely few stranger works of fiction exist in the annals of Romantic literature than William Beckford’s dreamy, opulent, and hypnotically weird Vathek, where an undeniable and outrageous breed of almost slapstick comedy mingles like wine in water with scenes of utter blasphemy and perversion as the eponymous Caliph Vathek, tempted by the sprawling subterranean riches of Iblis (the Islamic demon par excellence), wanders a one-way path to absolute damnation in one of the more meandering and scandalous journeys of self-destruction ever penned. Supreme destination: a climax of hearts exploding into smokeless fire.

Along the way, a parade of droll, chimerical tableaux pepper the narrative with delightful diversions: pious dwarves bearing baskets of fruit and chirping incessantly, to the great annoyance of our Caliph, Qur’anic verses; saucy women tricking eunuchs into flinging about on swings in a perfumed harem; great feasts, examined in exacting detail, of everything from roasted wolves and boiled thistles to pistachio-stuffed lamb and drugged sherbets; an entire city kicking about a goblin who has curled into a ball and taken to rolling about through the streets of Samarra and eventually over a cliff; a woman burning bits and pieces of mummies, rhinoceros horns, and human beings atop a dizzyingly high tower to placate the forces of evil; divining fish; one-eyed deaf mutes getting lusty with ghouls who have risen drowsily from the grave to feast on fresh corpses. This is certainly not Aladdin.

Vathek is charming and potently hallucinatory stuff meant to be taken in one giant dose, like a short story. Take a couple of hours and give it your undivided attention; Vathek rewards with that glorious sensation of ‘I need to read this out loud to somebody.’ This is certainly not high literature, but it’s not just trash (not even just ‘good trash’) either. Vathek is a sort of world unto its own: equal parts Arabian Nights and Castle of Otranto, and also something unclassifiable and gorgeous and grotesque. The prose, while unashamedly purple, suits its narrative and has an irony about it that never fails to endear. There’s something almost Gogolian in its bizarre sense of humor, and the terror here is both Gothic and admirably understated. A jumble of contradictions, Vathek is as fickle as its author—and just as fascinating: William Beckford, ostracized from high society for his homosexual affair with young ‘Kitty’ Courtenay, was one of the wealthiest and most eccentric men of his generation, and Vathek is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of his own self-indulgent fantasies, here taken to their most far-flung extremes of escapism and ‘oriental’ magnificence. And like so many other curiosities in literature, from A Season in Hell to Melmoth the Wanderer, Vathek is all the more entrancing when this unique and sometimes uncomfortably personal relationship with its author is taken into account.

Vathek's influence on the Gothic movement as a whole is evident from the first paragraph, where we are introduced to our naughty Caliph’s ability to strike men dead with a single ‘terrible’ gaze; and this absurd, and yet ultimately captivating, sense of wonder pervades the entire novel like the cloying, and yet rapturous, odor of heady rosewater. A treat for reflective minds and those interested in literary theatrics both, I count myself an ardent admirer.


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