Review: Melmoth the Wanderer

There are Faustian stories about the Devil and Faustian stories about Faust, but Melmoth the Wanderer transcends the conventions (and the limitations) of both.

Nested narratives that nearly defy our ability to maintain just who is speaking and who is listening spiral out of each other like smoke rising from a censer and coalescing with dreamy fog. This is the story of a man who sells his soul for a little extra time—of a man who currently has one-hundred-and-fifty years to prey on the helpless, the innocent, the guilty, the tortured, the desperate, the insane; to win them by hook or by crook into trading places with him and taking over his ultimate damnation. In Melmoth the Wanderer we are presented at times with stories within stories within stories within stories within stories: each detailing the sufferings of a mankind determined, apparently, to keep on suffering. And through it all—glimmering like a jewel in a pile of spent ashes, brooding in feverish gloom against the epic tempest of his agonies, tying together the helpless and essentially unrelated skeins of a persecuted humanity throughout the centuries of his eerie, tormented existence—is Melmoth the Wanderer.

Drawing heavily on the dizzy bombast of the Gothic tomes that came before him, Charles Maturin took the languid, peregrine prose of Mrs. Radcliffe and tempered it with the vicious cruelties of the Lewis set, the political musings of Godwin, and the pathos of Godwin’s daughter, Mary Shelley. It is both indebted to the whole of the Gothic tradition, and hence considered the last of the great Gothic novels, and yet also an incredibly inventive and original piece of writing that is less the ‘last great Gothic novel’ and more the first in a new school that would eventually include such luminaries as Poe, Stoker, and even H. P. Lovecraft. It is also very much concerned with itself as a text, and its embedded narratives have impacted the whole of literature, whether through Maturin’s imitators or those who imitated his imitators. In fact, his format has to be read to be believed—it is a brave and eccentric way to tell a brave and eccentric story.

Maturin’s Gothicism is high on theatrics and delirium, but also on subtle and often overwhelmingly personal philosophy. A Protestant clergyman who moonlit as a writer of sensationalistic and sometimes overtly anti-religious fiction and drama, Maturin lived a life of contradictions. And above all, Melmoth the Wanderer explores the nature of religion in its rawest and ugliest of dimensions: seemingly a strictly anti-Catholic text, Melmoth reveals itself to have a beef with nearly every major religion, including Protestantism. And though, in his dubious and distracting ‘footnotes,’ Maturin insinuates that the things coming out of his characters’ mouths (particularly the Wanderer’s) should not be taken for his own opinions, he has loaded his text with so many of these caustic observations that one cannot help but conclude that, even if he doesn’t agree with what he’s saying, it can hardly matter: his words stand alone. Whether Maturin intended his text to work on the levels that it does or not, Melmoth the Wanderer is a deeply antagonistic, even cynical, novel: and not just in regard to religion, but in regard to nearly the entire range of human history, development, and thought. And—the contradiction to crown them all—it is also a book that revels in the beauty of religion and humanity at their purest: a kind of poisoned love-letter to the possibilities of justice in a world gone mad.

Writers as diverse as Balzac, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Vladimir Nabokov have referenced and admired Melmoth the Wanderer for its troubling, deeply romantic themes and its central character, who embodies them in the most hallucinatory and disturbing of ways. Melmoth, then, and Melmoth the Wanderer as a whole, serve as a mouthpiece for the rationalizations and, occasionally, the ravings of a man of uncommon considerations. It is a novel that out-Herods Herod at every available opportunity and also a novel of rare and almost incapacitating power. If a modern reader can manage to get along with its bizarre and maddening format of stories within stories, he will be rewarded with an experience that simply cannot be put out of mind: Melmoth is the stuff of nightmares, sure, but also of dreams—and visions.