Country: Great Britain
Genre: Fiction, Gothic Fiction
Publication Year: 1786
Edition Read: Broadview Editions, 2001. academic critical edition, heavily annotated. Ed. Kenneth W. Graham
First Read: Yes
Vathek, William Beckford’s 1786 gothic novel first came to my attention when I was in the final semester my English degree. It was 18th Century Literature II – The Gothic Novel. I had intentionally saved my 18th century requirement until the bitter end (along with my Medieval requirement) as I had some challenges in my survey courses as a daisy fresh student with Jonathan Swift (who I have grown to enjoy) and Alexander Pope (who still gives me hives). Fortunately, the professor I had this for the 18th Century course was fantastic, and the course did not contain any author who gave me hives (although The Monk gave me nightmares). Due to my heavy course load, I had to make some sacrifices in terms of reading and rely on online summaries and such for a few titles. Vathek was the sacrificial lamb. For several years now, this book has sat patiently on my shelf, taunting me, saying “you were supposed to read me.” I decided it was time, not out of some sense of obligation, but because it was the only book on that part of the shelf I hadn’t finished yet.
Vathek is a product of Orientalism – a cultural obsession for some during the late 1700s. This short novel is set in the mid-9th century and tells the story of Vathek, the ninth caliph of the Abassides (the character being very loosely inspired by the historical Al-Wathiq who reigned as caliph from 842 –847). The primary forward motion of the story focuses on Vathek’s fall from grace and renunciation of Islam. Along with his overbearing mother Carathis, Vathek goes down a path of evil to curry favor with a devious fellow called Giaour to gain magical powers. Ultimately though, Vathek and mama must roam Hell silently for all of eternity.
The primary point of interest for me as I got into this book was the treatment of Islam, both in the context of what would now be called be historical fiction and how Islam was interpreted, for lack of a better word, through the lens of 18th century English sensibilities. Beckford seems to be very well-versed in the minutiae of Islamic mythology and history and seamlessly weaves that into his novel. The author is, of course, not a Muslim, so his interpretation of Islam is that of an outsider. I continually vacillated between whether Beckford had a genuine appreciation for the culture, or perhaps Islam was simply an artistic device to tell a fall-from-grace gothic tale, or another possibility is that Beckford looked upon this other culture with the snobbery you would expect of an Englishman at that time.
That’s all I really have to say about Vathek. This was a fun read. It is a short book, only around 100 pages in the volume I have, with no chapter breaks. The dialogue is catchy. And it’s gothic and proto-fantasy elements are very well crafted. All-in-all, a satisfying book if you’re looking for something off the beaten path.