Sunday 15 September 2013

'Melmoth the Wanderer' by Charles Maturin

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A lesser known classic that I was very pleased to see included in the Penguin English Library series (a wonderful series of classic books with pretty new covers that include a few underappreciated gems). Written by Charles Maturin, and published in 1820, this is a dark, violent novel. The eponymous Melmoth wanders the Earth, preying on people in their darkest moments, trying to convince them to exchange places with him after having made a pact with the devil to extend his life for 150 years. As you can imagine, it’s not the most cheerful of books. In fact, it’s pretty relentlessly depressing, and genuinely harrowing in parts.

It can be a little hard to follow the narrative as there are lots of stories within stories, and I often found myself slightly disoriented when a new set of characters were introduced. However, once you settle in to the story you find yourself drawn in to the world of Melmoth. The writing is incredible, poetic and evocative in equal measure.

There’s a fair amount of satire embedded in the narrative, and some allusion-heavy passages, which were quite amusing (well, the ones I understood anyway!).  I don’t think it’s a massive block to the enjoyment of the novel if you don’t get all the references though. Maturin doesn’t hide his views on social and religious issues of the time, and it makes for an interesting take on the early nineteenth century.

This is a beautifully written book, but, at just under seven hundred pages, and a reasonably confusing narrative style, this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is, I think, worth the time and effort, and I can honestly say that I felt I wanted to re-read it as soon as I’d reached the end of the final page. If you like Gothic fiction and haven’t read this yet, do.

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