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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review: Melmoth the Wanderer & The Death of Gothic Lit

BOOK REVIEW
Melmoth the Wanderer
by Charles Maturin
Oxford's World's Classics Edition
1998 edition
Edited with Notes by Douglas Grant
With an Introduction by Chris Baldick

   The fact to understand going in to Melmoth the Wanderer is that it is the "last" of the classic literature Gothic novels. Published in 1820, Melmoth appeared against a back drop where,

      "Gothic fiction had flourished in England since the early 1790s led by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew 'Monk' Lewis after the model had been established by Horace Walpole in the The Castle of Otranto (1764), but by the time Melmoth was written, the genre could be seen to be declining in impact.... Part of Maturin's achievement in Melmoth the Wanderer was to breath some belated vitality into what seemed an exhausted convention."
  In other words, he revived an uncool style of novel.  The way I read it, Melmoth was the Marilyn Manson to  Matt Lewis's Alice Cooper: A situation where the later Artist was inspired by the former and sought to "out do" the earlier Artists in a way that would draw the attention of audiences.

  Unlike many of the other 19th century authors who "made it" into the Canon- Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens to name a couple- Maturin was a financial failure and not all of his books were "hits."  Contrast this to the situation that Walter Scott faced:  ALL OF HIS BOOKS WERE HITS.  Some explanation for this can be found in their relative positions within the relevant intellectual groups: Scott was right in the middle of a centrally located group and  Maturin was an obscure church official in Ireland.

 To the modern reader, Maturin is ahead of his time in terms of the poetics of terror fiction, but the clunky narrative format:  A story, within a story, within a story bracketed by a ten page wrap up (this is a 450 page book, mind you.); leaves the modern reader cold.  The modern reader is left with plenty of time to look at the proverbial wall paper and furnishings of an ornately decorated but empty room.

      I'm not trying to obscure the essentially psychological appeal that Gothic fiction had to readers in the 19th century, "Gothic fiction's distinctive animating principle is a psychological interest in states of trepidation, dread, panic, revulsion, claustrophobia and paranoia."  Melmoth really f***** nails it.

   The most off-putting /interesting aspect of Melmoth to the modern reader is the narrative structure of the novel.  It is..confused- with multiple layers of stories and story tellers linking Melmoth the Wanderer to Melmoth the contemporary narrator(his descendant).   It's interesting to see how often that experimentation with form in 19th century literature prefigure many of the debates contained in "post modern" discourses about literature. Melmoth the Wanderer is clearly a Faustian inspired demon visitor trying to obtain souls in a hugely talky, nineteenth century way- there are literally a hundred pages of Melmoth lecturing someone or another about the evils of modern life in language reminiscent of French philosphes and German romantics.

   For me, the take away was the million and one ways Maturin comes up with to describe a character being scared of something.  The characters often reminded me of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo in the old Hanna- Barbera cartoons where Shaggy yells "Zoinks." and they run away.  Indeed, many of the narrative conventions in Scooby-Do seem to be a faint echo of the well established conventions of Gothic Literature.

  It goes without saying that the Gothic is still with us. I think it should also go without saying that is you are an Artist seeking to communicate with a Gothic loving audience, you'd best be aware of ALL of the "circles of resonance" that can connect a specific Artwork to an audience concerned with that style.  That means going back to the BEGINNING and familiarizing yourself with EVERYTHING that proceeded your Artwork so that you have an explicit understanding of the implicit understandings of a particular Audience (Goths, for example.)  The role of the artist is NOT to make the implicit understandings explicit among the Audience, but rather to evoke those understanding to maximum effect using their superior education and training.


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