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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1786) by William Beckford

"Eastern" influences in 18th century popular culture influenced the literary output of that era, and embedded a strand of otherness in the emerging tradition of the ovel.
Book Review
Vathek: An Arabian Tale (1786)
by William Beckford

   My initial take on Vathek, published back in 2010, wasn't even a take at all, just a block paragraph of the text with no added images or commentary

Carathis, Morakanabad, and two or three old vizirs, whose wisdom had hitherto withstood the attraction, wishing to prevent Vathek from exposing himself in the presence of his subjects, fell down in his way to impede the pursuit: but he, regardless of their obstruction, leaped over their heads, and went on as before. They then ordered the Muezins to call the people to prayers ; both for the sake of getting them out of the way, and of endeavoring, by their petitions, to avert the calamity: but neither of these expedients was a whit more successful. The sight of this fatal ball was alone sufficient to draw after it every beholder. The Muezins themselves, though they saw it but at a distance, hastened down from their minarets, and mixed with the crowd ; which continued to increase in so surprising a manner that scarce an inhabitant was left in Samarah except the aged; the sick, confined to their beds ; the infants at the breast, whose nurses could run more nimbly without them. Even Carathis, Morakanabad, and the rest, were all become of the party. The shrill screams of the females, who had broken from their apartments, and were unable to extricate themselves from the pressure of the crowd, together with those of the eunuchs jostling after them, and terrified lest their charge should escape from their sight; the execrations of husbands, urging forward and menacing each other ; kicks given and received ; stumblings and overthrows at every step ; in a word, the confusion that universally prevailed rendered Samarah like a city taken by storm, and devoted to absolute plunder. At last, the cursed Indian, who still preserved his rotundity of figure, after passing through all the streets and public places, and leaving them empty, rolled onwards to the plain of Catoul, and entered the valley at the foot of the mountain of the four fountains.


   The longer I continue the 1001 Books project, the more convinced I become that the most interesting literary period is 18th century English literature, the place and time of the birth of the modern novel.   Using the term "birth" is a hard opinion that the novel did not exist as an art form before the 18th century, and that after the 18th century, all novels would be created in the image of the 18th century English novel.   It also means that examining the surrounding culture (English popular and literary culture in the 18th century) is more worthwhile than examining the surrounding culture of the 19th and 20th century novel, because the novel was created in the 18th century.

  Vathek: An Arabian Tale is a typically eccentric non-novel of the 18th century that is a good illustration of one important strand of 18th century popular culture: The translation into English, for the first time, of A Thousand  Nights and a Night, early in the 18th century.  When Vathek: An Arabian Tale was published for the first time in 1786, the early elements for modern literary culture were in place:  A network of reviewers located in different markets, a distribution network for new works and most importantly, an Audience.   This Audience was well familiar with Arabian Tales by 1786, both as a work and a cultural category synonymous with the Middle East.

  Vathek can be judged the best of a whole category of 18th century novel-narratives directly influenced by the Aesthetic of Arabian Nights, but ditches the format of  fabelism for the more restrictive constraints of the novel. This "Arabian nights" strand of 18th century popular culture of which Vathek is a prime example, exists alongside the separate but related Aesthetic of Gothic, which also produced several notable 18th century early novels.

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