Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book Review: The Monk by Matthew Lewis

The Monk
by Matthew Lewis
p. 1796 UK

         The Monk is a useful place to end a discussion of 18th century literature.  It was the last major gothic novel.  Lewis was a one hit wonder, and his story of instant celebrity is recongizable to anyone who watches American Idol.  Lewis had the benefit of having studied in Germany in his youth, at a time before many of the great contemporary German novels had been translated into English.  Lewis was haunted by claims of plagarism throughout his life, though to a contemporary reader the relationship between the Monk and a book like Doctor Faustus resembles more one of influencer/infulenced than plagarism.
          According to the introductory essay, Lewis wrote Monk with the idea that he would be creating the 18th century equivalent of a "smash hit."  Lewis was smart, sophisiticated, from a good family.  He was not an unconventional type.  The Monk was controversial in a way that presages the response of authorities to literature during the Victorian period.  There was a loud outcry about the 'blasphemous" nature of "The Monk," and Marquis de Sade was a huge fan.  None the less, Lewis didn't suffer any kind of censure, after writing "The Monk" he went on serve in Parliament.
          I thought that the Monk retained its... raciness. I was somewhat shocked by the explicit um... passion... of the titular character.  Perhaps 50 pages of gripping prose is sheathed in 300 pages of confusing digression and lengthy verse.  At times, Lewis' writing has the ostenacious genre-combining flavor of Thomas Pynchon, who is well known for his song lyrics.  The Monk, like so many other 18th century novels, displays such an awareness of self and artifice that it leads you to question any distinction between "modern" and "post-modern" in the novel.  Perhaps the more appropriate distinction when one considers the whole 300+ year history of the novel is "realism" vs. "non-realism."  I, for one, am I on the non realism side.
          It's surprising that this has not been turned into a Merchant and Ivory type movie production.  Especially with the recent penchant for vampire themes and Hollywood's enduring fascination with Jane Austen narratives, you would think that this text would have been adapted.

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