30 April 2007

melmoth the wanderer

Filed under: currently reading — bookweevil @ 1:18 am

(1820), by Charles Maturin.

Shaggier than the worst of shaggy dog stories. It features a set of ‘frame’ stories nested to a ridiculously deep level (which, reviewers delight in pointing out, Maturin himself has trouble keeping track of), one of which requires you to believe that an escaped prisoner of the Inquisition is relating, word for word, the contents of a manuscript he once translated for a Jewish hermit many years ago, and is now repeating to a newly-inherited Irish landowner over the course of several days’ monologue. (And I think it nests again later on.)

Famous for the character of Melmoth, a Wandering Jew–type figure who roams the world to see if he can find someone willing to give up their hope of salvation in return for taking over his fate of extended life and youth, but damnation once he dies. But for greate swathes of the 700-page book, Melmoth makes barely any appearance: we hear the stories of a number of other characters, which possess some psychological acuity, but are mostly pretty forgettable.

*attention wanders*

… Oh, looky — there’s even a Wikipedia entrylet on it, though stubbish in the extreme. It says his deal with the Devil was for 150 extra years of life, but that must’ve been in a section of novel so dull I either fell asleep or skimmed through it.

Still going to finish it though. I’m intrigued to finish off the Indian isle episode I’m currently at, and hopefully Melmoth will actually play a slightly bigger part in the rest of the book.

General impressions:

  • Modern readers will probably find Maturin’s authorial notes rather intrusive, but it seems this wasn’t a barrier to Melmoth being hugely popular at the time.
  • His feel for structure is terrible. Apparently he originally intended to make the novel a connected series of novellas or short stories. I agree with the editor (Alethea Hayter), that would’ve worked much better.
  • But at least he digresses less than Victor Hugo.

— Added later: It turns out the story of Melmoth’s curse is discussed only in a single paragraph in the last chapter of the book. Oops. Should’ve finished the book before I went looking for potential spoilers. Ah well.


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