Friday, 14 April 2000

William Beckford: Vathek (1786)

Translation: Samuel Henley, 1786
Edition: Penguin, 1970
Review number: 480

William Beckford was an eccentric millionaire; his short novel Vathek is an eccentric novel. It is apparently a morality tale based on some of the stories in the Arabian Nights. It tells the story of Vathek, an imaginary descendant and successor of Caliph Haroun al Raschid. He has two passions: for decadent luxury (vast feasts, beautiful concubines) and arcane knowledge. When an evil looking Indian magician visits his court, his desire for knowledge becomes even greater when he sees something of the magical power of this man. He becomes willing to go to any lengths to discover his secrets, even abjuring Islam and sacrificing the fifty most beautiful children in his realm. However, the episode has been arranged by Mohammed to give Vathek a last chance to repent of his evildoing, and disaster awaits him when he fails to do so.

That there is more to Vathek than meets the casual glance is shown by the rather disturbing fact that Beckford identified himself with the antihero of his tale, and his cousin's wife Louisa with Vathek's consort Nouhinar, while they both saw her son as one of the sacrificial victims. This identification was one of the reasons that Vathek had a reputation among later Romantics similar to that enjoyed by Huysmans' Against Nature among late nineteenth century aesthetes. Vathek was a character who put his chosen pleasures above the humanity of those around him, and feeds directly into the Romantic movement's glorification of sensation and experience, so that it is not particularly surprising that Byron referred to it as his 'Bible'. There is of course an element of self-dramatisation in this; there can be few people willing to sacrifice fifty children for their own pleasure.

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