Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Depraved, Demonic, Delightful

The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1796

This is not a well-written book. It is clumsily written, features too much plot, is filled with constant poetic interruptions that are not examples of great verse, is crammed to the brim with melodrama, inserts an entire novella in the middle of the main plot sidetracking everything for well over one hundred pages, the characters are ridiculous, the machinations of the infernal are obvious and somewhat predictable, and I totally and completely loved every minute spent reading it.

How is such a thing possible?

Supposedly written in ten weeks when its author was a mere twenty, Lewis’ novel sprints through 445 pages of absurd melodrama as we watch the downfall of the titular Ambrosio, the too good to be true abbot of a monastery in Madrid. Typical for its time, as hardly any melodrama could successfully take place in jolly old England, Lewis’ novel stays continental and filled with hot-blooded types all too ready to draw their rapiers, though we do stray from Madrid in much of the secondary plot as we follow Lorenzo and Don Raymond as they alternately seek to rescue their damsels in distress Agnes and Antonia.

Hidden behind Ambrosio’s pious exterior is a man battling with his overweening vanity. Into his cloistered life (Ambrosio rarely ventures out of the monastery save for the occasional mass) comes a young assistant Rosario who time reveals to be, in fact, Matilda, a young woman professing a great love for the monk. Agreeing to both keep her secret and to allow her to continue to serve him as a novitiate after she vows to kill herself, Ambrosio begins to feel the stirring of lust for his young charge.

Just as this plot is really starting to thicken with Ambrosio giving in to his temptations, we jump the tracks and move along to the story of Lorenzo and Antonia, young Spaniards who are beginning a courtship. This story too is jerked aside as we following the story of Don Raymond and his beloved Agnes, the sister of Lorenzo. Agnes’ family, believing Don Raymond to be unworthy, have, unbeknownst to Lorenzo, committed the girl to a convent where she falls under the power of the malevolent Prioress who is interested more in the wealth her young nuns bring from their families.

It’s all getting rather confusing isn’t it? Well, matters are further complicated when Ambrosio develops a passion for Antonia. Rosario/Matilda, spurned by Ambrosio’s cooling passion, vows to help the monk obtain the object of his desire. Her various tricks and plans inevitably begin to feature aspects of witchcraft and infernal powers, but by the time Ambrosio realizes this he has been strung too far along the path toward slaking his lusts.

Along the way we have run-ins with the Spanish Inquisition, a ghost named The Bleeding Nun, hotelier bandits who kill and rob their guests, the Wandering Jew, and even the Devil himself. How can you go wrong with that cast of characters?

Lewis’ book is notable for just how shocking it was at the time when such long-winded decorous novels like Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho were praised as masterful examples of the Gothic form. While Lewis never recreated the same infamous success with this novel — his follow-up career seems to have consisted mostly of translations of Continental works and theatrical productions — this one novel alone is enough to cement his reputation. Its manic and lurid energy crackles even more than two hundred years later. It helped matters little, to be sure, that Lewis’ novel was praised by likewise unconventional figures of censure, Lord Byron and the Marquis de Sade. Additional Gothic short stories followed as well, almost everything else the man wrote sadly out of print these days. Yet, The Monk lives on.

And rightly so. Nowhere among the literature of the time have I found such a potent stew of sex and melodrama and the novel’s initial success and enduring popularity give lie to the idea that previous generations’ tastes were somehow more refined and uplifting than our own sordid ones. There was, as I read, the kind of déjà vu I experienced when I first read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer while taking a class on modernist novels. Miller’s gorgeous, rambunctious impieties towards everything respectable had the same insouciance as Lewis’ tawdry tale.

I had the bad luck to read this meaty volume before attempting Radcliffe’s work and the latter felt tepid, timid, and hardly worth the time or effort. Despite Lewis’ praise for Radcliffe’s novel (reading Udolpho prompted him to finish his own novel, going so far as to name it “one of the most interesting books that ever have been published”), I barely managed one quarter of Udolpho before setting it aside and prowling the library and online archives for even a taste of more of Lewis’ wickedly delicious brew.

Alas. Well overpriced, reprints of individual short stories or his most famous stage play The Castle Spectre or his account of his slave plantations in Jamaica Journal of a West Indian Proprietor are available, though neither aspect strikes me as likely to provide the same satisfaction as this book. Lewis’ Journal is of interest because it details Lewis’ first visit to his colonial properties and his interest there led to his second visit in the hopes of combating the slave trade or at least improving the appalling conditions on the island. There, he contracted yellow fever and was dead before his ship could return him to England. His burial at sea mirrors almost precisely a scene in The Monk, an irony I’m sure the author would have greatly appreciated.

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