Friday, 19 August 2011

Vive l’Espièglerie

The Monk, Matthew Lewis
Is this book dazzlingly good? No, it’s coruscatingly good, as though shafts of lightning were splitting a midnight sky over a landscape of mingled grotesquery and beauty. It’s hard to believe that Lewis was only nineteen when he wrote The Monk, which is richly inventive, deeply perceptive, and highly entertaining. Scandalously lubricious too: it seems likely that Lewis wouldn’t have got away with it if he hadn’t been guying Spanish Catholicism in this tale of a highly talented abbot brought to lust, crime and final doom by a mixture of overweening pride, worldly inexperience, and demonic temptation. Fortunately perhaps, its bloody twists and turns don’t carry true conviction, partly because Lewis seems barely to believe in the supernatural, let alone in Christianity, and partly because The Monk reads like a converted play rather than a true novel. The older literary form, to which Lewis turned frequently later in his short career, was still informing the newer and the characters seem to be performing on a stage rather than living in a fully imagined world. There are “scenes” in grottos and bedrooms, with exits and entrances, and the moonlight or sounds that accompany them could easily be realized as stage effects. The poetry that punctuates the text, declaimed now by a gypsy fortune-teller, now by an aristocrat’s page, is theatrical too, and even if the plot weren’t so fantastic, The Monk would not purge with pity and terror as true tragedy should. Lewis would have laughed at the suggestion: it’s a jeu d’esprit written to entertain first the author himself, then whatever readers happened to come his way. A lot did when it was first published and a lot have done so ever since, even in the expurgated second edition Lewis produced when the scandal caused by the first threatened his career as an MP. If you want to enter the Gothic, step this way.

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