Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, July 30, 2018

Monday, July 30, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Melmoth

Custom House: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Custom House: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Custom House: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Custom House: Melmoth by Sarah Perry


by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry's award-winning second novel, The Essex Serpent, announced her as an irresistible heir to the gothic literature tradition, keeping good company with writers such as Sarah Waters and A.S. Byatt. Now, with the brilliant and engaging Melmoth, she revisits the gothic genre, something the author considers "not a genre, but a sensation," in an arguably truer fashion.

Essex-born Helen Franklin--a saturnine and "drab creature" who works as a translator of the German language and who "[resists] pleasure and companionship as assiduously as a Trappist avoids conversation"--has lived in repentant self-imposed exile in Prague for 20 years. The "pleasures of Bohemia are not for [her]," and with an admirable, if not saddening, commitment to a kind of self-flagellating lifestyle she "willingly serves her full life term, having been her own jury and judge." Helen's history, the origins of her burden of guilt and why she has chosen self-denial remain unknown for the majority of the story.

In keeping with her atonement, Helen rents a room in the heavily decorated flat of one Albína Horáková, an "old, malicious, unkind" woman "devoted to sentimental opera and Turkish Delight," with whom she has a deceptively antagonistic relationship. But despite her generally sequestered life in "the mother of cities and... her thousand spires," Helen has allowed herself two friends: Karel Pražan, a Czech doctor associated with the university, and his English wife, Thea, a retired barrister. Warm in their reception of Helen, they frequently host dinners for their "odd friend," attempting to ply her with wine and food, which she always rejects or takes in scarce amounts.

However, Thea has suffered a stroke, and "they are gone now, those easy evenings." Furthermore, Helen has just been chased down by an uncharacteristically "stooping, uneasy... frantic Karel" who's holding an old leather file that is filled with stained documents. It's monogrammed with the letters J.A.H., and he grips it "with both avarice and distaste." Helen worries that Karel and these files that he insists on sharing with her, these things with supposedly "such malignant power," threaten to upset her exacting and calm mind that is "buttressed on all sides against disruption, against emotion." Paranoid and shaken, he's surely being followed by a woman and asks Helen, "Tell me: do you know the name Melmoth?"

The documents that Karel urges Helen to read are the compiled research of the haunted Josef Aldelmar Hoffman, a 94-year-old German who grew up in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Josef's files include a short entry from Anna, a young woman in Cairo in 1931. She has recorded the testimony of Isimsiz, a beggar from Turkey whose father had forewarned him about "the pride of nations." Another submission is from a 17th-century Englishman who writes to his wife about Alice Benet, an old Protestant woman who recalls her younger years under "Bloody Mary" Tudor's reign, and her encounter with a divine-smelling woman "clad in some thin black stuff." All the stories contained in Hoffman's collection come from those who did "what [they] ought not to have done."

Reworking the eponymous character from Charles Maturin's lesser-known 1820 gothic masterpiece Melmoth the Wanderer, Perry's monstrous specter is a woman cursed since the time of Jesus "to walk from Jerusalem to Constantinople, from Ireland to Kazakhstan... excommunicated from the grace of God" and charged with bearing witness to "guilt and transgression." While some of the sins in Melmoth are revealed and certainly worthy of righteous penalty, others go undisclosed or are of a more precarious immoral nature. But Melmoth is a deeply hungry figure, conjured by the thinnest sliver of contrition.

Perry wields equivocation with skillful finesse. Such ambiguity, along with character mirroring and the coupling of opposing sensations (abstinence and indulgence, desire and fear, foreign and familiar) are the strange and beautiful connective tissues shoring up Melmoth. She pits reason against extreme emotions, resulting in uncertainty, then abandons readers to their own judgmental devices. The end result is an almost uncanny shared experience between Perry's audience and her characters.

Melmoth is a genius synthesis of multiple classic gothic elements. Perry's characterizations of both people and places are ample and true to form (some of the best scenes occur in an opera house and a library), yet never cloying or bogged down in elucidation. In pulling these elements through time and adjusting them to the contemporary moment--while masterfully maintaining a certain timelessness--Perry picks apart the intimate costs of personal moral failures and collective atrocities. And, as with each confession in Melmoth, the revelation of Helen's crime and its consequences has a transformative effect on the confessor. Here, it is not only another heartbreaking reminder of the futility of looking away, for "only children think closing your eyes makes a thing go away," but also a reminder of the beauty in hope. --Shannon Hanks-Mackey

Custom House, $27.99, hardcover, 288p., 9780062856395, October 16, 2018

Custom House: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry: The Hope of Being Good

photo: Jamie Drew

Sarah Perry is the author of the international bestsellers The Essex Serpent and After Me Comes the Flood. She lives in Essex, England. Her new novel, Melmoth, will be published by HarperCollins on October 16.

What draws you to the gothic genre? Do you find any limitations, or possibilities, in writing it in the contemporary moment?

I wasn't consciously drawn to the gothic; it is more the case that during work on my debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, which I completed as part of my Ph.D., my supervisor drew my attention to its gothic sensibilities. I was to an extent slightly taken aback, but then began to study the genre and became enamored of it.

Its appeal (quite beside the fact that I simply seem to have been writing in that manner for the past few years) is, I think, that it is not a genre, but a sensation. Its success depends on the ability to affect the writer to the same extent, if at all possible, as one of the characters in the book. It is not quite horror or terror; there is a seductive quality to the gothic which draws the reader in, even if rather against their will. Historically, the gothic was also politically a very vital and important force: it found its first real prominence around the time of the French Revolution, partly because the gothic speaks of transgression and of revolt against the social, religious and political status quo. It is morally and politically dangerous, and that is very appealing to me.

What's the genesis of Melmoth--your experience or process in creating it?

I first read Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer some years ago during my doctoral studies. It horrified me so deeply that in parts I found myself putting my hand over the page at an especially gruesome or troubling scene, a little like a child watching a horror movie through their fingers. I have never re-read it in its entirety.

Even as a child I knew that I wanted to write one of the great titular monsters, like Dracula, or Frankenstein. I also knew that I wanted my monster to be a woman. These two imperatives--being haunted and disturbed by Maturin's Melmoth, and wanting to create a female monstrous villain--came together. I resisted at first, to a certain extent. I suppose I shied away from a feeling of borrowing from one of the great writers. But of course Stoker did not invent the vampire, and Shakespeare borrowed King Lear.

What was it about Maturin's menacing figure that attracted you, and what inspired you to reenvision him in the way you did?

The great thing about Maturin's Melmoth (and all the great villains such as Richard III, Milton's Satan, Dracula, etc.) is that he is both absolutely wicked and horribly seductive. There is something about him that evokes a feeling, however reluctant, of a kind of longing pity. He gloatingly observes or causes the most appalling psychological and physical terrors, but his predicament is so horrifying that the reader can forgive. More than that, he is (I can find no other satisfying word!) frighteningly sexy. There is a thread of story in Maturin's novel that is a love story, and it is by no means impossible to imagine a young woman being, however reluctantly, seduced.

What prompted you to choose Prague as Helen's place of self-exile?

I had been casting about for how to drive myself on as a writer, and how to force myself into grappling with the gothic genre in new ways. I am a creature of East Anglia, and always drawn to writing about the flatlands and liminal spaces, and about the natural gothic, so to speak. I wanted to see what would happen to my writing if I were to inhabit a different space.

Maturin's Melmoth draws on the Central European myth of the Wandering Jew, and so when an opportunity came to be the UNESCO City of Literature Writer in Residence in Prague for two months in 2016 I took it very gratefully. Instantly I knew that here, I would find Melmoth. 

Nationalism and complicity, religion and morality, feature heavily in Melmoth. Can you speak to those narrative choices?

At the time of first considering the novel's themes, I was conscious that there were atrocities being committed in the world that we were being forced to witness because images were being shared on social media. Here in Europe, it was the drowning of Syrian refugees trying to find safety, and others which we didn't see so readily. So my Melmoth became Melmoth the Witness, and the novel became about the imperative placed on us to bear witness, even when we can hardly bear to look. It is because of this that the novel draws on historical atrocities which are either denied or rarely written about.

I have always been preoccupied with the question of what it means to be good, and (especially, and these days, controversially) what it means to be good, but to do evil. It is consoling, especially when thinking of political and national evildoing, to think that there are good people and there are bad people, and that naturally we are one of the good ones and would never do what the bad ones have done. This is a comforting and dangerous deceit. The doctors who were at the heart of engineering the Nazi death camps did not enter medical school as monsters. They did monstrous things out of cowardice and complicity and because machines of government can crush the humanity out of the humane.

For me, the mark of the book's success or failure will be the tenderness (or otherwise!) of the reader's conscience on the final page.

Melmoth is your third book. Compared to when your first book was published, how do you see yourself as a writer (or the act of writing) now? 

I recall writing my first novel as a sort of desperate attempt to prove that I could do the one thing I had ever wanted to do. It was rather like pulling teeth, reinserting them into the cavities, and pulling them again. It was almost purely an artistic and intellectual pursuit, I suppose. Writing The Essex Serpent was different again; it was a period of what felt, comparatively, like very happy and joyful work. Between finishing that novel and beginning Melmoth, I began to lose faith in the value and purpose of literature. In the face of what was going on in the world then (and things have not, precisely, improved since) writing fiction felt like fiddling while Rome burned. But I felt that if I could write a novel that was artistically satisfying and had some kind of moral purpose, then I could convince myself that I could go on writing.

So, in that case I suppose the honest answer, and I suspect it is unattractively priggish, is that I began writing in the hope of being a good writer, and now I do it in the hope of being good. --Shannon Hanks-Mackey

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