Saturday, October 29, 2011

Early Gothic Showdown: THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO versus VATHEK

Beckford vs Walpole

For the Classics Circuit: Gothic Lit Edition, I thought it would be fun to read two of the earliest examples of Gothic literature and compare them. I first heard about these crazy 18th-century kids when studying Gothic Revival architecture--Horace Walpole (right) built Strawberry Hill, arguably the first Gothic Revival house. The much more elegant William Beckford (left), built Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower. Both were mad for collecting--Walpole, medieval art; Beckford, items from the Orient and Italian Quattrocento paintings (many of which you can now see at the National Gallery)--and were full of more than little hubris, which is reflected in their respective books.

All of this makes the novels sound hoity-toity, doesn't it? Let me assure you, they're not.

The Castle of Otranto by Walpole (1764)

It's difficult to summarize this book because it doesn't really seem to have a plot, but essentially it's purported to be a translation by Walpole of a 16th-century manuscript he found in Naples that recounts a story from the 12th century--or earlier!--about a prince named Manfred who was a total dick and eventually got hoisted in his own petard.

This is honestly one the most bizarre books I have ever read IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. If you want a story that'll give you the OMGWTFBBQ's, then you should definitely pick Otranto up, because it is alllll over that like sticky in honey peanut butter. It's like Walpole was sitting around writing and thinking, "Hey, you know what this story needs? A prophecy! A murder! A shrieking virgin! A lost son returned! A lost father returned! A secret passage! Knights! Saints! Clergy! A convent! Sword fights!" and on and on, every other paragraph. I've heard some people explain this by saying Walpole was writing a parody, but I really don't think so. This was apparently the first book of its kind, so what was he parodying? I think it just reads like a parody because it's utterly ridiculous.

Basically, the one redeeming factor of this book is that it's short and you can skim through it. The idea that Otranto sparked the creation of an entire genre of literature is MIND BOGGLING to me. Because I was thinking something like that would be, you know, good-ish. Is this what 18-century avant-garde writing looks like?

Vathek by Beckford (written in French, 1782; published in English, 1786)

Compared to Otranto, Vathek is pretty good (the key words in that sentence being "Compared to Otranto"). Written in a much different style but with a similar theme, Vathek tells the story of a caliph who's a sensualist and wants to know ALL THE THINGS. But the gods, they don't want the people to know ALL THE THINGS; that's the gods' job. Everything is going great until a few deities take notice and send a djinni to lure Vathek into a trap made mostly of his own ego. Ensue abuses of power, renouncing of Islam, foolish escapades, mass murder, etc., until Vathek eventually gets what's coming to him.

Vathek reads like a tale from the Arabian Nights (quite deliberately), and would actually be readable if one was able to root for Vathek at all. Instead, he's totally unlikable and TSTL to boot. It makes a lot more narrative sense than Otranto, but since I knew exactly where it was going and didn't care about the character enough to find out how it was going to get there, I got bored. I also don't know why this is considered a Gothic novel. I do have to say the ending where Vathek gets his just desserts was pretty satisfying, though.


Even though I wouldn't call it good, Vathek definitely wins over Castle of Otranto. I think Beckford's Ideas about power and human limitations, which really reminded me of Frankenstein, were much more elegantly and effectively conveyed than whatever Walpole was up-chucking. I find it REALLY interesting that both of these men--who were incredibly rich, knew everyone who was worth knowing (Beckford took music lessons from AmadeusfreakingMOZART, for god's sakes), and spent lavish amounts of money creating a world for themselves that reflected their fantasies--wrote books about self-centered egomaniacs who needed to be taken down a peg. That being said, from the viewpoint of literature, whyyy are we still reading these books???

Beckford and Walpole were fascinating men, but as far as the Gothic is concerned, their architectural contributions seem more successful to me than their literary ones.

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