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24 december 2022

Vathek is a weird minor classic of the English literary canon that I have just got around to reading for the first time. If it hadn't come bundled into a free Kindle collection with some other 18th-century texts I was interested in, I might never have encountered Vathek in this lifetime.

Weird not just in content, though the novel is an arcane faux-Oriental tale of magic and monstrosities, with lurid incident enough for several books its size. But weird in circumstance. William Beckford, said by Wikipedia to have been the "richest commoner in England" in the 18th century, was a collector and commentator who wrote Vathek in French for self-amusement and then purportedly saw it translated into English – more or less an authorized translation, I'm not sure – by another antiquarian named Samuel Henley. Henley claimed to have translated Vathek from Arabic, but whether Beckford was in on this joke or not, he quickly brought out the French version to show its priority. Or so the story goes. If it is all true, Vathek has the additional distinction of being a minor English classic by a native speaker that was originally written in another language, one it shares with a few other curiosities like the plays of Samuel Beckett, and odder still in that most such classics are translated by their original authors.

On its own terms, Vathek is a daffy mash-up of Gothic complications and slapstick comedy. Vathek is a mercurial, self-centered caliph whose guiding principle is self-indulgence. His antagonist is an Indian "Giaour" who tantalizes Vathek with various magical objects, promising riches of which these trinkets are just a foretaste – but never delivering. At one point the Giaour tucks himself into a big ball and rolls away from the caliph's retainers as they kick him along. Other wacky scenes include a troop of young pretty boys tossed into an abyss, a foxy eunuch strung up by tormenters, and a pair of young lovers both given the Juliet treatment of the potion that will temporarily make you seem dead – except when they wake up, they assume they really are dead, and nobody disabuses them.

In fact, Vathek is less Gothic than it is Rabelaisian. Vathek's earthly appetites are enormous, and Beckford's emphasis on sensuousness – imagining five playgrounds for his caliph, each devoted to one of the five senses – sets the tone. The slapstick humor is also a debt to Rabelais, though Vathek is several orders of magnitude less bawdy.

Scholarship has seemed most interested in the novel's Orientalism: for instance Ahmed T. Hussein's 2014 article "William Beckford's Vathek: A Call for Reassessment," in Research on Humanities and Social Sciences. Beckford succeeds in setting Vathek entirely within an imaginary long-ago Muslim world. You can't call him respectful of that world, or (despite all the exotic vocabulary and descriptive detail) see him as having made much of an attempt to understand it. His Arab characters range from fanatical to depraved to unreasonable to evil. The "Giaour" is worse than all of them, though he eventually plays a cosmic-justice role in the novel, in the part of a redressing Devil.

But Beckford does not employ any Western character or all-knowing narrator to offer supercilious commentary on Vathek's Near East. Crazy and excessive as it all is, it seems to exist as a self-contained, if somewhat incoherent, universe. Nor does there seem to be much satiric calquing of Western concerns onto the incidents in Vathek, of the kind you might find in an "Oriental tale" by Voltaire, where there's a strong overtone that the characters are Westerners in thin disguise.

So Vathek is something different, a specific late-18th-century attempt to claim an imaginary space for a fantastic tale. For my part, I don't much like Rabelais, and I don't appreciate whatever Beckford was trying to do in Vathek, the overload of exoticism, the sprawling stories, the short attention span. Yet I did read the whole thing and pretty much followed the plot, so Vathek can't be as disorganized as, say, Rabelais himself.

Beckford, William. Vathek: An Arabian tale. Translated by Samuel Henley. 1786. Kindle Edition.