Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Book Review – Vathek by William Beckford

I'm something of a lefty, a revolutionary socialist, a Marxist. Then there's William Beckford late Eighteenth Century elitist spendthrift; reputed the richest commoner of his age; and, for a time, a Conservative MP for a rotten borough. So what should someone like me make of a novel written by such a person? What would political correctness demand? In fact things are far more complex than crude political diatribes would allow; this is a far better novel than might be expected.

William Thomas Beckford was an extraordinary man. His money came from daddy, also confusingly called William Beckford. Along with eyewatering amounts of cash came land and several Jamaica sugar plantations. The few biographers I have read seem a little vague on details. But surely this is just another way of saying his money came from slave labour; from black bodies worked to death. Even today, it seems, biographers disgracefully want to cover up for the slave trade; literally to whitewash history.

And could William Thomas Beckford spend? He managed to fritter away his fortune in a way that makes modern celebrities look positively frugal. When you see the gaudy gold plated crap that passes for style these days at least Beckford had taste. He managed to buy up some of the greatest artworks from his age.

Just as extraordinary is Beckford's Gothic novel Vathek. First published, in French, in 1786 and influenced by The Arabian Nights it presented itself as a contemporary translation of an ancient text. I don't think modern scholars would have been fooled; though a non-expert, like myself, could have easily been taken in.

This is the part of a book review where I'm supposed to give a you a long winded précis of story. So when you finally get round to reading the book you get annoyed because I've given away the plot. So lets just pretend I've done my duty here and fake it. After all Vathek masquerades as something of a fake.

I read two other smiler works recently. These being the more well known Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson and The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. All three cover broadly similar themes of fantasy and the leadership role of kings. Also Rasselas is set roughly in the same region. Personally I think Vathek is a best of the three; there's more substance to the plot. Otherwise writing skills are about evenly matched; the rival works being well worth reading.

The edition I read contains copious footnotes and, be warned, not all editions appear to reproduce them. These footnotes, I assume, are by Beckford himself and an essential part of the text. As the work presents itself as an ancient text, having been translated, the footnotes apparently being added by an editor, they give the novel an air of being a scholarly work. I like them, they show the experimental nature of the late eighteenth century novel; it's something later novelists could learn from.

I could see this novel making a great film. It could become a blockbuster mainstream movie; something in the manner of Lord of the Rings, and if the produce/director was really creative something actually interesting. Beckford writing is very pictorial; many of the scenes would prove expensive to stage – but not more costly then many lesser works. However any movie would be one where you lamented: read the book it's better.

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