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Vathek by William Beckford
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Vathek (original 1786; edition 1816)

by William Beckford

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7052613,430 (3.21)1 / 94
Member:panzerwolf
Title:Vathek
Authors:William Beckford
Info:London, 1816.
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:fiction, classics

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Vathek by William Beckford (1786)

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English (21)  French (2)  Swedish (2)  German (1)  All languages (26)
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
William Beckford wrote "The History of Caliph Vathek" in French in 1784, but it was first published in an English translation by Samuel Henley in 1786. Widely regarded as one of the seminal works of Gothic literature, this strange, unclassifiable novel recounts its eponymous protagonist's quest for esoteric knowledge and carnal pleasure, a quest which ultimately leads to his damnation.

"Vathek" combines exotic descriptions of the Orient with passages of grotesque comedy and a dollop of supernatural derring-do. Indeed, one of the challenges for modern sensibilities (and possibly its original readers as well) is to determine when Beckford should is being earnest and when he ventures into self-parody. Even allowing for the genre's excesses, episodes such as that of a wizard being turned into a ball and being kicked over Vathek's kingdom are clearly intended as black comedy. But what about Vathek's damnation, described in language of poetic intensity? Is the moralistic ending to be taken at face value or is Beckford being ironic? The author's letters suggest the former to be the case - which is rather surprising considering the atmosphere of decadence which permeates the novel.

If read purely for narrative pleasure, Vathek might disappoint. The plot is episodic, there are too many changes of gear, and the novel's ultimate message - if it does have one - is elusive and unclear. Yet, for anybody interested in early Romanticism, Orientalism, supernatural fiction or, for that matter, unusual literary fare, this is a must-read.

The Oxford World Classics text follows the 1816 English language version, prepared by Beckford himself. It includes an informative introduction by Roger Lonsdale which, interestingly, makes the case for *not* considering Vathek a Gothic novel. Also included are the erudite endnotes which Beckford included in the 1816 edition of Vathek (although first-time readers might prefer just reading through it and then consulting the notes on subsequent readings). ( )
3 vote JosephCamilleri | Sep 18, 2014 |
Certainly one the odder books I've had the pleasure of reading, I can say that for it. Mostly just didn't manage to keep my interest very well, but there were some brief moments that shone through. The introduction in the edition I read, by Roger Lonsdale, was quite good, but I disliked how the annotations were handled. ( )
  JBD1 | May 15, 2014 |
William Beckford, the author of “Vathek,” led a rather remarkable life – so remarkable, in fact, that reviewers and critics are left baffled at how to interpret it other than reading it as a sort of fantastic confabulation of his life. He was born in 1760, son of the two-time Lord Mayor of London; at the tender age of ten years, his father died and left him one of the richest men in the entire country. This allowed him to pursue his interests in art, architecture, and travel, all of which he did on grand scales. His tastes were just as spectacular as his wealth, acquiring over the course of his life Giovanni Bellini’s “Agony in the Garden,” Raphael’s “Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” and Velazquez’s “Philip IV in Brown and Silver.” He took music lessons from Mozart. After very possibly having an affair with his cousin’s wife, as well as another with a boy who just happened to be the son of William Courtenay, Ninth Earl of Devon, he exiled himself to the Continent, where he lived most of his life.

Vathek was written in 1781 or 1782, while Beckford was in his early twenties. It has heavy Gothic influences, but is very recognizable as one of the “Oriental tales” of which the English reading public could hardly get enough of at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Beckford originally wrote the book in French, only later to have it translated into English by Samuel Henley in 1786 and published by Oxford World Classics.

However grotesque and bizarre the story, two of its central characters are historical. Vathek is based on al-Wathiq, an Abbasid caliph and grandson of Harun al-Rashid, and his mother Carathis is based on al-Wathiq’s mother, Qaratis. That’s where all historical resemblances end, however. Goaded on by his mother, Vathek seeks out occult learning in the sciences, astronomy, and other “black arts” that shock some of his fellow Muslims, including his counselor-vizier Morakanabad and the eunuch Bababalouk. He is tempted by a demon named Giaour who promises him riches beyond belief in a Palace of Subterranean Fire, and does a number of heinous things to please Giaour, including tossing fifty beautiful boys to appease its bloodlust.

Vathek then meets the kind, pious Emir Fakreddin, and quickly falls in love with his daughter Nouronihar, who is already betrothed to her young cousin Gulchenrouz. Vathek’s infatuation excites Nouronihar, however, and seems equally greedy for the treasures in the Palace of Subterranean Fire. They eventually reach the Palace, ruled by Iblis (the Devil of Islamic mythology), but it turns out to be something that more resembles Dante than any kind of heavenly reward. Carathis soon joys them there, explicitly having abandoned all Hope, one assumes for eternity.

Because of all the action that takes place in an extremely short novel (this version clocks in right at 120 pages), its pace can seem hurried, confused, and frantic. This is understandable since, in several places, Beckford cites having written it in either two or three days. “Vathek” mostly seems to be a vehicle for Beckford to bandy about his criticisms of middle-class English mores and sexual morality (Nouronihar’s love interest, Gulchenrouz, is often referred to as “feminine” and “effete.”) It can just as easily be read as a very young Beckford trying to come to terms with how he sees himself and his ambitions in relation to those of society less forgiving of thoroughgoing aesthetes. Because of its length, I would recommend this for anyone interested in the ever-popular Georgian-era Oriental tale mixed with high Gothic romance. I don’t think anyone has ever accused Beckford of being a great writer – but it is not without interest, even if it is only the interest of the fascinating eccentric who wrote it. ( )
1 vote kant1066 | Sep 22, 2013 |
After reading this book, I have to question why it was selected as one of the 1001 books to read before you die. I read this in online installments - maybe it would have been better in audio or paper... I could see how the whole plot was farcical, but unlike other books of that genre like Candide, I didn't see the point. Definitely could have used some Cliff Notes to accompany this one... ( )
  jmoncton | Jun 3, 2013 |
Only the 2nd book that I've not been able to finish. Too unbelievable, reads to me like The Arabian Nights on acid. ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (50 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Beckfordprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Benda, WolframTranslator and Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Carter, LinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Helnwein, GottfriedIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lonsdale, RogerEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moravia, AlbertoForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paoletti, GiovanniEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pintor, GiaimeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The long and extravagant career of the author of Vathek would surely have impressed Samuel Johnson as a notable and sustained illustration of what his Imlac had called (in his own very different 'oriental' tale) 'that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life'. (Introduction)
Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun al Raschid.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0192836560, Paperback)

Beckford's Gothic novel, "Vathek", an Arabian tale, was originally written in French when the author was 21. It is the story of Caliph Vathek, whose eye can kill at a glance, who makes a pact with the Devil, Eblis.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:38 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

William Beckford was a youthful millionaire who first published 'Vathek' in late 18th century France. He was exiled from England for his outrageous behaviour whilst at the same time being considered by Byron and Lovecraft as a great Gothic writer. This ed. of this translation originally published: 1980.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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