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Melmoth (2018)

by Sarah Perry

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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9497222,351 (3.44)57
"It has been years since Helen Franklin left England. In Prague, working as a translator, she has found a home of sorts--or, at least, refuge. That changes when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a strange confession and a curious warning that speaks of Melmoth the Witness, a dark legend found in obscure fairy tales and antique village lore. As such superstition has it, Melmoth travels through the ages, dooming those she persuades to join her to a damnation of timeless, itinerant solitude. To Helen it all seems the stuff of unenlightened fantasy. But, unaware, as she wanders the cobblestone streets Helen is being watched. And then Karel disappears. . ."--… (more)
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» See also 57 mentions

English (70)  German (2)  All languages (72)
Showing 1-5 of 70 (next | show all)
Liked it more than Essex Serpent, but still didn't love it. A little too caught up in the prose, leaving the plot a little sparse and vague. ( )
  RaynaPolsky | Apr 23, 2024 |
As I mentioned earlier, I adored the general feel of this book... it’s Gothic in nature and I couldn’t help but fall in love with beautiful descriptions of the white cobblestones beneath Helen’s feet or the countless cups of bitter tea poured from the piping hot kettle. However, I found the plot of Melmoth to be quite slow and disjointed; I loved so many parts of this novel – the writing in and of itself is absolutely phenomenal (reminiscent of Sarah Waters in my opinion) – I’m just not so sure all the parts worked well together as a whole. The timeline of the events was very interesting but the characters all fell rather flat, including Melmoth, and I felt as though the entire horror component of this book was meek.

This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2018 and sadly, it was quite disappointing. The next time that I’m looking for a book reminiscent of 19th century gothic tale, I will actually read a legitimate 19th century gothic tale. Perhaps Melmoth the Wanderer…

While the actual novel itself is somewhere in the 2-3 star range, THAT THOSE DECKED PAGES AND THE COVER ARE A 10. Absolutely gorgeous! ( )
  cbwalsh | Sep 13, 2023 |
The mythical spirit Melmoth is brought to the attention of a lonely translator in Prague, who learns that Melmoth appears to those bearing horrible guilt. As the story unfolds, you realize she has guilt of her own.

Sarah Perry is an extraordinary writer. People call this novel Gothic, and I suppose it is that, but it is also grounded in the reality of human behavior, and what people may do so that they don't have to face their own culpability. If it sounds like a downer, it isn't, because Perry's writing is ornate and complex, pulling the reader along. ( )
  LisaMLane | Jun 7, 2023 |
Sarah Perry's brand of Gothic is an existential one, where theological concepts of sin, guilt and redemption are writ large. Perry has never made a secret of her strict religious upbringing and the impact which it has had on her writing. In this case, however, the religious elements also betray the influence of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, an 1820 novel which serves as the inspiration and model for Perry’s book.

Maturin’s protagonist is a Faustian character who strikes a deal with the Devil, selling his soul for a new lease of life. As the end of his extended term approaches, Melmoth searches the world for someone desperate enough to take his place. This turns out to be a surprisingly challenging task. There’s a moral behind this. Maturin, an Irish Protestant clergyman who, when not writing novels and plays, applied his skills to composing fiery sermons, stated in the preface to Melmoth that the germ of “this Romance (or Tale)” was to be found in one of his homilies:

'At this moment is there one of us present, however we may have departed from the Lord, disobeyed his will, and disregarded his word–is there one of us who would, at this moment, accept all that man could bestow, or earth afford, to resign the hope of his salvation?–No, there is not one–not such a fool on earth, were the enemy of mankind to traverse it with the offer!'

Sarah Perry recasts Melmoth as a black-clad woman, damned to roam the Earth after denying the Resurrection of Jesus, feet bloody from her lonely travels. This has echoes of the tale of the Wandering Jew, one of several myths and legends subtly evoked by Perry for added resonance. Rather than merely a temptress or wanderer, however, Perry’s Melmoth is, first and foremost, a “witness”: ever waiting, ever watching, listening and remembering the darkest and guiltiest secrets, ‘lest we forget’. Like Maturin’s Melmoth, she also seeks individuals as desperate as she is – except that rather than wanting them to replace her, she tries to lure them to accompany her on her guilt trip.

Structure-wise, Perry takes a leaf from Maturin’s book and from other Gothic classics such as Potocki’s "Manuscript found in Saragossa". Thus the novel is a matryoshka doll of stories within stories, most which are based on “found” documents or related by unreliable narrators. Melmoth’s character provides a link between the different episodes, but there is also an overarching frame story featuring one Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman working as a translator in Prague. Lonely and melancholic, not unlike Melmoth herself, Helen finds some warmth in her friendship with academic Karel and his English lawyer wife Thea. It is Karel who introduces Helen to the mythical figure of “Melmoth”, about whom he is becoming obsessed. After Karel disappears, Helen learns, through documents he leaves behind, of other people who, over the centuries, appear to have been haunted by Melmoth. In a brilliant narrative move, Perry uses each episode to portray examples of individual guilt which also represent some of the worst instances of Man’s inhumanity to Man. We witness burnings of heretics in 16th Century England, lowly Turkish officials facilitating the Armenian genocide and, in one of the lengthier parts of the book, the confession of an elderly German regarding his small, but no less heinous, role in the Holocaust. Throughout, Melmoth glides, accompanied by an entourage of crows, terrifying in appearance, but more harrowing still in the guilty memories she evokes. We ultimately discover that even Helen has her secrets, prompting a final showdown between her and Melmoth.

Perry’s monster is deliciously ambiguous. At times, her presence seems almost benevolent, righteous – even necessary. But Melmoth is frightening chiefly because she wants to deny her victims the chance to start again. The novel’s ultimate message is not one of guilt but of redemption. Remembering, it seems to suggest, is vital. Evil should be recognised and not forgotten. And yet, it is often easier and sweeter to succumb to self-pity or, worse, despair, rather than to accept the possibility – and gift – of redemption. One should embrace this challenge, and live.

If it all sounds heavy and philosophical, it’s because it is. But Perry manages to package these complex ideas into a gripping novel. In this respect, she’s certainly better than Maturin. At its best, his Melmoth the Wanderer is exciting, brilliant and visionary. But, too often, it feels interminable, not just because of its sheer length (over 600 pages) but also because of its verbose asides, its obsession with irrelevant detail, and its haughty religious (and generally anti-Catholic) rhetoric. Perry’s novel is meant for less patient readers, packing more punch in hardly half the length.

Some find Perry's writing style rather too ornate – frankly, Calvinist as her theology might be, her voluptuous prose reminds me more of Catholic baroque. And that’s fine by me. I loved her atmospheric, poetic descriptions of Prague; I loved the ease in which she slips into the second person narrative, as though she is placing us behind a movie camera; I loved the way she evokes the presence of her wraith-like creation, horribly real and yet undefined … a woman in dark clothes seen just at the very corner of your eye, slipping from view… she’ll follow you down paths and alleys in the dark, or come in the night and sit waiting at the end of your bed. Doesn’t it send shivers down your spine?

For a fuller review, accompanied by a playlist of music to accompany the novel, check out my blogpost at:
http://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/2019/02/sarah-perry-melmoth.html ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Feb 21, 2023 |
“When I was a child they told me you wander the earth watching all that’s most base and most wicked in mankind – that wherever sin is greatest you are there, and you are the witness. They said you come to those in the blackest despair, and hold out your hand and offer friendship, because your loneliness is so terrible.” – Sarah Perry, Melmoth

Set in present-day Prague, Helen, an English woman, has been working as a translator of instruction manuals for twenty years. She leads an austere life. A friend and scholar, Karel, tells her of the legend of Melmoth, which he has been researching, and gives her reading material. This material relates to historical atrocities, where Melmoth is believed to have been watching. These bits of historical material are used as “nested stories” within Helen’s narrative. Helen begins to catch glimpses of a shadowy figure following her. She believes it is Melmoth, for Helen is harboring a dark secret of her own.

Themes include conscience, guilt, loneliness, and remorse. Perry establishes Melmoth as a witness of the behaviors that people try to hide: “When she turns her eyes on you it’s as if she’s been watching all your life – as if she’s seen not only every action, but every thought, every shameful secret, every private cruelty.” The story provides a sense of reality melded with folklore, the possibility of something unexplainable lurking, following, waiting for an opportunity to strike. The one being followed experiences a build-up of fear and anxiety, questioning if some nefarious presence really is “out there.” It’s just a superstition, right?

It took me a while to figure out what was going on with this book, and I never got completely immersed in it to the point of feeling scared, but it definitely generated a feeling of discomfort. It reads like a 19th century Gothic novel and Perry excels at creating a dark, cold, haunting atmosphere. While quite unsettling in places, it also contains a possibility of redemption, and the ending is extraordinarily well-constructed. Recommended to readers looking for a disquieting read with a thought-provoking message.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 70 (next | show all)
Perry’s heartbreaking, horrifying monster confronts the characters not just with the uncanny but also with the human: with humanity’s complicity in history’s darkest moments, its capacity for guilt, its power of witness, and its longing for both companionship and redemption.
added by rretzler | editPublishers Weekly (starred review) (pay site) (Aug 13, 2018)
 
A chilling novel about confronting our complicity in past atrocities—and retaining the strength and moral courage to strive for the future.
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sarah Perryprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fox, EmiliaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Keep your mind in hell, and despair not. Silouan the Athonite quoted in Love's Work by Gillian Rose
Dedication
In Memoriam Charles Robert Maturin
First words
My dear Mr. Prazan - How deeply I regret that I must put this document in your hands, and so make you the witness to what I have done!
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"It has been years since Helen Franklin left England. In Prague, working as a translator, she has found a home of sorts--or, at least, refuge. That changes when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a strange confession and a curious warning that speaks of Melmoth the Witness, a dark legend found in obscure fairy tales and antique village lore. As such superstition has it, Melmoth travels through the ages, dooming those she persuades to join her to a damnation of timeless, itinerant solitude. To Helen it all seems the stuff of unenlightened fantasy. But, unaware, as she wanders the cobblestone streets Helen is being watched. And then Karel disappears. . ."--

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