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Melmoth : a novel by Sarah Perry

Melmoth : a novel (original 2018; edition 2018)

by Sarah Perry, Jan Cramer (Narrator.)

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6706026,274 (3.5)51
"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)
Title:Melmoth : a novel
Authors:Sarah Perry
Other authors:Jan Cramer (Narrator.)
Info:[New York] : HarperCollins, [2018]
Collections:Your library

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Melmoth by Sarah Perry (2018)


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» See also 51 mentions

English (60)  German (2)  All languages (62)
Showing 1-5 of 60 (next | show all)
This book was very slow to get going for me. I wasn't sure where the author was going and I found my mind wandering when I was listening to it. However, once Helen begins to read the story of others that have been claimed by Melmoth, it became more interesting. The writing is beautiful and evocative. I liked how it ended and the journey that Helen goes through when forced to literally face her demons. Overall, if you like literary novels with a bit of the supernatural, this one may be a good fit for you. ( )
  Cora-R | Apr 11, 2021 |
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 ( )
1 vote JosephCamilleri | Mar 5, 2021 |
Do you ever read a book and the whole time you're thinking to yourself that it reminds you of another book - even though you're sure that the two have very little (if anything) in common? It's been many years since I read Doron Rabinovici's The Search for M, but I don't recall it being centred around magic realism and folklore as strongly as Melmoth (nor is Melmoth's story focused on the post-WWII experience of Jews), and yet the character of Melmoth and the themes around death and guilt bring the two stories together in my mind. I'll have to go and reread the Search for M soon to see if my opinion stays the same after closer examination. Similarities or lack there of aside, this was a very interesting read, even though it started off slow and I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue reading it. The characters, which are usually what drives a story for me, weren't particularly interesting in this case - the protagonist - Hleen, in particular being established as the most bland and personless character possible without actually deleting her from the story. What kept me reading throughout was my curiosity about Melmoth - was she real or was she just a manifestation of guilt over the ages, turned into a character in folklore? I won't reveal the finale scene and conclusion, since it is wonderfully done and very suspenseful, but it is well worth the wait through almost 300 pages.

"There is no Melmoth, there is nobody watching, there is only us. And ifthere is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen - bear witness to what must not be forgotten." (page 155-156). ( )
  JaimieRiella | Feb 25, 2021 |
I think this perhaps just ticked too many of my not-really-my-thing boxes, with all its mythology, paranormal, horror and gothic character. Still, Sarah Perry can write, so despite the minimal overlap between her genre and mine, I'm probably going to keep on picking up her books. ( )
  DebsDd | Jan 18, 2021 |
This novel is basically a bunch of different stories all centering on the legend of Melmoth, a woman who witnessed the resurrection of Christ but denied it, and has been cursed to walk the earth for eternity. She watches other similar sinners, and tries to get them to join her in here lonely wandering.

There is a frame story, in which several people become obsessed with the legend of Melmoth and read various stories of people who believed Melmoth was watching them and observing their secret sins. The frame story gets a little over-wrought: the characters in the frame story are all exceptionally intelligent people, and they all get implausibly paranoid about Melmoth. Perry seems to be trying too hard to create a creepy atmosphere, and it falls a bit flat.

However, the various stories about sin and evil are very interesting. The stories are very different, taking place across a lot of different times and places, but they all have something in common: a person either committed or was witness to a misdeed, and did not speak up about it, and caused the suffering of someone else. For instance, there is an Ottonian bureaucrat whose paperwork paves the way for genocide, but who denies to himself that he played a role in anyone's death, and a German boy who has an opportunity to prevent some Jews from being taken by Nazis but does nothing. There are smaller crimes too, but all of them are crimes of cowardice - people who have an opportunity to prevent a travesty, but do nothing because it's easier. All of these people are consumed by guilt, manifested as Melmoth, who knows what they did.

I've seen a lot of reviews calling this a masterpiece, and I think that's an exaggeration. The book certainly leads to a lot of interesting reflection about the nature of evil, and the capacity of love to conquer evil, but the execution feels a bit forced, and the ending is perhaps a bit too tidy. ( )
  Gwendydd | Nov 15, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 60 (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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Keep your mind in hell, and despair not. Silouan the Athonite quoted in Love's Work by Gillian Rose
In Memoriam Charles Robert Maturin
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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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"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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