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Vathek (1786)

by William Beckford

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,2974414,823 (3.13)2 / 172
Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML:

Vathek is one of the earliest and most influential Gothic novels. Its hero is the Caliph Vathek who renounces Islam in a hedonistic quest for supernatural powers, which leads to his downfall. Beckford's genius was in marrying Orientalism with the Gothic, both sources of fascination and delight to reading audiences of the time.

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English (35)  Spanish (2)  French (2)  Swedish (2)  German (1)  All languages (42)
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
Greedy and lascivious Caliph Vathek abandons his duties and religion to follow a quest for forbidden knowledge. Written in a style similar to Clark Ashton Smith, a sort of faux Arabian Nights tale. ( )
  questbird | Sep 3, 2023 |
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 which passages should be taken at face value and which ones are to be read as self-parody. Even allowing for the genre's excesses, episodes such as that of a wizard being turned into a ball and kicked around 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).

https://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/2020/03/William-Beckford-Vathek.html ( )
2 vote JosephCamilleri | Feb 21, 2023 |
Vathek by William Beckford was first published in 1786. The author was only 21 and the story apparently was inspired by his own coming-of-age celebrations. The story is both a comic farce and a tragic parable. This dark and twisted fairly tale shows that the author was obviously influenced by the popularity of Arabian Nights which had recently been translated.

The tale is about Caliph Vathek and his temptation by a supernatural being known as the Giaour, who promises to reward him with treasures and talismans from the Gods. Thus he embarks on a journey to damnation. Vathek is both greedy and cruel. In order to be admitted to the subterranean palace he must renounce Islam and perform a series of atrocious crimes which he does without a sign of remorse.

This strange and dark story definitely gives me Gothic vibes and it is known to have influenced other literary figures such as Byron, Hawthorne, Poe and Lovecraft. It provides an insight into early orientalist fantasies of the east and is crammed with lavish excesses, both sensory and sexual. I can’t say that I enjoyed this story finding it rather overdone, but it did have it’s moments and thankfully wasn’t too long. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Feb 3, 2023 |
Curiously impulsive. Vathek and his unending hunger for more propel forward through one massive atrocity after the other - hardly pausing for even a moment's reflection. Vathek often feels less like a character and more like a force. A story of a man told as one of a God... Until the final hell. ( )
  deaddilly | Jan 21, 2023 |
Completely preposterous and not in a good way. I can see why this orgy of Oriental tropes would have been exciting to an 18th century European reader high on the Arabian Nights and hungry for more genies, giaours, dives, and dwarfs. It's a nauseating banquet of sherbets and cordials, served by massed ranks of eunuchs, mystics, and sacrificial first-borns, a horrible literary carbuncle melting down into a bilious slurry where plot decoheres and characters implode under the weight of their own absurdity.

Here's Vathek's mom preparing a magic potion:

By secret stairs, known only to herself and her son, she first repaired to the mysterious recesses in which were deposited the mummies that had been brought from the catacombs of the ancient Pharaohs. Of these she ordered several to be taken. From thence she resorted to a gallery, where, under the guard of fifty female negroes, mute, and blind of the right eye, were preserved the oil of the most venomous serpents, rhinoceros’ horns, and woods of a subtle and penetrating odour, procured from the interior of the Indies, together with a thousand other horrible rarieties. This collection had been formed for a purpose like the present, by Carathis herself, from a presentiment that she might one day enjoy some intercourse with the infernal powers, to whom she had ever been passionately attached, and to whose taste she was no stranger. ( )
  yarb | Jun 28, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (22 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Beckford, WilliamAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bawden, EdwardIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Benda, WolframTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Benda, WolframTranslator and Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blaine, MahlonIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blei, FranzÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Camerino, AldoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Carter, LinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cruz, RayCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Damman, BenjaminEngraver.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Edwards, LesCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Elie, PaulIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Emmett, R.J.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fitz-Gerald, SJ AdairIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graham, Kenneth W.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grimsditch, Herbert B.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Håkansson, GabriellaAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Helnwein, GottfriedIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Helnwein, GottfriedIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Henley, SamuelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Isfelt, ArthurTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Keymer, ThomasIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Keymer, ThomasEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lonsdale, RichardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lonsdale, RogerEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marzials, Frank T.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moravia, AlbertoForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morley, HenryEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
North, WilliamForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paoletti, GiovanniEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pentleton, CarolDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pintor, GiaimeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Redon, OdilonIllustratorsecondary 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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Contains only Vathek. Please do not combine with editions containing The Episodes of Vathek or other works.
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Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML:

Vathek is one of the earliest and most influential Gothic novels. Its hero is the Caliph Vathek who renounces Islam in a hedonistic quest for supernatural powers, which leads to his downfall. Beckford's genius was in marrying Orientalism with the Gothic, both sources of fascination and delight to reading audiences of the time.


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Folio Archives 333: Vathek by William Beckford 1958 in Folio Society Devotees

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