Sarah Perry, Profile Books Ltd, 2018, ISBN 9-781-788-16066-7, 288pp
It was because I had reviewed Sarah Perry’s last book The Essex Serpent (The Essex Serpent - a review) that Julie in Moruya Books pressed upon me Perry’s latest offering, Melmoth. “It’s even more Gothic than her last one,” she said as I took the book from her. My recollection of The Essex Serpent was more Victorian steampunk than Gothic though there was a touch of the gothic about it. In the end I didn’t find Melmoth as Gothic as Julie had cracked it up to be. That may be perception or a difference of reference point. Whatever; it’s a great book. Perry’s prose is effortless. It sort of glides along and sucks you into a narrative whose structure has something in common with The Essex Serpent. The Essex Serpent depends upon an exchange of letters between the protagonists and Melmoth similarly is built around a set of papers that come into the heroine’s possession.
The Melmoth of the title is a mythical figure. She was traditionally spoken of to keep children in line. We might quote Perry in explaining exactly who she was. She has one of her characters say, “You know as your bible has taught you, that a company of women came to Jesus's tomb, and found it empty, and the stone rolled away, and right there in the garden they saw the risen son of God. But among them was one who later denied that she had ever seen the resurrected Christ. Because of it she is cursed to wander the earth without harm or respite, until Christ comes again. So, she is always watching, always seeking out everything is most distressing and most wicked, in a world which is surpassingly wicked, and full of distress. In doing so she bears witness, where there is no witness, and hopes to achieve her salvation.”
I imagine that this Melmoth, or the thought of her, would indeed sharpen up the behaviour of an impressionable young child. Melmoth is the loneliest being in the world. For those whom she seeks out there is a choice: you can live with what you have done, or you can be led into the darkness. I suppose that is vaguely Gothic. Many years ago, Helen Franklin, our heroine, did something that she would rather forget. But then a set of manuscripts comes into her hands each of which tells the story of someone who has seen Melmoth. It is the act of reading these, and her strange relationship with her landlady Albína Horáková (could she even be Melmoth?), that leads her to confronting the deed she has done. Was Melmoth there when the deed was done? Is she there now as Helen confronts the past?
The story is set in Prague and Prague is a great city for the story. Winter in Prague is cold. There is snow and ice. I can see why Julie might describe the city as Gothic, for it decidedly is – the old parts at least. Yet at the same time Prague is a city that has some serious history and can be full of bright lights and jazz bands on the Charles Bridge. There is Czech beer to be had in the bars. I had all that in my mind as I read Perry’s novel. The story works well. It draws you in and never quite lets you go. You know that Melmoth is mythical, but you are not quite sure whether she may not be and whether that flash of darkness that you saw might just be her watching you. And in the end … well, you will need to read the book for that. You will not be disappointed. Interestingly I found that Perry’s book is not the only novel about Melmoth. Charles Robert Maturin (1782 – 1824) was a writer of Gothic plays and novels. His best-known work (and the word “best” is a relative term) is Melmoth the Wanderer. You can find a version of this on BookDepository and what is more it has an introduction by Sarah Perry. I found confirmation that Perry was at least partially inspired by Maturin’s book in an article this very morning (as I write) in The Guardian. She says her book “was inspired by Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, and in it a guilt-stricken woman encounters the myth of a cursed being wandering the world bearing witness to folly and failure.”
Charles Robert Maturin (source: Wikipedia)
The reason the article is interesting is not this reference. It is an article about writing when dealing with pain. She says that “in the autumn of 2016, my body weakened by chronic illness, a disc ruptured in my lower spine. My left leg, oblivious to signals from a compressed nerve, weakened and dragged, and my foot burned as if I’d stood in the sun at noon.” She talks about the drugs that she took, and she discusses other literary figures who have also worked while under the influence of drugs to deal with pain. She suggests that sometimes the drugs may have led to better work than might otherwise have been the case. Coleridge in his Sonnet: Composed in Sickness wrote that “Tyrant Pain had chased away delight.” Perry says, “no wonder he retreated into laudanum: it unlocked the gates to Xanadu when all other gates were bolted.”
Coleridge is one of the best-known examples of an artist who needed the support of drugs for pain relief. Perry mentions Kurt Cobain (who suffered from stomach pain), William S Burroughs, Susan Sontag, Jack Kerouac … the list goes on. And without drugs, whether for pain or pleasure, we may never have had Sergeant Pepper or Exile on Mainstreet.
But the book is the thing and Gothic or not it’s a great read. I am sure that there will be a heap available at Moruya Books and you should repair there and do your bit for the local economy. And remember: you should never buy a single book. Books demand to be purchased in batches of two or more. And even if that means you don’t read everything, well that’s OK; there’s pleasure in ownership. You can always say “ah, yes, I have that book; it’s on my pile to read.” But in the case of Melmoth you should buy it to read.