Melmoth the Wanderer
entirely fitting, though also totally coincidental, that the book I am
reviewing so shortly before Halloween is a ghost story. I did not plan it that
way, but the timing is pretty good.
the Wanderer” by Charles Maturin is a gothic novel and very much so. It is a
book that takes the genre tropes and gives them that extra push to top
everything that came before. Yet, it is also a rambling, chaotic novel that
only barely is tied together, almost as if Maturin wanted to tell five-six
stories and wondered how he could fit it all together in one book. My opinion
is that he was not very successful at that. The one thing that does (almost)
tie the whole thing together is Maturin’s denouncement of the Catholic church.
Melmoth is a young man in Ireland. His uncle is dying and as the heir to his
estate, John is attending his uncle in his final days. Turns out his uncle is
very much afraid of a family ghost, a member of the Melmoth family who has been
wandering around for centuries, always a harbinger of disaster. When the uncle
dies, John reads an old manuscript in a backroom of the house concerning a
fellow called Stanton who once met Melmoth and spent his life looking for him,
eventually ending up in a madhouse. This is followed closely by a storm during
which John saves a shipwrecked Spaniard, Moncada, who proceeds to tell his
story to John.
was an illegitimate son of an important aristocratic family who was forced into
a monastery against his will. We get a lengthy story about his futile attempts
to escape the monastery with a clear, underlying tone that the Catholic church in
their attempt at usurping the power and wealth of the Moncada family tries to
pacify and get rid of the heirs. The suffering of Moncada takes no end and even
his eventual escape lands him in the custody of the Inquisition. There he is
tempted with escape by Melmoth. Ultimately, the prison burns down and Moncada
gets away. He finds refuge with the Jewish community who lives a hidden life
underground. Here he becomes a secretary, copying a story about a girl,
Immalee, who has grown up, lonely, on a deserted island off the Indian coast.
Immalee is befriended by Melmoth with whom she falls in love. Eventually, she
is “rescued” from the island, and turns out to be the long lost daughter of a
rich Spanish merchant. The life of a such in Spain is, however, not compatible
with Immalee’s free mind. When Melmoth finds her, she resumes her love for him
and eventually they marry in secrecy.
Isidora) father is finally on his way home, having never met his daughter. At
an inn he is told a story about the Walberg family. A German protestant family
cheated and plundered by the Catholic church, who at the cusp of dying from
starvation is tempted by Melmoth. He then meets a stranger who tells him a
story about the English Mortimer family who fell into ruin through inheritance
schemes. On the brink of their ruin, they are also tempted by Melmoth.
At some point
you would think that all these stories within stories will have to come
together in some conclusion, but that is hardly the case. While we do learn the
fate of Immalee/Isidora, we never learn how Moncada got out of Spain and ended
on a ship. We do get a final rendezvous with Melmoth, but how or why the story
ends for him here is entirely unclear.
impression I am left with, reading this book, is that Maturin himself did not
really know what was the idea with Melmoth the Wanderer. Not the character, nor
the book. Maturin seems to have started in one place and then just wrote to see
where it took him. He may also have had a number of separate stories that he
somehow wanted to string together and badly needed some skeleton to carry it.
Melmoth as a character is oddly diffuse. What I seem to understand is that he
was a researcher of the occult who tried an experiment that would leave him
physically dead, but give him 150 years as a ghost. This seems to have come
with the price tag that he would be an agent of the devil to offer people in
need a resolution at an unspeakable price, presumably at the expense of their
soul. Still, the details are very unclear and although he is the recurring
character, he seems strangely undeveloped. Except for the story of Immalee, he
also only shows up at the end of the various stories.
To my mind
Melmoth is actually a minor element to this book, a necessity for tying it
together. Maturin seems to have been a lot more interested in going after the
Catholic church. In his stories, there is no end to the greed and viciousness
of the Catholic church, and they come about as the very antithesis of what
Christianity is supposed to stand for. Compared to their crimes, Melmoth looks like
an amateur and by setting them up against each other just emphasized the depth
to which the Catholic church will go.
of Maturin may be explained by him being a Protestant clergyman in an otherwise
predominantly Catholic Ireland. Even today there is a festering divide there
and two hundred years ago, this would have been even worse. This is very much a
part in a religious feud.
the stories work surprisingly well. Moncada’s plight in the monastery draws
heavily on Lewis’ “The Monk” and Diderot’s “The Nun”, but takes the gothic
elements to the next level. I would love to learn what further happened to
Moncada, but Maturin ran out of steam on that story and left a lot of threads
in the air. Until that point though, this is a really good story.
the Wanderer” leaves a mixed impression of moments of excellence, of a sharp
wit, but also of a haphazard construction with little point except to shock and
poke at the Catholics. It is spooky, but not so much because of the ghost, but
from what people will do out of greed and in the name of their church.