Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Vathek by William Beckford

William Thomas Beckford was born in 1760. His father was a member of parliament, a former Lord Mayor of London, and a very wealthy man. William was instructed by tutors at home, and was later a pupil of Mozart. He excelled in painting, composing music, languages, and writing.

On the death of his father, Beckford became one of the wealthiest men in Europe. Beckford was a great patron of the arts and collector. Today museums around the world are filled with paintings, furniture, and objects d'art from his collection.

Beckford learned arabic as a young man and became fascinated by the culture of the Islamic world. He conceived a fantasic novel about a caliph named Vathek.

Vathek is a hedonistic voluptuary with an insatiable appetite. His ambitious and completely amoral mother Carathis spends her time at the top of a great tower burning sacrifices to the forces of darkness in hopes of satisfying her uncontrollable lust for power and wealth.

Carathis strikes a deal with a supernatural being called the Gaiour. In exchange for committing atrocious crimes in honor of the Gaiour, Vathek will be granted the throne and treasure of the kings who ruled the world before Adam.

Carathis rouses her son from his constant feasting to tell him of the Gaiour's generous offer. They fulfill the first requirement of the deal by sacrificing the one hundred most beautiful boys in the kingdom to the Gaiour.

Carathis then packs her son off to Istakhar(the ruins of Persopolis) where the subterranean palace of the pre-adamite kings is located to claim his throne and treasure, reminding him to commit as many crimes as possible along the way to appease the hideous Gaiour and to remember the Gaiour's warning not to accept anyones hospitality on the journey.

What follows is a marvelous story of amazingly evil crimes committed by Vathek and his mother in a world populated by supernatural beings. The novel is beautifully and poetically written and filled with often very accurate references to Islamic history, customs, and mythology.

Beckford intended to combine the novel with episodes in which several characters who await their punishment at a place of eternal damnation, called the palace of subterranean fire, tell the others of the sins that brought them there. The novel Vathek and The Episodes Of Vathek would never be printed together as Beckford originally intended.

A scandal caused by gossip of an alledged homosexual love affair between William Beckford and the young William Courtenay, the future ninth Earl of Devon, sent Beckford into exile after marrying Lady Margaret Gordon.

Soon after his self imposed exile the man to whom Beckford had entrusted the translation of Vathek, it was originally written in french, published Vathek prematurely without Beckford's permission. Then the death of the charming Lady Margaret while giving birth to their second daughter contributed even further to Beckford's melancholy.

The first episode tells the story of a homosexual love affair between two young princes. We will never know to what extent the rumoured relationship with Courtenay inspired this story. Beckford later attempted to heterosexualize the first episode by making one of the princes a woman disguised as a boy.

Beckfords immense wealth and power did protect him somewhat from the scandal. He returned to england and commissioned the architect James Wyatt to build an enormous gothic palace called Fonthill Abbey to house his huge collection of art. Central to the abbeys design is a tower over one hundred feet tall, reminiscent perhaps of Carathis great tower.

High praise from Lord Byron, who wrote a poem called The Giaour with references to Vathek, made the novel a bestseller in the early nineteenth century and inspired the popular wave of orientalism that encouraged study of Islamic culture in the west and led to the translation of works like The 1001 Arabian Nights.

The original first episode of Vathek and some of the other episodes including an incestuous relationship between a prince and princess have miraculously survived to our time among Beckford's papers. Recently an edition published by Broadview Literary Texts and edited by Kenneth Graham has finally united Vathek with the episodes in a form as close as possible to Beckford's original intention.

It took over two hundred years for this literary and historical treasure to see the light of day. Don't miss an opportunity to experience this beautifully written and wonderfully decadent story which includes extensive footnotes on the mythological and historical details referred to in the story.

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