Melmoth by Sarah Perry

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This book was for us a real page-turner. We discovered it last November when Sarah Perry presented it at Bookcity Milano. On that occasion, she spoke about it as a gothic novel with political and feminist implications so we were very excited by it. We also loved the way she gave her speech, expressing by all means deep love for culture and books. So our expectations were high and the reading has met them almost entirely.

We found this novel very pleasant and original. We only have a few perplexities over the final and we will tell you about it soon. Being a gothic story we would not reveal much about the plot. We will instead talk about the author who is becoming one of the most original voices of the contemporary British gothic. Here, in fact, the author succeeds in re-read some of the genre’s criterions.  The gothic topos that entails the presence of a disturbing tormentor often characterised through masculine figures, is transferred by the author on an entirely feminine dimension. Our monster is, as always, terrifying, wicked, corrupted but she is also able to reveal unusual traits, she seems fragile, sad, exhausted, showing even a kind of sensitivity in her constant search for redemption, acceptance, sympathy and company. In this way, Sarah Perry is able to create a very peculiar gothic.

Sarah Perry 

She was born in Chelmsford, Essex on the 28th of November 1979. Her parents were members of the Strict Baptist church so she grew up with almost no access to contemporary art, culture and writing. She filled her time listening to classical music, reading classic novels and poetry, and taking part in church-related activities.

Later she will catch up. Today, in fact, she holds a PhD in creative writing with a thesis on the gothic in the work of the Irish writer Iris Murdoch. However, she revealed how it was her very immersion in ancient and classical literature to influence notably her narrative style and, in part, the choice of the themes she will develop in her novels

The Myth of Melmoth 

The character of Melmoth draws upon that kind of cultural heritage. It derives in fact by the sophisticated gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, published in four volumes in 1820 by the Irish clergyman Charles Maturin. He is well known as playwright and novelist, and because he was the great-uncle of Oscar Wilde. The figure of Melmoth seems to be connected with two other characters. On the one side, it reminds that of Faustus, the alchemist from German popular culture who, driven by his thirst for knowledge, signs a contract with the Devil.

On the other, it refers to the image of the Wanderer Jew, a mysterious and immortal man from Medieval European popular culture who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion being then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The French writer Honorè de Balzac had also updated the tale by writing his Melmoth Reconciled in 1835. Perry’s novel though is quite different. Firstly she refers directly back to Maturin’s work by presenting a series of documents to prove the existence of this tormented figure. Secondly, because she turns Melmoth into a woman, giving to the character many of those archetypical traits of the female gender.

Melmoth the witness

In Perry’s novel Melmoth becomes then a female character. She is the woman who failed to believe in Jesus Resurrection, being for that reason bound to wander the earth with no purpose nor company. Even today she keeps walking, always worn out and with her bare feet bleeding. She is drawn by sorrow so she keeps appearing to those who are evil or those who are suffering. As she did with her education in this story Sarah Perry has been able to look beyond the religious aspects of the myth of Melmoth and the idea of punishment.

She will draw a more modern image of this tormented figure succeeding in expressing a more contemporary and ambiguous interpretation of the relation between human beings and evil. Thus the function of this wandering-monster changes. He becoming a she ceases to indicate only the image of evil getting to represent also the unsettling fact that evil is something tricky, always able to change its form and to penetrate even the soul of good people. In fact, in this book, she appears primarily to people involved in some of the most horrible moments in human history where ethical categories have shown their terrible potential ambiguity: the Shoah and the Armenian genocide during the First World War.

The Banality of Evil

Sarah Perry’s Melmoth seems then, at a first level, to be a tormented representation the symbol of Evil itself relating to the idea of Angel of History elaborated by Walter Benjamin as pointed out by this cunning and very interesting The Guardian’s review. Then at a second level, we see in her novel also the influence of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the Banality of Evil. We talked about it in a few of our previous articles: it is about the awareness that the borders between evil and good are not always as clear as one would like to hope. In this brief video extract from the book’s presentation at the last Bookcity Milano, she explains this very aspect her story aims at underlining:

So if even the best people risk to be seduced by evil, what can we do to contrast its power? Is the ethical dimension of our actions related to the idea of free will or to that of being judged? Is the ethical drive part of our inner soul or it is originated by the circumstances through which our individual experience develops? These are just a few of the questions the reading of Melmoth is able to raise.

Reading Melmoth 

As we told you at the beginning of this article for us this was a real page-turner. It is written with a very pleasant and engaging style so that it can balance unsettling details with narrative elements that stimulate profound reflections. To us, Sarah Perry’s gothic is a delicate one able to approach the most horrifying aspects of life gracefully and to treat disturbing themes with engaging narrative dynamics. As a result more than that just scaring us out, she is able to make us reflect.

Considering this very harmonic flow we have to say that we noted a little disharmony at the end where the tuning point with almost metanarrative traits is presented and too quickly resolved. We would have expected after such a turning point a longer development or digression before going straight to the resolution of the story. But of course, this is just our opinion. Anyway, reading Melmoth was a great experience able to entertain us while making us reflect on the nature of good and evil. We look forward to Sarah Perry‘s next novel with sincere enthusiasm.