Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Translator Helen Franklin has been leading a life of self-denial and penitence for 20 years. What crime did she commit and who is following her through Prague? Could it be Melmoth the Witness, who has obsessed her friend Karel ever since he received a satchel of old documents? Karel, once so suave and urbane, is now a sleepless wreck.

Sarah Perry’s latest book was inspired by another novel, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), written by Oscar Wilde’s great-uncle, the curate Charles Maturin. There are several references to Maturin’s book as a “novel nobody reads”. I confess that Maturin’s novel is so sadistic, laden with dark religious imagery of inquisitions and torture, that I have never finished it.

In Maturin’s version, Melmoth has been punished for a Faustian pact. When Oscar Wilde left prison and went into exile, he took the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth in a grandiloquent allusion to a martyred saint and the cursed character of Maturin’s Gothic tale.

Whereas Maturin’s Melmoth is a man who cannot shed the 150 extra years he purchased with his soul, Perry’s is a lonely woman who must witness everyone’s misdeeds because she would not speak of having witnessed Christ’s resurrection.

Perry pulls the reader into a psychological labyrinth of guilt, fear, evasion and horror by making the reader both the witness and the sinner, the judge and the damned. The narrator addresses us in the second person, inviting us to both feel Helen’s horror and spy on her.

“And since she sleeps well, and deeply, you may step quietly onto that plain square of carpet, and look again at that characterless room. Where is the evidence of who she is, this Helen Franklin: small, insignificant, having about her an air of sadness whose source you cannot guess at; of self-punishment, self-hatred, carried out quietly and diligently and with a minimum of fuss?”

For much of Perry’s novel, the character of Helen is opaque, her backstory deliberately withheld. “Reader, witness, here is what you see: a woman so nondescript as to almost vanish.” The narrator reveals the cardboard box beneath Helen’s bed, which contains the only clues to Helen’s inner life and her past. “It is a whole life contained in twelve inches by eight by six; buried, as if beneath six feet of English soil; begun, forty-two years before, in a pebble-dashed house in Essex; and ended, twenty-two years later, by an act of will.”

As in Maturin’s novel, Perry’s contains narratives within narratives, as people across the centuries confess or repeat the confessions they have heard. These take place against the setting of modern Prague in winter, but Helen and the narrator resist its beauty and see instead that the jackdaws gather to spy from windowsills, and that the “gilded organ pipes” have a “look of a ribcage cracked open to reveal the heart”. Perry flits between centuries, styles and narrators with ease. She’s a dull, resentful German boy in Nazi-occupied Prague, a selfish young woman in 1930s Cairo, a Turkish bureaucrat, a Protestant martyr, a Czech man who can’t face the physical deterioration of his partner.

Perry’s Melmoth suggests that in a world in which refugees are tormented and ethnic cleansing goes on, we are all complicit. “And if there is only us, we must do what Melmoth would do: see what must be seen—bear witness to what must not be forgotten.”

Thematically, Sarah Perry’s novel covers similar ground to Andrew Miller’s The Optimists, but in a different genre. On one level, Perry’s Melmoth is a throwback to the Gothic fiction of the Romantic Movement. On another, it is a novel about the violence of the 20th and 21st centuries, and our responsibility here and now.

Perry’s Melmoth gives us a dossier of betrayals, cowardice and crimes against humanity. Can—or should—Gothic fiction tackle religious persecution, burnings, the Holocaust, the mistreatment of refugees, ethnic cleansing and war crimes? In the original Gothic tales, the real monster was not the ghost in the abbey, but the dark side of ourselves, so perhaps the genre can confront the modern world. Some of the stories, however, could have been expanded and given a fuller treatment.

There were times when I couldn’t suspend disbelief for the supernatural, immortal character of Melmoth in her writhing black robes, but Perry’s catalogue of the cruelty and savagery of ordinary mortals across the centuries is enough to chill. As a metaphor for the horrors we create for ourselves by trying to escape conscience, the figure of Melmoth is effective, and the set piece in the opera house is magnificent.

Melmoth is entertaining, spooky and satisfying. It is a more ambitious novel than The Essex Serpent, reviving a past genre for modern ends and wrestling with ethics. ‘“There is nobody watching,” suggests Karel, “there is only us.”’

©JD Ellevsen 2018

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