Monday, 19 February 2018

Guest review by Elizabeth Enfield: THE BEGINNER'S GOODBYE by Anne Tyler



Photograph by Sarah Ketalaars
Elizabeth Enfield is a journalist, novelist, short story writer and intermittent teacher of all. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and broadcast on Radio 4 and her latest novel, Ivy and Abe, is out now, published by Penguin. For more details see her website, or follow her on twitter @lizzieenfield

Anne Tyler has written twenty novels and, while only having read about a quarter of her output, I’m a huge fan of her work. In a world where the news and the bookshops often appear to be dominated by crime, tragedy and acts of inconceivable darkness, Tyler’s sphere is domestic: the quotidian drama of ordinary existence. She writes about it in a way that is utterly compelling, vividly imagining the smallest details and shining a sympathetic and understanding light on the human condition.

Tyler’s last novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, was nominated for the Booker Prize - an utterly deserving contender and one I loved, but I’ve chosen an earlier novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, to review here. It’s a short, almost novella length book, but contains everything that Tyler does so well: turning the ordinary into something extraordinary, lending difficult characters a certain nobility and rendering the mundane remarkable.

I recently chose to revisit this novel as my next book is about grief, about what happens to the parents of a child, who are long separated, following the death of their only child. Grief is not the most uplifting subject to tackle and yet Tyler has addressed it repeatedly in her novels, teaming it with her familiar theme of regret, one of grief’s chief companions.

The chief protagonist and narrator of The Beginner’s Goodbye is Aaron Woolcott, an emotionally repressed man, with a partial paralysis that necessitates walking with a stick and a bad stutter. He works for the family publishing company, a vanity press and home to the Beginners series of guides to small slices of life, mirroring Tyler’s own fictional territory.

Aaron’s wife Dorothy, a no nonsense doctor and eight years older, is a “non caretaker” where his mother and sister are cosseters, even in Aaron’s mid thirties. Their marriage functions on lack of fuss and fairly minimal interaction. But when Dorothy dies in a freak accident – involving an oak tree, a sun porch and elusive biscuits - Aaron’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart.

He rejects the sympathy of friends and colleagues, throws away their kindly meant casseroles and appears to take a self-punishing delight in not needing anyone.

But then Dorothy starts showing up, the most un-spectral ghostly apparition ever: a solid presence, which Aaron summons up out of his loneliness.

Initially, she only drops by briefly but then she stays for longer. They talk, and bicker the way ordinary perfectly happily but not that happily married people do. Through their encounters, the limitations of the marriage are gradually revealed and Aaron begins to realize and regret the cost of his self-protective shell and unwillingness to open up to others.

With solid spectral Dorothy he finds it much easier to talk honestly and openly than he did with the real one. He even loses his stutter when they chat! And slowly he begins to say goodbye, and at the same time to say hello to the world, in a way he has never done before.

What Tyler captures here, so well, is the contradictions of the human condition: how we can love so imperfectly and feel so deeply the loss of someone to whom we are almost tragically mismatched.

In the pages of crime novels, we find resolution about what’s happened. In Tyler’s slices of life we find emotional resolutions – small but truthful ones.

On the penultimate page of The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron discusses whether the dead ever really visit with his friend Luke.

Luke thinks they don’t. “But I think if you knew them well enough, if you’d listened to them closely enough, while they were still alive, you might be able to imagine what they would tell you even now.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, one which Aaron decides to heed. And one which beautifully illustrates the appeal of Tyler’s writing. She pays close attention to her characters; so close that still talk to you, long after the final pages of the novels they grace.

The Beginner's Goodbye is published by Vintage.





Monday, 12 February 2018

Guest review by Chris d'Lacey: THE QUEEN OF ALL CROWS by Rod Duncan




Chris d’Lacey writes books for children of all ages, but is best known for his series The Last Dragon Chronicles which have sold over four million copies worldwide. The final book in his latest dragon series, Erth Dragons #3 The New Age comes out in April 2018. He is a regular speaker at schools, libraries and book festivals. Way back in 1998 he nearly won the Carnegie Medal. In July 2002, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Leicester for his services to children’s fiction. A long time ago, Linda Newbery persuaded him to write as a 14 year old female called Annabelle, a character he is still proud of to this day…

 One of the most entertaining books I had the pleasure to read in the last few years was The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, the first in Rod Duncan’s innovative trilogy about the Gas-Lit Empire, a ‘modern day’ world manacled by the International Patent Office, an organisation who have stalled the progress of technology and in so doing brought about a Peace Accord between most of the nations around the globe. In this, the first book of a second trilogy, the story develops beyond the boundaries of the Empire, where the Patent Office have no jurisdiction. But when an airship bound for America is brought down over the Sargasso Sea and a whaling vessel is also attacked, the Patent Office is forced to respond.

Enter Elizabeth Barnabus, the principal character from the first three books, who is dispatched, at her own request, to investigate. So begins a perilous journey that leads to a clash with a bunch of female pirates, who take Elizabeth to their home world, Freedom Island, where the main hub of the story unravels.

Freedom Island is unlike anything Elizabeth – or indeed this reader – has ever encountered before. At first it seems a highly-improbable habitat. But part of the appeal of Duncan’s writing is his gift of building a fictional world so utterly believable. Indeed, his flawless ability to draw the reader into a fantasy environment with precise and often quite breathtaking prose is arguably his greatest strength. It is the lushness of the writing and the stream of clever ideas, rather than the subtleties of the plot, that make this such an inspiring novel. The descriptions of boats, their machinery, and the battles which come to take place on them are exceptional. A huge testament to the author’s talent is his ability to suspend what one would normally take for granted about ‘modern’ warfare and pitch the reader into an alternative twenty-first century ruckus where pistol shots dent iron chimneys and glinting sabres swing off a sash belt.

Yet, for all its swash and buckle, The Queen of All Crows is much more than a standard pirate romp. The book’s title refers to the canny matriarch who rules Freedom Island – though only women are allowed to live freely there. Little surprise that Elizabeth’s alliances are soon deeply divided. For while she is appalled by the fate of male captives and yearns for the lover she has forsaken for this mission, she is also stirred by the female unity she sees all around her. The question is, can she strike a balance between her conflict of loyalties and find a resolution before war ensues between the Sargassan Nation and the Gas-Lit Empire…? A richly inventive novel that will make the reader think hard about gender and equality.

The Queen of All Crows is published by Angry Robot.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Guest review by Leslie Wilson: BABYLON BERLIN by Volker Kutscher, translated by Niall Sellar




Leslie Wilson is the author of two novels for adults and two for young adults. Last Train from Kummersdorf was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award; Saving Rafael was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award. Both deal with Nazi Germany. Leslie Wilson is half German, was brought up bilingual, and has spent considerable amounts of time in Germany. She is currently working on a novel for adults, set in the very early nineteenth century.

My grandfather and his younger brother Erich Rösel were both German policemen; Uncle Erich was a member of the Kriminalpolizei (CID) in Berlin. Alas, I only met him once and I know nothing about his career except that, as a working class lad, he must have started at the bottom. But reading Babylon Berlin, I wonder how much the novel resembles the reality that Erich knew.

He’d have been one of the police constables that Gereon Rath and his superior officers deploy in the novel, on stakeouts, doing door to door investigations; footsloggers. Gereon Rath, by contrast, is a detective inspector, the son of a high-ranking Rhineland police officer. Unfortunately for him, an injudicious shooting in Cologne (he killed the trigger-happy son of a major newspaper publisher; in the line of duty, but a bad move) got him moved to Berlin. Now he’s in the Vice Squad instead of the Murder Squad, which feels like a punishment. Rath is ambitious, frustrated, under a slight cloud; not much of a team player, and with a troubled relationship with his distinguished father; all good stuff for a crime fiction hero.

It’s 1929, and Berlin is a hotbed of crime, corruption, and political conflict. Communists and Trotskyites are fomenting revolution in Germany; Nazis and other right-wingers, yearning to fight the Allies and defeat them this time, are acquiring arms and building up illegal armies. The Social Democratic city government is trying, sometimes brutally, to keep a lid on the boiling pot. It’s a city of savage contrasts; in poverty-stricken, left-wing Neukölln a gigantic Karstadt department store is being constructed (later, alas,destroyed by Allied bombs; it was an impressive building). Here Rath, fighting vertigo, and his Chief Inspector, Wolter, capture a fleeing porn actor on the top of the scaffolding.

It’s a city that anyone familiar with the literature and the media of the period will recognise. There are mafia-style organisations, tolerated by the police because they keep a kind of order among thieves. Fritz Lang portrayed these in his brilliant film M, where the gangs track down a child-murderer; I can’t help seeing Marlow, in the novel, as Gustav Gründgens,who played the gang boss in M. The porn actors are straight out of George Grosz; so are the women they screw for the camera.There are transvestites, there are dancing girls and drugs. (Rath himself snorts cocaine on occasion.)

Some of the police are historical figures; particularly Superintendant Ernst Gennat, a noted eccentric, addicted to cake and thus known as ‘the fat man of the murder squad.’ His office was said to contain sagging velvet armchairs, an axe used by a murderer, and the head of a woman that was once fished, wrapped in paper, from the river Spree. (I can’t understand why Kutscher doesn’t mention these details.) Gennat’s intelligence and sophistication as a police investigator certainly feature in the plot. Incidentally, it was Gennat who coined the expression ‘serial killer.’

Babylon Berlin is a cracking good read, with its own mutilated body fished from the Spree, and brilliantly plotted; it keeps you guessing, which is what any keen crime reader wants. There’s a love interest, too; Rath develops a troubled relationship with the lovely Charlotte, a stenographer in the Murder Squad who aspires to become a police officer herself. I can’t help sympathising with her when she calls him an arsehole. At least he recognises the fact - but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry him.

What gripped me was the complex and convincing portrayal of the city: I’ve already got the second novel in the series. I read it in German first; what I did miss in the (competent, occasionally sloppy) translation was the complexity of language and a lot of the irony, which Berliners do so well. Some texture is lost thereby.

I know from experience that it’s near-impossible to render Berlin dialect into English. I would have liked to see the army officer-jargon of the police brought into the English version, for that demonstrates how military an institution the 1920s German police were. But then, I suppose there are layers of meaning in the Montalbano books that are lost to me, because I can only enjoy them in translation.

Babylon Berlin is published by Sandstone Press. Original title: Der nasse Fisch, Gereon Rath’s Erster Fall.







Monday, 29 January 2018

JANE FAIRFAX by Joan Aiken, reviewed by Linda Newbery


Linda Newbery has written for young readers of all ages, and won the Costa Children's Book Prize for her young adult novel Set in Stone. She currently has two works in progress: one for David Fickling Books to be published in July, the other an adult novel.

Recently I learned on Facebook the term 'joyreading': taking a book from a friend's shelves and becoming immersed. This was just such a find, on a recent stay with a good friend. I dipped in, was soon hooked and asked to bring the copy home when I left.

Till then I'd had no idea that the admirable Joan Aiken - famed for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and many other highly-acclaimed children's titles - had produced a group of books based on Jane Austen novels. This one, subtitled A Novel to Complement EMMA by Jane Austen, published in 1990, fills in and elaborates on the life of the young woman described in some editions as 'the second heroine' of Emma. 

In the first and much longer of the two sections we follow Jane Fairfax through childhood and adolescence, to her prolonged stay in London with Colonel Campbell and his family, briefly to the West Indies and back, to the point where she returns to Highbury and we join the well-known events of Emma. The seeds of resentment between Emma Woodhouse and her less privileged companion are sown early: the two girls share a piano tutor who finds Jane far superior in both talent and application. Jane - dressed in hand-me-downs from Emma and her sister Isabella - becomes a favourite of Emma's mother (who soon dies in childbirth) and also of Mr Knightley. However, while Emma looks forward to a life of comfort and indulgence, Jane will be expected - as we know - to earn her living as a governess.

In Emma, Jane is often seen as frail and nervous, susceptible to sore throats and chills as well as frequent headaches (in Aiken's hands she's clearly a migraine sufferer); but here she is spirited and often outspoken during her time with the Campbells, taking a protective role towards the Colonel's anxious daughter, Rachel. In London and during an extended trip to Weymouth we meet character types familiar in Jane Austen: vapid young men, spoilt and coquettish young women, elderly grande dames and brusque military men. Less typically, Mrs Campbell is a social reformer, much preoccupied with campaigns for penal reform and against the slave trade. Like most of the authors now drawing on Austen, Joan Aiken gives a wider sense of England's social gradations and its colonial transactions than we find in the originals.

Aiken cleverly embellishes Jane Austen's details of Frank Churchill's circumstances and those of the Campbells and their Irish friends the Dixons - supplying plausible reasons for Jane's embarrassment when she returns to the limited Highbury circle and is taunted by both Emma and Frank about her association with Mr Dixon and the gift of a piano. Along the way, readers familiar with Jane Austen will appreciate echoes not only from Emma but from other novels too. Jane receives a proposal of marriage from a boorish young man convinced that he has only to ask to be instantly and gratefully accepted, recalling both Mr Elton and Pride and Prejudice's Mr Collins. Dreaming that Mr Knightley will one day notice her, Jane imagines him finding her with a sprained ankle on a hillside, like Willoughy and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility

When we reach Part Two, readers of Emma will feel thoroughly at home at Highbury as we move through a series of social occasions: the dance at the Crown, strawberry-picking at Donwell Abbey, the disastrous picnic at Box Hill. To Jane, Highbury and its endless gossip are dull and parochial, something the full-of-herself Emma doesn't realise. We bustle through this section rather quickly, but Aiken focuses our attention on Frank Churchill and his flirtation with Emma - is he taking deception too far, and enjoying it too much? The reticence of the formerly livelier Jane is made plausible by her dislike of concealment and her resentment of Emma, now a rival, which she tries to suppress.

I've recently read Jo Baker's Longbourn (surely one of our guests will choose to review that excellent novel here before long?) which similarly takes a sideways look at a Jane Austen work rather than continuing the main character's story. Both are in their different ways highly enjoyable. While Jo Baker  favours a sensuous, descriptive vein more reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte, Joan Aiken imitates Jane Austen's style with considerable success. Punctuation, cadences, vocabulary and speech patterns are so skilfully emulated that for much (though not all) of the book it's possible to imagine that this really is Jane Austen. She is particularly good at the condensed, character-revealing monologues that typify Mrs Elton, Miss Bates and, here, her own invention, the snobbish Mrs Fitzroy: "So very odd to bring in a child from outside - such an atrocious mistake! - unknown origins, probably no better than they should be - Fairfax all very well, but Bates - what sort of a name was Bates? - child just what might be expected from such a mongrel background - encouraging Rachel to insubordination and all manner of foolish nonsense - music? of what importance, pray, was music?"

This was an unexpected treat, and now I'm eager to see what Joan Aiken has made of Mansfield Revisited. 

Jane Fairfax is published by Gollancz.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Guest review by Tim Bowler: THE WATERCRESS GIRL by H. E. Bates, short story collection




Tim Bowler has written over twenty books for teenagers and won fifteen awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal for River Boy. He has been described by the Sunday Telegraph as 'the master of the psychological thriller' and by the Independent as 'one of the truly individual voices in British teenage fiction'. His works include Midget, Shadows, Storm Catchers, Starseeker, Apocalypse, Frozen Fire, Bloodchild, Buried Thunder, Sea of Whispers and the Blade series. His most recent novels are Night Runner and Game Changer. His books have been translated into over thirty languages and have sold over a million copies worldwide.

I've always loved short stories, can't get enough of them, and I have collections of stories from all the big hitters of the genre plus every imaginable other kind of story ranging from the sublime to the execrable. It's hard to choose a favourite short story writer but H.E. Bates has to be near the top for me. I'm not mad on Bates's longer fiction and I can't stand the Pop Larkins but as a short story writer Bates holds me in a state of wonder. It's not just his evocations of rural England in the first half of the last century, his beautiful prose writing, his empathy with nature, his characterisation or even his humanity, apparent on every page, that set him apart for me. It's something else that he does with his stories, and I come back to the word 'wonder'. Where a Maupassant or a Saki might kill us with a twist, Bates's stories almost always turn on what Anthony Burgess called 'a small epiphany': a moment of revelation or transcendence at the spiritual apex of the story.

The Cowslip Field, the first story in Bates's collection entitled The Watercress Girl, is a good example. A small boy is being taken to the cowslip field by his guardian, a young woman called Pacey. He likes Pacey. She's kind and good humoured and she doesn't mind his leg-pulling about her country dialect. She patiently answers his questions, joshing with him about what ants do all day and why the sky doesn't fall down on us, and she doesn't even mind when he asks if she's got a young man. 'Oh, they're like plums on a tree,' she says. 'They all want to marry me.' We know that's not true. It's been made clear from the start, through the eyes of the boy, that Pacey is no looker. She's small, dumpy, has a mole on her cheek, and she wears outlandish glasses and a big felt hat. They make their way to the field, pick cowslips together, and thread them into chains, his much smaller than hers, then, for the first time, he notices that she has taken off her hat and has a huge wodge of hair rolled up 'like a heavy sausage'. He asks her to let it down so he can place a cowslip crown on her head. She doesn't want to but he persists. Let Bates take it from here…..

'She started to unpin the sausage at the back of her head, putting the black hairpins one by one into her mouth. Then slowly, like an unrolling blind, the massive coil of her hair fell down across her neck and shoulders and back, until it reached her waist. He had never seen hair so long, or so much of it, and he stared at it with wide eyes as it uncoiled itself, black and shining against the golden cowslip field.

'That's it, 'Pacey said, 'have a good stare.'

'Now I've got to put the crown on you,' he said.

He knelt by Pacey's lap and reached up, putting his cowslip chain on the top of her head. All the time he did this Pacey sat very still, staring towards the sun.

'Now yours,' he said.

He reached up, draping Pacey's own longer necklace across her hair and shoulders. The black hair made the cowslips shine more deeply golden than before and the flowers in turn brought out the lights in the hair. Pacey sat so still and staring as he did all this that he could not tell what she was thinking and suddenly, without asking, he reached up and took off her spectacles.

A strange, transformed woman he did not know, with groping blue eyes, a crown on her head and a necklace locking the dark mass of her hair, stared back at him….'


…….and there's the small epiphany, the moment of wonder: for the boy, for Pacey, for us. It only lasts a few seconds before Pacey remembers her modesty, mutters something, and restores her appearance to its former state. They joke a little more, then head for home, laughing, having fun, but somehow, in a subtle way, changed. And the story ends. H.E. Bates showing us how it's done.

The Watercress Girl is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Guest review by Nicola Morgan: A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson



Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. None of the former recently but she has been very busy writing non-fiction and speaking about adolescent brains, mental health and modern online life. Her most recent book is The Teenage Guide to Friends and next year sees publication of Positively Teenage and The Teenage Guide to Life Online. For more, see her website.

I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson and I’ve found her books getting better and better, even after the high standard set by Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She’s uncompromising, mind-blowingly inventive, writes whip-tight wry prose, is mistress of conjuring a whole character in a few clever brushstrokes and tells a cracking story. She’s also a very nice woman: I met her when the Society of Authors in Scotland had a research trip to a police station. We made it into her next book; I forget which one but if you come across a group of authors eating pink wafer biscuits in a police station, picture me there.

I don’t know what you call a book which is neither sequel nor prequel but runs alongside another book but let’s say that A God in Ruins is a paralleloquel to Life After Life, the extraordinary novel where Ursula is born and dies again and again and again and again, imagining very different results of a series of tiny events. (I had a similar idea in Wasted – I did it first but Atkinson obviously did it rather better!)

A God in Ruins focuses on the life of Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother. Teddy was a bomber pilot in WW2 and I honestly don’t know how Atkinson was able to describe in such visceral detail the physicality of the cockpit. But this is mostly a book about what happens after war ends, the human ruins that it leaves. Or, crucially, that it might leave.

The back cover describes the book as “deliriously funny and emotionally devastating”. It’s certainly the latter but the former? I have a high laughter threshold, admittedly, but even I found my lips twisting with the humour, in the same paragraph as my heart was being ripped to pieces. Atkinson is searingly witty, that’s for sure.

For me, the emotional devastation comes mostly from the wrecked character of Viola, Teddy’s daughter. She behaves appallingly; she’s cold, snide, unpleasant to her children, unlikeable. “What kind of a mother doesn’t see her child for a decade?” she asks of herself. Late in the book she says, “Her excuse…was that she had been exiled from love after her mother died.” As Viola had been six when her mother died of cancer, this would have been entirely plausible if it weren’t that she hadn’t been likeable before her mother died. Much later, she wants to start again, although “there are no second chances”, and then she would “learn to love”. She does have a second chance and may or may not succeed in taking it. Actually, the extraordinary twist at the end gives her simultaneously another chance and yet no chance at all.

Viola has a better excuse for her damaged heart. She knows something about her mother’s appalling death – though not, crucially, the whole story. Neither Teddy nor Viola knows what the other knows, and that lack of knowledge is at the novel’s and Viola’s devastating core.

Not many books are “unputdownable” for me nowadays, with my easily-distracted mind, but this one was. The way Atkinson draws the reader in to a complex and cracking plot and then plays mind-games and emotional croquet is some kind of genius.

A God in Ruins is published by Transworld.





Monday, 8 January 2018

Guest review by Michelle Lovric: THE HISTORY OF CALIPH VATHEK by William Beckford. "Enough Gothic to give ten cathedrals indigestion...'



Michelle Lovric is a novelist for both adults and children, a biographer and a poet, with particular interests in Venice, art and the history of medicine. She has edited numerous anthologies of poetry and prose. Her fourth adult novel, The Book of Human Skin, was chosen for the TV Book Club; her third, The Remedy, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. She has served as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at both the Courtauld Institute of Art and Kings College Graduate School, and, with Lucy Coats, teaches a Guardian Masterclass on writing for children. She’s the co-writer of My Sister Milly, by Gemma Dowler. She divides her time between London and Venice. www.michellelovric.com

I bring you The History of the Caliph Vathek by William Beckford, an eccentric personage who has a habit of haunting my own historical novels. I’m currently very interested in caliphs and gaiours. So was Beckford. And so was Byron, who acknowledged Vathek as his Bible. In fact, I suspect the poet of identifying with the self-indulgent eponymous hero. Other writers with debts to Vathek include H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe.

The picture at the foot of this page shows my own treasured copy, printed in 1887. It comes with endpaper advertising for Schweitzer’s Cocoatina and Linen Collars, Cuffs and Shirts by Robinson & Cleaver, Belfast. Before reviewing, I checked that Vathek’s still available in various print editions and on Kindle. Appropriately, my edition lived for ten years in Venice, where Beckford himself suffered some misadventures and enjoyments. My book was recently repatriated to London. So I’ve been rereading it, and finding more of interest than I ever did before.

In today’s context, what do we make of Vathek’s plot, in which the protagonist’s willful rejection of Islam’s core values leads to unspeakable atrocity against the innocent and endless torment in Hell for the protagonist himself? Meanwhile, Vathek’s stark storyline is rigged out in enough Gothic ornament to give ten cathedrals indigestion.

Beckford claimed to have written the work (in French) in a single sleepless sitting of three days and two nights). The year: 1782. Beckford was twenty-two, a febrile individual reputed the richest in England, gripped by the prevailing fashion for Orientalism. The previous Christmas he’d collaborated with the set painter Philip James de Loutherbourg to produce a lavish orientalist entertainment. Vathek was inspired by that work. But the book also shows the influence of the new literary Gothic, as epitomised in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, with its relentless parade of bizarre and sustained fantasy, terror, direful secrets, abominations, decadence, corruption and sacrifice of the young, graveyards, bodies and the full catalogue of gloomy, soaring architecture, from towers to castles (on earth and in hell).

An English edition of Vathek appeared in 1786 as An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript. Beckford’s name was not initially attached to it.

Beckford’s narrator adopts a mannered, arch story-telling voice that does not waver, no matter how many mutilations or excesses it describes. The story runs as a continuous narrative, like an all-night tale spun round a fire. Beckford does not attempt much interiority in his characters, preferring to describe their deeds and their effect on others, dwelling with a kind of distanced tongue-in-cheek pleasure on the dark, the ludicrous, the painful and the depraved.

Vathek is young when he becomes the ninth caliph of the Abassides, but his personality is already well formed. He’s greedy and sensual: with a ‘liquorish’ taste for ‘good dishes and young damsels’. He’s also clever, curious about science, particularly astronomy. He builds a tower with 11,000 steps for studying the stars. He creates five extravagant pleasure palaces, one for each of the senses. Vathek tolerates no disagreement. The fury in one of his eyes can – and does – kill. His eunuchs pinch his concubines until they bleed. His mother, Carathis, is one of the great psychopathic grotesques of all literature, a bloodthirsty grave-hungry woman riddled with evil, who facilitates her son’s every hellish act and desire. Her familiars are ‘fifty female negroes, mute and blind of the right eye’ who squint ‘in the most amiable manner from the only eye they had’. The laboratory of Carathis is filled with mummies, the oil of venomous serpents, rhinoceros’ horns and ‘a thousand other horrible rarities’, procured so that ‘she might one day enjoy some intercourse with the infernal powers to which she had ever been passionately attached.’ Her camel goes by the name of Alboufaki and can infallibly scent a graveyard.

Curiosity leads Vathek to buy some sabres from an ugly man who purports to be a merchant from India. (He is, in fact a demonic Jinn). The sabres glow with unreadable words. Vathek’s feared evil eye fails to extract their secret from the merchant, who escapes. Scholars struggle interpret the sabres’ text. Eventually it becomes clear that the messages are unstable: the swords yield new words on each reading.

The Jinn, named ‘the Giaour’ (infidel/blasphemer), tempts Vathek to renounce Islam. If he does so, the Giaour promises to lead him to ‘the palace of the subterranean fire’ where Vathek shall become master of unimaginable treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans and the talismans that rule over the world.

It’s no great moral struggle for a spoilt voluptuary like Vathek to give up the Islamic tenets of prayer, fasting and charity. But the Giaour also requires Vathek to sacrifice fifty young boys. The Caliph tricks his nobles into sending him their adored offspring. Once they realize the fate of their children, the nobles revolt. Vathek is rescued only by his mother and his vizier. But the full blood-price is not yet paid. Next Carathis and her son use her armoury of venomous unguents to create an explosion of light at the top of the astronomy tower. Loyal subjects run up the 11,000 steps to save their caliph, only to be sacrificed to the Jinn.

Now there’s dangerous journey to be undertaken to Istakhar by the caliph and his opulent household. After attacks by wild animals, they’re invited to rest in the by mountain-dwelling holy dwarves who try to re-convert Vathek to Islam. The caliph is persuaded to stay by the local Emir, Fakreddin. Not least of the attractions of Islam is the Emir's beautiful daughter Nouronihar, whom Vathek is easily able to lure away from her effeminate ‘bauble’ of a fiancé with a promise of ‘the Carbuncle of Giamschid’.

Mohammed himself beholds Vathek’s excesses with exasperation. Mohammed receives a request from a good Genie. Can he try to save Vathek from his eternal damnation? Taking the form of a flute-playing shepherd, the Genie offers dire warning about Eblis, ruler of Hell. Vathek may be saved, the shepherd tells him, if he destroys his tower, casts his mother out of power, and becomes once more a continent, respectful Muslim. He refuses.

Vathek and Nouronihar arrive in the underworld. But they soon discover that the palace of flames offers not endless wealth and power but eternal torment. Even Carathis is unable to save them. All three begin to feel the pain of remorse. Their hearts begin to burn, literally, with eternal fire.

It is partly the terminology and its deployment that make this book so interesting. A ‘Caliph’ is the ‘Caliphate’s’ head of state. It can also be the title for the leader of the Islamic Ummah, or international Islamic nation/borderless homeland. In this context, Vathek becomes a kind of Everyman. Jinn are also part of Islamic creation mythology, predating the invention of mankind. Allah conjured them out of ‘smokeless fire’. Eblis, or Iblis, is Islam’s first and foremost Jinn, expelled from Paradise for disobedience. In the Qur’an, he more often appears as ‘Shaytan’, similar not just in sound to the Christian and Hebrew ‘Satan’.

How to explain Vathek? I can detect faint threads of autobiography. There’s the feasting, for example. Beckford’s father, twice mayor of London, ‘gave very sumptuous dinners that made epochs in the life of feeding men’, according to the introduction to my 1887 edition, which also suggests, perhaps facetiously, that the hellish torment of perpetual fire in Vathek’s breast might have been inspired by the young Beckford witnessing or experiencing postprandial heartburn. The excesses of his father’s household, might also explain the number of exotic luxuries that sustain Beckford’s caliph – apricots for the Isle of Kirmith, muslin from ‘the Irak of Babylon’, chintz from Masulipatam, flagons of Shiraz wine, amber comfits, porcelain vases of snow.

The scant regard for human life? The deaths reckoned in tens and hundreds? The Beckford wealth derived from slave labour on the family’s Jamaican estates.

The loving descriptions of the delicious bodies of the fifty boys sacrificed? And of the beauty of Nouronihar’s effeminate fiancé? (‘When Gulchenrouz appeared in the dress of his cousin he seemed to be feminine than even herself …’) Beckford had at least two passions for noble youths, one of which was outed in the British press.

The early ascent of Vathek to the throne? Beckford’s father died when he was just a boy, leaving him ancestral acres at Fonthill, Wiltshire, an income of £100,000 a year and a million in cash.

The Jinn (spirits of smokeless fire)? Beckford himself was described as ‘all air and fire’ by a family friend who uselessly advised his mother to keep the Arabian Nights out of his sight.

The Palaces of the Five Senses? In Fonthill Abbey, Beckford created a Gothic seat for himself and his extraordinary art collection. Beckford’s sense of the exquisite was perhaps the mostly finely honed and most indulged of all his senses. Hearing must have been important too. Beckford, who had been tutored by Mozart, composed music.

The 11,000 step tower? Fonthill’s soaring spire collapsed (in the dead of a winter night, of course). By that time Beckford had moved to Bath, where he built another great folly of a tower.

Vathek’s anti-pilgrimage can find parallel in Beckford’s own extensive Grand Tour, during which he managed some colourful scrapes.

The holy, righteous dwarves? Beckford employed a pair of dwarves, gorgeously garbed, to open the 40-feet-high Gothic doors at Fonthill.

Vathek’s a cautionary tale on the same cruelty scale as Struwwelpeter. But how do we properly account for a decadent young English aristocrat, a bisexual, becoming an apparent apologist for pious Islam?

That, I cannot piece together coherently.

I can only suggest that you take a look.



The History of Caleph Vathek is published by Pinnacle Press.