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The Monk Paperback – 25 Mar 2009
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|Paperback, 25 Mar 2009||
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No, the thing that I found most remarkable about 'The Monk' was the way this work tells us so much about the time of its writing. Some works of art (not always the greatest) are psychologically revealing about their own age...and this one is in spades.
Lewis wrote his novel in a few weeks in late 1794, in the Netherlands. He seems to have been attached, in a diplomatic capacity, to The Duke of York's ill-fated expedition against the French Revolutionary army. This, remember, was the year of the culmination of 'The Terror', and the collapse of the enlightenment project with the fall of Robespierre. We are on the cusp of two eras, the optimistic rationalism of the French 'Philosophes' is giving way to an inward-looking, apolitical romanticism; a development Goya noted, and satirised in his 1799 'Caprichos' print 'The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters'.
The novel is deeply divided in this way, both 'Sense and Sensibility' in the same author (as opposed to its division between two sisters a la Jane Austen). In the jargon of our age we could call this cognitive dissonance, I suppose. I should add that this is not a criticism...I found it fascinating, and very revealing about the uncertainties of this explosive era. This is yet another good reason to read this book, especially if you have an interest in the history of ideas.
What do I mean by cognitive dissonance? Well, a major theme in 'The Monk' is the protestant/enlightenment attack on the 'superstition', of the Spanish Catholic Church which essentially clouds the fates of the lovers Raymond and Agnes. Lorenzo and Raymond never fail to repeatedly hammer this point home. Lewis is a firm disciple of Voltaire here, and the Spaniard Goya. On the other hand, Lewis then proceeds to bring forth a bevy of monsters. He, and his characters, revel in the older superstitions of witchcraft, devil-worship and ghost stories...which turn out not to be superstitions at all...but palpable truth! Here we are back in the early seventeenth century mindscape of James the First and Shakespeare's Macbeth...and of course, in the Spanish context, Tirso de Molina's Don Juan. So prayers for the intercession of the saints are futile...but ghosts, and demons (even Lucifer himself!) can be conjured up and there is thus little protection from them!
The impact of current events (and contemporary theatrical works) is a persistent undertone. I doubt that the scene of the attack on the convent could have been quite so convincing without the recent anti-clerical excesses of the revolutionaries still fresh in Lewis' consciousness, and defy anyone to read these disturbing pages without suffering the occasional frisson! The incident with the banditi in the Alsatian woods clearly references Schiller's sensational proto-romantic play of 1781, 'Die Rauber'. Agnes' escape from chains is a borrowing from the fashionable French Revolutionary 'rescue' opera genre...doubtless influenced by the fall of the Bastille, and culminating a few years later in Beethoven's 'Fidelio'. Added to this intoxicating mix is the clear influence of De Sade's sexual politics (no wonder he appreciated this novel!) A witches' brew indeed...a work of genius, arguably, but made more potent by those heady and turbulent times.
After reading Ann Radcliffe's long and somewhat ponderous, but admittedly well-written and dreamy "Mysteries of Udolpho", "The Monk" brought a breath of fresh air into my experience of reading late-eighteenth century gothic novels. Lewis's short and brisk sentences aid quickness of thought and action, and there is often no time to sit and take in the air before the reader is taken off to the next scene in this saga of blasphemy, incest, rape, and murder. Or, as Emma McEvoy of London University puts it in her introduction, Lewis's book is "a work which enjoys short climaxes, rather than long anticipation." This is probably why he went on to write such popular plays.
But whereas Radcliffe in her work would ultimately find rational explanations for all the supposed causes of fear and suspicion, Lewis revels in the truth of the supernatural. The novel is replete with dark and sinister designs and dealing with spirits is the route for their fulfilment. This is tolerable for the reader because the tale is set within the unreal milieu of the gothic drama - and, of course, setting it in the context of deeply-catholic, old-world Spain also helps!
I thought I knew how the novel would pan out and end from clues hidden within the very first chapters, with hints given about the mysterious family background of the monk and with details dropped in conversation in the church about the family history of Elvira. But I was both right and wrong, and without giving the plot away I cannot elaborate any further. But at what the opening scene does not hint is the long meandering journey taken to reach the end, nor at the excesses experienced along the way. There are some stories within stories within stories, when we hear of the legend of the Bleeding Nun, as the action shifts to Germany from the hot and humid streets of Madrid. I say `hot and humid', but there is very little descriptive element to the novel; more is focussed on the action and plot.
There are some factual errors in the writing. Lewis was clearly unaware of differences between monks and friars, for example, or if he did know, he did not care too much. Equally there are some narrative problems too: for example, one moment Matilda (impersonating a male novice) is lying in her/his cell on her/his deathbed in the monastery in front of monks who are praying for her delivery from death, and the next Matilda's golden hair is "pouring itself" over her lover's chest. She must have had a voluminous cowl to hide all that hair!
There is a certain laddish humour in the writing: for instance, "She was wise enough to hold her tongue. As this is the only instance known of a woman's ever having done so, it was judged worthy to be recorded here." And Lorenzo de Medina, Don Christoval and Raymond de las Cisternas are all young blades about town, with an eye for a pretty woman.
In her introduction, Emma McEvoy explains how novels at the time were supposed to inculcate virtue, not vice, but that some contemporary reviewers ignored morality altogether and just praised it as a good read. She mentions that the owner of a circulating library " `underscored all the naughty passages' so that her young female readers would know which parts to avoid." She goes on to explain Lewis's background and how his novel fits the conventions of the gothic form, except that "It seems as if Lewis is determined to wreak vengeance on the unbelievably virtuous characters of other novelists."
This edition includes the usual standard extras that one comes to expect from Oxford World's Classics: the note on the text, the select bibliography, a chronology of the author, and explanatory notes. Some of these latter, however, are a little odd: "Knight of Mount (A)Etna" (p.26) would seem quite self-explanatory; "natural philosophy" (p.267) was the contemporary term for science rather then alchemy; and, yes, I think we worked out for ourselves that the "Grand Inquisitor" (p.422) would be "the official who presided at the Inquisition."
As with all reprints of classic works of literature, I recommend that the so-called introduction (which is really more of a commentary) is best read after the novel.
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