Bulwer-Lytton is the great lost Victorian best-selling author. His life was as bizarre as any novel, but perhaps not quite as bizarre as this one.
It involves (inter alia) a doomed opera singer, a mysterious immortal stranger with occult powers, various baddies who lust after the doomed opera singer, a dwindling brotherhood of (sort of ) Rosecrucians, the French Revolution, the Astral Plane and some of the most over-wrought prose this side of well.... The Bulwer-Lytton contest. The man never talks about the north if he can get away with calling it "the hyperborean element".
That said, it has a weird energy that carries is along at a cracking pace. If you are used to the long 19thC novel, this is a curiosity well worth investigating.
The superficial perusal of this remarkable book will leave the average reader--and the average occultist too--none the wiser as to the profound truths the author conceals in plain sight under the cloak of allegory and arcane symbolism. That Bulwer-Lytton was well aware of this is shown by his well-known remark that Zanoni is "a truth for those who can comprehend it, and an extravagance for those who cannot."
Bulwer-Lytton ranked Zanoni amongst the highest of his prose works. The book describes the eternal conflict between the body and Soul, matter and spirit; between wisdom and ignorance, love and passion, set against the dramatic background of the French Revolution. The novel is divided into seven parts, whose titles indicate the sevenfold path of spiritual development. It is in the fourth section--'The Dweller of the Threshold'--that the author introduces the eponymous enigmatical entity which has given rise to more speculations, more or less fantastic, than almost any other 'occult' conundrum. Much the same may be said of the mysterious 'elixir of life' about which even more nonsense has been written. Yet Bulwer-Lytton reveals the true identity of the mysterious 'dweller' and the real nature of the 'elixir' in several places in the book--if we know where to look and recognise them for what they are when we encounter them!
Zanoni is not an 'easy read', especially for those unfamiliar with occult symbolism and metaphysical philosophy, but it is a most enjoyable one, with a wonderfully poignant and ultimately tragic love story woven into the narrative. For those who are sincerely interested in the occult sciences, the book has few equals as a treatise upon occult philosophy, initiation and magic, nor has a more compelling portrait of a true Adept in the occult arts in the shape of the Magician, Zanoni, ever been drawn in fiction.
The neophyte Glyndon, whom Zanoni entrusts to the care of his Master, Mejnour, for his instruction in the magic arts, provides an accurate and very modern portrait of the typical seeker. By turns credulous and sceptical, burning with insatiable curiosity, yet incapable of sustained effort and impatient for the satisfaction of his own selfish desires. Like the moth, he flutters briefly toward the Light that calls to his Higher Self, only to fall back to earth again with burned wings...
Like all the characters in the book, Viola, the love-interest of both Zanoni and Glyndon, is as much a symbol as a personality. Indeed, the author provides a very illuminating postscript in which this symbolism is partially explained and elucidated. Among the other memorable characters in the book may be mentioned Nicot, a base, grovelling opportunist out for fame, sex and power whose mendacity and perfidy run like an evil thread through the later chapters of the book.
Finally, the Mystic Sage, Mejnour has received poor treatment at the hands of reviewers over the years, who focus upon his 'cold', 'stern' inhumanity. The discerning reader may rather see in him the ideal of a genuine Master who has risen above mere sentimentality the better to irradiate the world of men with the sunny rays of his spiritual compassion and wisdom.
To sum up, the diligent and patient reader who is prepared to study and meditate upon this book will be amply rewarded. Those who come to it simply out of curiosity will at least have the pleasure of enjoying a beautifully-written novel of adventure, magic and romance which is as compelling and exciting as any modern fiction.