Saturday, October 22, 2011


The biggest problem with the English language is that our literature generally sucks. It's a rarely realized truth as safely vetted pablum such as Whitman and Dickens make up the bulk of undergrad courses and as some comedian once said, "It's not that Eskimos like eating blubber - it's the only thing around." It's the very rare student who reads anything in the "classics" category for fun and even then they reflexively confine themselves to the Anglo canon, like literary Stockholm Syndrome. This is how you get girls insisting Jane Austen's novels are so totally not just 19th century chick-lit or people citing Shakespeare when his work - and his language - is about as relevant as leeches in a doctor's office.

(Note I am speaking specifically of English literature from England. Irish writers such as Joyce and Wilde lumped in with "Brit Lit" are not included. Further, the brilliant P.G. Wodehouse has yet to be canonized by academics, therefore this critique does not apply to him.)

I'm saying all this to put what I have to say next in perspective - The Monk, a classic of the 18th century Gothic genre, is a very British book. Melodramatic, overwritten, and dripping in petty hatreds. You spend enough time with the Continental writers and these qualities take on a sharper emphasis in Anglo novels. I expected some digs at Catholicism, every Limey's favorite whipping boy, but the digressions into the manic passions and wacky superstitions of the Spanish turned what is ostensibly a horror novel into a flat-out farce half the time - which may have been intentional but I'll get to that later.

The Monk is billed as a terrifying tale of an Abbott Ambrosio's downfall due to lust, pride, and the machinations of the Devil himself. So far, your standard Gothic potboiler. The Author, Matthew Lewis, actually handles this part very well and it's the most compelling slice of his bloated narrative. Sadly that slice, concerning the titular Monk, is only about a third of the whole novel. Much more is made about some other noble-types and their marriage plans which only ever touch briefly on what should be the main story of Ambrosio.

It's a shame because the main storyline is one of those rare cases of a "classic" that can remain an engaging story centuries after it was written. Ambrosio is a tragic case study in hubris and the suppression of natural passions, all set against the backdrop of a senseless universe (see below). Though even all of that only yields a novella's worth of story, which may have lead Lewis to pad out an otherwise good tale with so much mass market grist.

The secondary narratives give Lewis the opportunity to indulge in the favorite activity of the typical Anglo - hating Others. That's capitalized because to the English of just about every age before 1945 were an insular and comically xenophobic lot, particularly regarding cultures with more sunshine and sex. Lewis's Spain is a circus of passionate goofballs, spouting histrionics at the slightest provocation and superstitious of their own shadows. Because they're Catholics and as any good English boy learns from his Anglican schoolmasters, Catholics are just all kinds of fucked up.

Which leads us the biggest problem with this book - it's schizophrenic. Lewis was clearly trying to write a satire of the Gothic genre, loading his novel with all manner of violence and injustice. Also, he is very clearly trying to make some point against the Church, ripping on the Papists because one could get away with that at the time in England while not on the Continent. Irrational, oppressive, ruled by hypocrites - Lewis clearly has a bone to pick with organized religion.

...Except that in the world of The Monk, religion is proven absolutely right. The Devil is very real, very interested in humans, and very actively trying to claim each and every soul through overly complicated machinations that would put the fictional villains of the 9/11 Truth Movement to shame. Lewis tries to have it both ways in his novel, with the Church a circus of two-faced debauchery and sanctimony but still existing as a bulwark against the forces of Hell.

Lewis, dreaming up a bonkers plot.

And he hates women. Like, alot. The only woman who isn't a credulous fool or a vindictive psycho-bitch comes to possibly the worst end of the novel, raped and murdered in a graveyard. The two women who demonstrate anything resembling a spine are punished to a ridiculous degree in one case and are revealed to be a goddamned demon in the other - so the psycho-bitch nuns are entirely right in their psycho-bitchiness... except they're also evil... despite being right...

Hell, maybe Lewis was trying to make this a mess. A bold proto-Dada example of the world as an absurdity. Or maybe he was just too excited about writing a novel and just crammed in every single story idea he ever had. Either way, it's an ugly mess wrapped around a surprisingly fun read.

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