25 thoughts on “Melmoth – Sarah Perry

  1. I want to read this book very much, because, after retreading my reviews of them from a previous real-time, I was evidently inspired by Sarah Perry’s previous two novels.
    Also, in my youth, I remember reading and enjoying MELMOTH THE WANDERER by Charles Maturin.
    And, not long ago, I read and reviewed here a related work entitled THE WANDERER by Timothy Jarvis.

    Part 1

    “I don’t like mysteries or surprises. How many times have I told you? I don’t like them at all.”

    “: did he know, for example, that Saddam Hussein was once given the keys to the city of Detroit? That even the dead can get gooseflesh?”

    I usually adumbrate a book’s plot, without revealing spoilers, to prove I have read it. For some reason, uncannily imparted to me by some preternatural aura attached to this text, I am keeping such a device to its minimum. Suffice to know that the Perry style has reached, for me, apotheosis in this opening section. (Who knows what further overdrives of apotheosis we may reach in her future books as yet unwritten, and even more certainly as yet unread?)
    Suffice to say that the style and characterisation and genius loci have a compelling appeal — straightforward in a literary, sometimes paradoxical, complexity. It tells of Helen, Karel, Thea, Josef Hoffman and “Albína Horáková: ninety years old, malicious, unkind, devoted to sentimental opera and Turkish Delight.” In a modern day Prague. And the events leading to Helen, apparently, reading in the next section of the book the document left by Hoffman after his death…

  2. The Hoffman Document

    “My body strained towards my watcher — my skin broke out in gooseflesh, and I felt my eyes adapt to that sucking blackness with a painful pulling of the tissues.”

    Born in 1926, Hoffman gives an absorbing account of his early life with his not-so-perfect parents in Czechoslovakian outskirts and in Prague. I got the sense of a story told him of Melmoth or a similar name, a woman wanderer who denied seeing the resurrected Christ, after she was one among several women who saw him, a story that now stalks him? Or the wanderer watching him herself? He also met Franz a boy in the area and his fetching sister Freddie. And listened to their new-fangled radio. This has a genuine entrancing texture of which I have only scratched the surface here. Story-telling at an accomplished level difficult yet to measure. Tuning in between the music stations of Franz’s radio…
    I do not intend to continue divulging the plot as I go on, and I hope the above is the exception having proved that rule already.

    Up to: “I knew it did me harm. I didn’t care.”

  3. “My mother had covered her hair in a bright scarf I’d never seen before, and wore a cardigan stitched with flowers that fastened at the neck with woollen tassels. In her left hand she held a handkerchief which she pressed to her face while she wept. Her right arm was raised above her head, the hand flat and held palm down. I was astonished. I’d never seen her show such emotion, nor could I understand why she would give a military salute.”

    So, Hoffman’s document seems to end soon after that incident in historic Prague, and moves indistinctly back or forward to Helen, today or nearer today, having just read the document. I gain a sense that the woman watcher with the mutant forms of the Melmoth name is a form of many women watching, watching us, watching Helen, but — in some perhaps Proustian moment of separate selfhood — Helen becomes that watcher herself?

    Up to: “Everything before it was prologue: everything after, a footnote.”

  4. “Watch Helen: something alters.”

    “Something about a watching woman: in Essex, of all places.”

    Upon the Last Balcony beyond even the Land’s Edge?

    Who watches whom? The author watches her characters. And then decides to describe them. Here Helen with wheelchair-bound Thea, Thea’s lover Karel now gone, presumably beset by his own reading about the watcher, as Melmoth witness, plus the mechanics of lovemaking more difficult following the wheelchair’s reasons. Or so I infer.
    A slap of awakening. More knowledge imparted about the eponymous watcher by the crafty techniques of great fiction, even if it is not fiction at all but a real history that these techniques here make believable as well as intrinsically true, by dint of those techniques.
    The author watches her readers, too, I sense. Particularly, she watches the reader who is me, a reader in Essex – not stemming from my paranoia or my false sense of self-importance so much as from my brazen, self-inflicted decision to open up about my reading of this her book, my decision to publicly real-time review my reading of it!

    Read up to: “— it would not do to let nightmares follow her beyond the dawn!”

  5. “‘What do you know about Melmoth — about Melmotka?’ Helen is conscious of feeling envious, as if the legend is something she has personally acquired, and not common currency.”

    Me, too. Though there may now be millions reading this new book to diffuse such claims! Walking through the hell we have made. And there is some gruelling documentary evidence now provided, to be read and absorbed somehow, about a woman a few centuries ago who met this book’s eponymous heading. The conflict of the ins and outs of sin and Christianity. Luther versus Rome. And an almost Sapphic embrace….?
    Just an aside, my own wife was also born in Brentwood, Essex.

    Read up to “…and there is about me — very sweet — the scent of the lily-flower ————“

  6. “Helen, kneeling, sees the woman nod with practised hauteur at the waiting pianist, then she begins to sing, and it is the kind of music that most disgusts her: a sort of melodious form of hysterics.”

    This book increases and decreases its volume with avant garde bravado but still maintains the aura of well-honed, linear narrative , as you follow those being followed. (It has its own stumbling stones.) An aura to a famous aria by Dvorak. Thea (abandoned by Karel) is furnished with a nurse called Adaya by the accidental or stumbling mechanics of this plot and of God’s allowing us to fall, but once allowed by Him, we can then fall even further without His help: a toppled wheelchair, and ‘foot drop’. I am later reminded of a painting of a succubus or incubus on a woman’s chest, plus innuendos like those in stories told to scare children in the old days to stop them being naughty. We are naughty readers, perhaps. Or at least I am. I think there is more to some of these scenes than you may realise, things that some readers will pass over without dwelling on the implications. Good job, because, otherwise, such a reader might be too scared to continue. I have not read any reviews of this book. I never do, till I finish books. I wonder if any reviewers have noticed what I have noticed. And, if so, will they dare tell you? Or perhaps, they have not noticed, despite being entrusted to review books. Perhaps, finishing a book before writing their review makes them forget what they noticed, or, rather, allows them to enter a state of denial? Only real-time reviews can dig deep enough or, rather, give any findings a durability? Later events in — or later readerly thoughts about — a book may cast a retrocausal cloak over what went before, creating blanks rather than stumbling stones.

    Read up to: “….takes the Hoffman document from her desk, and lies on the hard thin mattress to read.”

  7. ‘All I’ve ever known is that I am the law, and the law is right. But now I wonder if there is what is right, and there is what is good, and these are not the same.’

    Back to the oppressive days in Prague through the telling eyes of Hoffman.
    Perhaps only further quotes will suffice, to avoid more stumbling stones or blanks.

    “It was as if, having only ever looked down at the shuffle of my shoes on the cobblestones, I began to lift my head.”

    “What did Britain have to do with us —“

    Read up to: “…who for two thousand years had wandered from place to place because no nation could bear their presence?”

  8. “Reader, shall I lie?”

    “…in my pocket that piece of stone which I caressed and turned over and over as though it were a sacred object.”

    Strange that this stone, which may or may not be a stumbling one, started life — from what sounds like a Science Fiction material (moldavite) — in one of Hoffman’s best footnotes to his confessional document that we are still reading over the shoulder of Helen…
    Three gratuitous or random questions come to my mind —
    Jackdaw, Jew, what do these words have in common?
    Sell your freedom-from-guilt for a radio?
    Where did you first meet a Wandering Jew?
    The onIy one for which I personally have a definite answer is the last one: ‘The Monk’ by Matthew Gregory Lewis, my namesake whom I have long associated, in my reading history, with Charles Maturin…

    Read up to: “It was May 1945. I was nineteen.”

  9. “: ‘God! God! God! God! God!’ After an hour the voice broke — I heard it break — and then for another hour there was instead a kind of wordless questioning which may just have been the jackdaws on the windowsill.”

    I am chancing my arm. I do not think anyone could have written this book. Unless there exists a writer as creative first mover who is numinously Nemonymous – with the name on the spine being the first witness of the writing rather than the actual writer. (Cf ‘The Witnesses Are Gone’, by the late Joel Lane.)

    I am depending on serendipity and synchronicity to choose quotes to decorate my passage through the book.

    “I looked, and saw that someone had cut a portion of flesh from her heel, very precisely, measuring half an inch square. Within that neat wound was a mass of yellowish fat and fibrous tissue. I went on eating my bread.”

    Here we follow Hoffman in the immediate aftermath of the second world war in Prague, the fate of collaborators; whether he was one or not, he suffered both guilt and punishment. Some passages in his document that you will not forget. About what happened to Jews and Jackdaws and later what happened to collaborators … and about Hoffman’s visitation by this book’s eponymous woman witness. Who is witnessing whom, I continue to ask? Who whom, the Doctor asks?

    “I thought: she must be there — how could there be no witness?”

    Almost without noticing, I segue into Part Two of this book, and I am allowed to read Karel’s unrequited letter to Thea. He is now in present day Britain … (Cf Rosanne Rabinowitz’s ‘Resonance and Revolt‘ and ‘The Good Terrorist’ by the late Doris Lessing.)

    Read up to: “They made me think of my students, who are so young and look at the road ahead of them happily, having no idea that the road narrows and turns back on itself, and goes through dark places, and is covered all over with things to trip you up and break your ankles.”

  10. “And because I have been mad, and lost — because you are gone — even, I think, because of Melmoth — I let myself be taken by the flood.”

    Karel’s letter describes his grouping together with students in England to struggle with defiance against a different historical diaspora, different from the one in which Hoffman had been involved, this time it being Migrant Refugees arriving via Calais. The need for a ‘good terrorism’, no doubt, that Lessing once sensed? Terrorism as an offshoot of literary or religious Terror?
    Terror does have a diary after all, Mr Maturin?
    Thea tells Karel’s news to Helen, Adaya and Albína Horáková, upon the occasion of the hen party for the latter’s 91st Birthday. (I love the preparation details of dress &c. for this occasion and many other darkly acute observations).

    Read up to Thea telling the others about Karel: “He says: there is no Melmoth — there is no one to witness what’s done these days — and so he will simply have to do it himself.”

    …being a telling observation for our own times, but there is much more that I cannot cover here. If I could, you would not need to read what is becomimg a monumental book, even if, for those who have now finished reading it, it has become such already.

  11. “‘But why?’ Adaya frowns. She flushes, very faintly, and butters Thea’s bread. ‘What use is it? What good does it do, to watch?’”

    Still in the Prague restaurant, a Poliakoff type scene, I guess, as a sleepy pianist is startled awake and plays a desultory waltz.
    Helen has visions of Hoffman, Bayer on nearby tables. The four women poignantly make life’s confessions, not necessarily to outdo each other’s change of ‘heavy money’ in the past’s pockets, but to question the nature of the eponymous watcher or witness, the pros and cons of watching or being watched by her as changing times flow by. Whether it is to ‘dwell in marble halls’, or not.

    Read up to: “The driver went a different way, and a different way, and a different way. ‘Where are you going?’ we said. He didn’t say anything, went a different way again.”

  12. “‘Dear Helen — dear good little Helen, so calm, so considered: who never says a word out of place! What can her sin be?’”

    From Albína‘s apparent killing of a man with a hatpin, we reach Helen’s confession at the hen party of her own ‘sin’, when as a young woman she made her first trip abroad — to Manila — away from “the pebble-dashed walls of her Essex home, with nothing more strange beyond the double glazing than a jay among the bedding plants.”
    Still there are shanties in Essex, too, I say, not far from where I live.

    “What she discovered was this: that a foreign country is both more foreign and more familiar than the traveller imagines.”

    An enthralling account. Not yet reached the ‘sin’ in my reading, but I am fully aware of the infected cockroach bite, the sense of being watched as she was watched, say, when she was a girl with a satchel, the young, but slightly older, male chemist who helps her deal with the bite, his brother’s motor bike accident….
    I am not so aware of the innuendos I have no doubt missed. Some readers notice certain things, other readers different things, creating more than one novel. The precariousness of not only life itself but also of the act of reading books like this one. This book is a both a foreign and familiar land abroad, too.

    Read up to: “When they first shared a bed that, too, was easeful, as if they had done so many times many years ago, and had forgotten it until that moment.”

  13. “‘Elder brother,’ she would say, putting her hands on him, on the body that had somehow, she always felt, made her also a thing of flesh: ‘Have we met before? Do you remember me? Do you remember this?’”

    Helen and her ‘elder brother’ travel extra-mural Manila, extramural mania? As well as visiting the hospital, as his, the chemist’s, own (elder?) brother, still recovering from his accident. But for Helen there is also the hospital floor’s slowly fading bloody footprint and the empty chair next to the acid victim Rosa, with whom she sits. No longer an empty chair, but who is ‘she’, Helen or Melmoth, I wonder, a vision of which witness or watcher all empty chairs contain, perhaps? “…but the feeling that to witness such degradation and humiliation was to somehow take part in it:” Perfectly honed fiction narrative, inferentially contrived but also seemingly beyond the control of the author, if such a paradoxical phenomenon of literature is possible, whether intentional or not.

    Read up to: “‘Aking kaibigan: hayaan mo akong mamatay.’ My friend, my friend. Let me die.”

  14. ‘only children think closing your eyes makes a thing go away.’

    ‘: it seemed to her that release from pain was a cruelty if only brief –‘

    A brief cruelty if to patch up pain temporarily? Because the return to pain is far more than briefly cruel?
    Helen’s ‘sin’ with regard to Rosa, her ‘older sister’ — in this conversational ‘game’ of recounting personal sins — is movingly told. More ‘witness’ moments and empty shadowed chairs to remember, too. Leading later to a potential Proustian cake of liqueur and Apricots (a description to die for). You see, a Madeleine moment can come at any root age and at any subsequently remembering age yet to come. This is one of the things this book has told me, perhaps unintentionally on everyone’s part, reader and author and any internal narrators.

    Read up to: “…that the sweetness of Dvořák will be worse for the penitent than even the sweetness of cake.”

  15. “A man in an apron is cleaning the moon.”

    “part terror and part desire.”

    The opera of Rusalka is ‘through-composed.’ The performance that the four women attend, floating off feathers and seed pearls into the auditorium, a healing and hawling, and is another crux, a vision of pointing paranoia, as if we are all now the witness en masse, redeemed or punished, as I think I might have implied earlier. Certainly for Helen’s Hellish turning- or tipping-point back towards a paper moon… Ježibaba!

    “It is as strange as a nightmare and as familiar as home.”

    I again segue between parts of this book now towards and within ‘From The Cairo Journals of Anna Marney, 1931’

    The beggar prince? Or the beggar’s opera? Not reached far into these Journals yet. There is no dependable reviewer of course, only a real-time reader, one among many. Piligrim sinners, all of us, who have reached this far. Pilgrim spoilers, hopefully not. Did not Anthony Burgess once write an opera called Melmotka? Melmoth?

    Read up to: “There is no god of course, and if there were, why would he send me?”

  16. “It wasn’t a shadow. It was like a swarm of flies — like one thing made of many other things and all of them black and moving very fast.”

    Like the gestalt of this book?
    I segue, as you must, as another reader like me, segue between the otherwise separated texts towards and into “The Testimony of Nameless and Hassan” — “…and of Melmat, the woman who watches.” — “…the watch which could measure time to the ticking minute, depicted for the amazement of unborn historians the skills of surgeons who were also women.” New diaspora and political shenanigans now, in Turkish history, well, history to us, with the nameless beggar I shall call Nemonymous, and Hassan, telling us of a their own history’s ‘good terrorists’? Terror, political as well as gothic, for this book…but Maturin wrote in his own Melmoth book that ‘Terror has no diary.’

    Read up to: “(MUST I GO ON?)”

  17. “: that his diligence and exactitude, if dull, had been part of a glittering whole. Nameless found his work in Trebizond arduous.
    It was necessary to devise a practical means of moving ten thousand Armenians into the interior,…”

    A moving vision of Memtal Melmat, the transcending version here, for Nameless & co, amid more diaspora and disaster of moving peoples around 1915, around old Trebizond and neighbours where so much has since preoccupied or invaded the world leading to Trump, Brexit and so forth that we cannot now predict?
    You can hardly NOT be moved … by such healing, hawling guilt and possible redemption.
    She will now always haunt my personal dreams. She alone perhaps may perhaps save us with pragmatic rapture and mythos.

    “Dreaming, he knew that inside the garments was a woman’s body, which he could not see, but which he somehow desired; and above it a face, which he could not see, but which he somehow feared.”

    THE RITE OF TREBIZOND: an earlier review: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/the-rite-of-trebizond-other-tales-mark-valentine-john-howard/

    Read up to: “Forgive me, and hold me always before the eyes of God.”

  18. I could not wait till tomorrow…

    “Is it Melmoth? Has it always been Melmoth, in fact: were those glassy calculating eyes, that longing look, not mere tales told to children, but fixed on her all along?”

    I will say that this potentially hindsighted great book of literature ends in a surprising way, but in many ways it also paradoxically fulfils my fears and hopes as exactly I earlier predicted they would, predicted by magic or by instinct or by my having generated and experienced gestalt real-time reviewing for exactly ten years as I write this review. Through the marble halls, amid the jackdaws, these last few pages represent a very satisfying coda to my hopefully symphonic review towards a gestalt of the book’s own symphony of leitmotifs and themes, ideas fixed and unfixed, ideas fictioned and unfictioned, reaching an eternal truth of who has been watching me, or the one who watches this book and its author … watching the one who indeed may be watching me? Haunted, even attended in reality, by its written-about or as-written-by characters past and present, as is Helen thus haunted and attended. Reaping the harvest of her sin by now suffering the visitation of its poignant victim and such sin’s patch-up, a victim now returned to her by his own patiently stoical waiting and watching. But who truly is Melmoth? Nowhere to hide, these days; we can all be found by real means, by fiction means or by modern technical means which this gradual review has used, twitter or otherwise. The ultimate terror. Gothic or otherwise, maturing exponentially — towards what?

    “‘How has he done this? How did he find me? How did he come all this way —‘
    ‘Anyone can find anyone, these days — there are no hiding places, not any.’”

    Read up to THE END.

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