An absolutely magnificent novel! To think that it was published in 1782, seven years before the French Revolution. Liberté égalité fraternité! It hasAn absolutely magnificent novel! To think that it was published in 1782, seven years before the French Revolution. Liberté égalité fraternité! It has been argued that the novel thus caught a doomed aristocracy distracted by decadent and libertine ways that would soon be its undoing. The gift the novel's main characters display for casuistry, calumny, prevarication and cynical self-involvement takes the breath away. The novel is so tightly wrapped, so self-referential, that I doubt I will find an extraneous word on this third reading, though I shall try. I bought this Folio Society edition—crushed carmine silk over boards— some years ago to commemorate past readings and carry me through future ones. A stunning novel. A book for real readers....more
This novel is all about Christian, specifically Catholic, sexual hysteria. Sex seems to determine everyone's motivation in the first volume. This makeThis novel is all about Christian, specifically Catholic, sexual hysteria. Sex seems to determine everyone's motivation in the first volume. This makes sense when you consider that it was written by a nineteen year old for whom these obsessions were no doubt a daily occurence. Fortunately for us, he has managed to sublimate them into the form of a novel. (Which puts me in mind of E.M. Forster, who, when touched on the ass by an admirer at a tender age, promptly went home and wrote Maurice.)
A duenna and her charge arrive in Madrid from provincial Mucia some time in the very late eighteenth century. For some reason no doubt to be made clear later, they arrive at a church where the much talked about Father Ambrosio is to speak. The father is a paragon of virtue. He has spent his thirty years entirely immersed in studies and prayer at the local Capuchin monastery. While waiting for the good father to arrive the duenna, Leonella, who is fifty-one, and her charge, Antonia, who is fifteen, are questioned by two young men and their tale of woe is gradually revealed. This is essentially a tale of Antonia's mother, seduced by a libertine, who runs away with her to the West Indies where thirteen years later he dies leaving her penniless so she must return to Spain with baby Antonia in tow to throw herself on the mercy of her outraged father.
The wholly pure Ambrosio then spends the next sixty pages undergoing two events: the first is his heartless condemnation of a nun who has allowed herself to be seduced. She is with child but Ambrosio gives her into the hands of the prioress of her order for purposes of punishment; the second event is Ambrosio's seduction by a woman disguised as a young man, one Rosario, who has shamelessly broken the sanctity of the monastery. That at least is how Ambrosio sees it before he eventually gives way to godless and all too enjoyable rutting with the woman. These pages are tumescent with hot-blooded satanic sex. It is hard to believe they first saw the light of day in 1796. What an earth-shattering fireball this novel must have been then.
One of the gentlemen entertaining the two new arrivals at the church is a nobleman, Lorenzo. It is his sister, Agnes, who has just been sacrificed by Father Ambrosio to the prioress. Now we enter into a long divagation narrated by the sister's nobleman lover, the Marquis de las Cisternas. First there is the interlude in the forest outside Strasborg in which the Marquis walks into a nest of banditti who wish him only ill. This is a vividly described section with lots of action and blood. At extraordinary length, the Marquis survives, as he must if we are to get the story of how Agnes becomes trapped into entering a convent by a guardian jealous of her relationship with the Marquis. This section involves some decisions on the part of the Marquis that no adult man with any romantic experience would make. In other words, the crudeness here really smacks of a nineteen year old writing his first novel. Yet the vivacity of the writing somehow continues to hold the reader despite these howlers.
Later, we move on to Ambrosio's repeated sexcapades with Matilda (Rosario). The prioress's lie to brother Lorenzo that his sister Agnes has died in childbirth. Father Ambrosio as he overhears the prioress's evil plans for punishing Agnes on his way to an assignation with Matilda. Father Ambrosio's attempted seduction of a the young Antonia, innocent of carnal knowledge, and his deal with the devil to gain access to her lily-white body. The satisfying denouement I will not describe. Suffice it to say that Lewis's writing becomes more assured as he proceeds. By chapter 7, more than half way through, his writing becomes, as John Berryman discusses in his introduction, "passionate and astonishing."...more