William Beckford’s Vathek is usually classified as a gothic novel, and it does indeed contain many of the same elements as the gothic novels more typically set in Europe, including a defiant and charismatic villain, a submerged but obsessive interest in perverse sexuality, and a diabolical bargain that ultimately leads to damnation. Vathek is, however, a highly idiosyncratic example of the gothic genre, not only in the overblown exoticism of its Eastern setting but also in its near-comedic grotesquerie. As if the text’s inherent eccentricities were not enough, the familiar English version of it is an unauthorized translation of an unpublished manuscript of Beckford’s text, which he wrote in French, by a clergyman named Samuel Henley. Beckford seems to have disapproved of the translation beyond the fact that it preceded publication of his original version.
The most obvious debt Vathek owes is to The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (fifteenth century), which was translated into French by Antoine Galland 1704-1717. A more direct influence, however, was Voltaire, whom Beckford met in Paris in 1777, the year before Voltaire’s death. Voltaire borrowed materials from Galland to construct a series of extended satirical works he called contes philosophiques (philosophical tales); these included Zadig (1747) and La Princesse de Babylone (1768; The Princess of Babylon, 1769), as well as Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759). It was probably the rumor that Voltaire composed Candide at a single sitting that prompted Beckford to boast (falsely, according to his biographers) that he wrote Vathek in a single session of something less than seventy-two hours.
If Vathek was intended to be a conte philosophique, it is a peculiar example. Such tales are supposed to have clear and explicit morals, though philosophical reasoning often proceeds doggedly to dreadful inconclusiveness. As Candide...
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