Monday, April 19, 2010

The Monk: A Romance, Matthew Gregory Lewis (1796)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 5 Pierogies

The Monk was written in ten weeks during 1796 by a nineteen year old Matthew Gregory Lewis. It belongs to the classic gothic genre of literature. Apparently it is the first book ever to have a priest as the villian (Thanks Wikipedia! - Boy has that trend caught on in recent years).

This book was quite scandalous at the time of its initial publication for good reason, it is filled with murder, rape, incest, torture, ghosts, satanic pacts all in the backdrop of an abbey and convent with alot of the truly sick stuff happening in the catacombs beneath the religious houses.

Ambrosio is a monk so well-respected in Madrid that he is considered a saint by the general population. However sinless outwardly, Ambrosio has a flawed nature and his pious life is a result of his vanity and desire to feel superior rather than true devotion. Plus he never leaves the abbey and therefore never has to contend with temptation. In light of his character flaws it is not suprising that he succumbs to the first real temptation of his life - a seductress who installs herself in the abbey - and violates his vows. What is suprising is that this indiscretion leads to a complete descent in violence and Eeee-vil. Ambrosio becomes a lustful monster who stalks young women with the intent to imbibe them and molest them (he is like a clerical 18th century version of Ben Roethlisberger). Most of his attention is focused on Anotonia, a beautiful but pathetically naive 15 year old girl. Ambrosio commits a whole host of horrifying things to indulge his passions.

There are side stories about various nobelmen and thier romances which are intertwined with Ambrosio's story including the tale of a young nun tortured by sadist older nuns. The side stories are just as crazy and entertaining as the main tale. All the stories are infused with the supernatural as well. Ghosts are prevelant and Lucifer himself makes several cameos.

Now lest you think The Monk is some graphic torture-porn type of entertainment, I assure you it is not. I HATE torture-porn. I have never seen the Saw movies, or Hostel and I do not find such entertainment to be entertaining in the least. In fact, I hate it. Although there is awful stuff going on in this book it is written respectfully of the victims (if that makes sense). Plus due to the time period in which The Monk was published, violent matters are described with a certain delicacy. It is not lurid or exploitive. I also liked the way the sex scenes were handled. They were implied, described via metaphor or the actors' thoughts were conveyed rather than the mechanical motions of thier body. There is no doubt what is going on but the sex acts are not described in graphic, mechanical detail. This is how it should be done. I have never read a graphic sex scene, no matter how respected the book or great the author, and thought to myself, "Wow, Classy!" They almost always make the book seem trashy to me. Whatever. Perhaps I am just a horrid prude who needs to read books from the 1700s to find appealing sex scenes but it is more likely that I am a fancy lady of refined sensibilities and the rest of you are pervs.

I loved this book for many reasons, not the least of which was the beautiful dialogue and prose. If literature is any indication, people spoke beautifully in the 18th century. There is alot of entertaining and charming poetry infused into the story as well.

Apparently this book was heavily criticized in its day. In fact, the introduction in my copy was written in 1906 by some unkown critic who just tore the book apart. The critic not only cut down the story horribly but also went after the appearance and character of the author as well. Really nasty stuff. The critic apparently didn't like the literal ghosts in The Monk (Radcliff's ghosts were not real he cries!) in addition to most of the other outrageous stuff in the book. What a buzzkill. It is the crazy over-the-top nuttiness and melodrama that makes this book so fun.

Go get this book and read it now. It is only 291 pages and is one of the single most entertaining books I have ever read.

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