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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
William Beckford (1760–1844)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE TRANSLATION from a defective Arabic manuscript of the ‘Book of the Thousand Nights and A Night,’ first into the French by Galland, about 1705, and presently into various English versions, exerted an immediate influence on French, German, and English romance. The pseudo-Oriental or semi-Oriental tale of home-manufacture sprang into existence right and left with the publishers of London and Paris, and in German centers of letters. Hope’s ‘Anastasius, or Memoirs of a Modern Greek,’ Lewis’s ‘The Monk,’ the German Hauff’s admirable ‘Stories of the Caravan, the Inn, and the Palace,’ Rückert’s ‘Tales of the Genii,’ and William Beckford’s ‘History of the Caliph Vathek,’ are among the finest performances of the sort: productions more or less Eastern in sentiment and in their details of local color, but independent of direct originals in the Persian or Arabic, so far as is conclusively known.  1
  William Beckford, born at London (of a strong line which included a governor of Jamaica), dying in 1844, is a figure of distinction merely as an Englishman of his time, aside from his one claim to literary remembrance. His father’s death left him the richest untitled citizen of England. He was not sent to a university, but immense care was given to his education, in which Lord Chatham personally interested himself; and he traveled widely. The result of this, on a very receptive mind with varied natural gifts, was to make Beckford an ideal dilettante. His tastes in literature, painting, music (in which Mozart was his tutor), sculpture, architecture, and what not, were refined to the highest nicety. He was able to gratify each of them as such a man can rarely have the means to do. He built palaces and towers of splendor instead of merely a beautiful country seat. He tried to reproduce Vathek’s halls in stone and stucco, employing relays of workmen by day and night, on two several occasions and estates, for many months. Where other men got together moderate collections of bibelots, Beckford amassed whole museums. If a builder’s neglect or a fire destroyed his rarities and damaged his estates to the extent of forty or fifty thousand pounds, Beckford merely rebuilt and re-collected. These tastes and lavish expenditures gradually set themselves in a current toward things Eastern. His magnificent retreat at Cintra in Portugal, his vast Fonthill Abbey and Lansdowne Hill estates in England, were only appanages of his sumptuous state. England and Europe talked of him and of his properties. He was a typical egotist: but an agreeable and gracious man, esteemed by a circle of friends not called upon to be his sycophants; and he kept in close touch with the intellectual life of all Europe.  2
  He wrote much, for an amateur, and in view of the tale which does him most honor, he wrote with success. At twenty he invited publicity with a satiric jeu d’esprit, ‘Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters’; and his ‘Italy, with Sketches of Spain and Portugal,’ and ‘Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaba and Baltalha,’ were well received. But these books could not be expected to survive even three generations; whereas ‘Vathek,’ the brilliant, the unique, the inimitable ‘Vathek,’ took at once a place in literature which we may now almost dare to call permanent. This story, not a long one,—indeed, no more than a novelette in size,—was originally written in French, and still lives in that language; in which an edition, hardly the best, has lately been issued under the editorship of M. Mallarmé. But its history is complicated by one of the most notable acts of literary treachery and theft on record. During the author’s slow and finicky composition of it at Lausanne, he was sending it piecemeal to his friend Robert Henley in England for Henley to make an English version, of course to be revised by himself. As soon as Henley had all the parts, he published a hasty and slipshod translation, before Beckford had seen it or was even ready to publish the French original; and not only did so, but published it as a tale translated by himself from a genuine Arabic original. This double violation of good faith of course enraged Beckford, and practically separated the two men for the rest of their lives; indeed, the wonder is that Beckford would ever recognize Henley’s existence again. The piracy was exposed and set aside, and Beckford in self-defense issued the story himself in French as soon as he could; indeed, he issued it in two versions with curious and interesting differences, one published at Lausanne and the other at Paris. The Lausanne edition is preferable.  3
  ‘Vathek’ abides to-day accredited to Beckford in both French and English; a thing to keep his memory green as nothing else of his work or personality will. The familiar legend that in its present form it was composed at a single sitting, with such ardor as to entail a severe illness, and “without the author’s taking off his clothes,” cannot be reconciled with the known facts. But the intensely vivid movement of it certainly suggests swift production; and it could easily be thought that any author had sketched such a story in the heat of some undisturbed sitting, and filled, finished, and polished it at leisure. It is an extraordinary performance; even in Henley’s unsatisfactory version it is irresistible. We know that Beckford expected to add liberally to it by inserting sundry subordinate tales, put into the mouths of some of the personages appearing in the last scene. It is quite as well that he did not. Its distinctive Orientalism, perhaps less remarkable than the unfettered imagination of its episodes, the vividness of its characters, the easy brilliancy of its literary manner—these things, with French diction and French wit, alternate with startling descriptive impressiveness. It is a French combination of Cervantes and Dante, in an Oriental and bizarre narrative. It is not always delicate, but it is never vulgar, and the sprightly pages are as admirable as the weird ones. Its pictures, taken out of their connection, seem irrelevant, and are certainly unlike enough; but they are a succession of surprises and fascinations. Such are the famous description of the chase of Vathek’s court after the Giaour; the moonlit departure of the Caliph for the Terrace of Istakhar; the episodes of his stay under the roof of the Emir Fakreddin; the pursuit by Carathis on “her great camel Alboufaki,” attended by “the hideous Nerkes and the unrelenting Cafour”; Nouronihar drawn to the magic flame in the dell at night; the warning of the good Jinn; and the tremendous final tableau of the Hall of Eblis.  4
  The man curious in letters regards with affection the evidences of vitality in a brief production little more than a century old; unique in English and French literature, and occupying to-day a high rank among the small group of quasi-Oriental narratives that represent the direct workings of Galland on the Occidental literary temperament. To-day ‘Vathek’ surprises and delights persons whose mental constitution puts them in touch with it, just as potently as ever it did. And simply as a wild story, one fancies that it will appeal quite as effectually, no matter how many editions may be its future, to a public perhaps unsympathetic toward its elliptical satire, its caustic wit, its fantastic course of narrative, and its incongruous wavering between the flippant, the grotesque, and the terrific.  5

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