Melmoth – Sarah Perry
In the rock world they call it third album syndrome. You have burst on to the scene with a promising debut, followed up with a classic and then find that the long-awaited third album is difficult to put together and is a bit of a clunker. Do writers experience the creative difficulties?
One of my favourite books in recent times was Perry’s scintillating The Essex Serpent, her second novel, and so it was with a mixture of excitement and some trepidation that I picked up her third and latest novel, Melmoth. If you have to categorise it, it is in the Gothic tradition and draws its themes and structure from Melmoth the Wanderer, a bizarre Gothic novel written by Charles Maturin in 1820.
Melmoth purportedly was there at Christ’s tomb, saw him by its side but later denied that she had witnessed his resurrection. For this she was doomed to wander around the world until the Second Coming. Desperate for company, she would visit those who had delved the depths of depravity and misery and hold out her hand to entreat them to join her on her long march.
The central character in Perry’s novel is an English woman, Helen Franklin, who is working in Prague as a translator. She has a mundane life and is hardly a bundle of fun. Perry describes her early on in the book as “small, insignificant, having an air sadness whose source you cannot guess at; of self-punishment, self-hatred…” The astute reader will quickly deduce that there is more to this mouse of a woman than first meets the eye.
Helen is introduced to the myth of Melmoth by one of her few Czech friends, Karel. He has been bequeathed some papers by an old man, Joseph Hoffman, whom he had befriended in the university library. These recount how he saw Melmoth, after he had betrayed a family Jews to death at a concentration camp. It was through his encounter with Melmoth that Hoffman could begin to come to terms with what he had done.
Karel, in his obsession to find out more about Melmoth, has assembled a collection of papers recounting other encounters. Helen eagerly devours the contents and extracts from each of the reports form a large chunk of Perry’s narrative. We meet a woman condemned to burn at the stake for heresy and a Turkish civil servant who was complicit in the massacre of Armenians.
Helen feels she is being watched whilst in Prague. Naturally, it is Melmoth, albeit in a different guise, and, naturally, given Melmoth’s association with those who have witnessed or committed atrocities, Helen has her own dark secret, which is gradually revealed as the story rumbles on.
It is not an unremittingly dark book. Karel is able to break free from the hold that Melmoth had over him, albeit by fleeing the Czech Republic, abandoning his disabled wife and joining up with some protestors. And I think that that is Perry’s central message; we should not abandon ourselves to guilt but to recognise what we have done, take stock and change. Hope, after all, was what was left in Pandora’s box. Helen, at the end of the book, says “I do have hope, I feel it in here like a pain.”
The writing is astonishingly vivid, with Perry moving in and out of the style of period documents to the modern day with consummate ease. The imagery she deploys stays in the mind – the jackdaws dashing themselves against the windows, an empty chair in a field for Melmoth’s use just in case she passed by.
In summary, it is not as accessible as The Serpent’s Tail but it was worth the effort. Perry has successfully avoided the third album syndrome