Matthew Gregory Lewis: The Monk (1794, Project Gutenberg edition for Kindle)
If you read books from a list others have put together, you are bound to find both some lousy reads and also some great books you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. This falls mostly in the later category. It’s not a book I would have picked up if it hadn’t been for the 1001 books list. I’m glad to have read it although it wasn’t quite what I expected – and definitely wasn’t a cheerful read. If you’re looking for that, this is not the book for you.
This is a story about a fall from grace. Ambrosio is probably the most honored man in Madrid. He is a monk, has been living in the monastery since he was child and has always lived secluded from the world, never having been outside the Abbey walls. He is the leader of the monks, the most holy man in all of Madrid.
When Ambrosio discovers that one of the monks is in fact a woman, hiding in the monastery. Matilda tells him that she’s entered the monastery to be Ambrosio’s friend, to be close to him, talk to him and share his thoughts. Because she threatens to kill herself if he tells on her or throws her out of the monastery, he allows her to stay, sure in the belief that he can’t be tempted.
But of course he can’t. She seduces him and after he has fallen once, he enters a rapid unstoppable fall.
A parallel story to this which slowly end up being bound together is the story of the nun Agnes who disappears from the convent and her relatives is told to be dead by the prioress.
All in all, there are three couples pursuing different goals: Don Lorenzo and Antonia, Don Raymond and Agnes – and the monk Ambrosio pursuing first Matilda and then Antonia.
Ambrosio has a hand in everyone’s fate. He is the main player, he is kind of like a spider sitting in his web sending out his threads and interfering with everyone’s lives. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone fall so quickly – he certainly was quick to learn vice!
This is a sad book in many ways, a tragic books. But it’s also unintentionally comic at points. And not just when the monk is spying on Antonia and a bird – never mentioned before or after – comes flying and hides between her breasts. I think the sheer amount of gothic elements along the way became a bit too much. We have nuns, monks, ghosts, castles, cemeteries, catacombs, mistaken identities, midnight escapes, love lost and found, old cruel practices, dying babies, the Wandering Jew and more. It was great in the beginning but it became a bit much in the end.
Another thing that became too much was the long, long poems interrupting the story. They were all very long – and some of them was (intentionally) bad as when one young boy presents his poem to his master and has it critiqued by him. Did this poem really need to be that long?
Luckily the horror of the story was engaging enough to keep me interesting in finding out what happened to the characters – even though they felt a bit (a lot) one-dimensional. The good guys were all good, the bad guys all bad through and through. Even Ambrosio who is supposed to be the purest of all, is revealed from the beginning to be not so good – suffering from pride among other things.
So – when thinking about what I have written in this review so far, this book doesn’t actually sound like a 4 stars read. But even though it had some major flaws, it was an engaging and very compelling story. I just wanted to reach the end to find out how it all came together, who made it and who didn’t. And it made me cry at one point at a mother’s love for and sorrow over loosing her baby.
But I don’t think it is a book I could read again. When you have read it the first time and know the outcome, know how it all ends, who live and who dies – then I think the huge mass of will be too much. I think this is book worthy to spend time on – but only that one time.
This is one of those books that demands a bit of context. Of course you have to read the book and give your opinion on your own terms but sometimes knowing a bit about the context it was created in, can add or subtract from a work. In this case, it adds to it’s value to know that the author wrote this in 1794, when he was just 19 years old – and that he wrote it in 10 weeks. That’s impressive! Of course, you could also argue that if he had spent a bit more time on it, it would be a book worth reading twice…
In either case I enjoyed my stay in the dark and smelling catacombs under the monastery in Madrid as well as my excursions out into the city and the few travels I also got to take with these people, all cursed by knowing the monk.