Sunday, May 13, 2012

battling with a cat and her brood of kittens for a pair of old boots

I think that Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer is best when it's taking side-trips, and by this I don't mean the discrete life histories of different characters that occupy most of the book, but the very small stories, the delaying tactics that he loves, those things that come and go, they're barely there, he picks them up, inserts them, and drops them. A storm off the coast of Ireland is ripping up a ship and the rain has been terrifying the narrative for a while now, but the rescuers are held back by a very modest set of kittens in a boot. There is nothing better than these kittens.

While the men were in search of a hundred coats, boots, and hats of their old master, to be sought for in every part of the house, -- while one was dragging a great coat from the window, before which it had long hung as a blind, in total default of glass or shutters, -- another was snatching a wig from the jack, where it had been suspended for a duster, -- and a third was battling with a cat and her brood of kittens for a pair of old boots which she had been pleased to make the seat of her accouchement, -- Melmoth had gone up to the highest room in the house.

The most eccentric of these details, the ones that might have actually occurred to the author because they are stranger than anything else, they appear in the first part of the book, while the story is taking place in Ireland, where Maturin lived; otherwise we are in Spain and India, where he did not live, and those last two places have luxurious flowers, idols and the Inquisition but nothing as exotic as this potato --

This resolution he found it impossible to execute immediately, for, on inquiring for lights, the gouvernante confessed the very last had been burnt at his honor's wake; and a bare-footed boy was charged to run for life and death to the neighbouring village for candles; and if you could borry a couple of candlesticks, added the housekeeper. "Are there no candlesticks in the house?" said Melmoth. "There are, honey, plinty, but it's no time to be opening the old chest, for the plated ones, in regard of their being at the bottom of it, and the brass ones that's in it (in the house), one of them has no socket, and the other has no bottom." "And how did you make shift yourself," said Melmoth. "I stuck it in a potatoe," quoth the housekeeper.

-- nothing that has the same promise of a larger life taking place outside the book, kittens born, cats looking for mates, mother cats finding nests for their litters; the housekeeper one day with a candle in her hand notices a potato. The Wanderer himself has been cursed, he prowls the world searching for a victim, but around him this bright life goes on; his magic supernaturally transfers him through brick walls but there are other forces moving with a different gravity, too quick for his changed mind to grasp, because they have no effect on him, as though his artificially extended life span has altered his sense of present time.

Not the time in the future or in the past, which is what you might expect, but time now, seems to move at a different pace around him; he has been disconnected from the universe of incidental detail, and his whole atmosphere is portentous. Like the kittens he appears at moments when people are in desperate straits but his character is different, he does not flit through, appear and go away, he does not take himself that lightly, he is not prepared to live his life away from the main action of the book. In spite of the detachment from human endeavours (due to his curse), he is more attached than the mother cat in the boot, who carries on a completely other life, and does not need the plot, does not need the characters, and would have been happy if Maturin had never found her. The ultimate alienation belongs to the cat, the cat is the Romantic hero shunning the concerns of normal people, and I imagine it like Lucifer in Milton, battling the greater force of the giant and powerful boot-stealer, and persevering in the face of definite defeat.


  1. What a great piece. You have covered, I don't know, 85% of what is great about this novel. Or anyway you have written about just the parts I like to imagine I would have written about if I had written about this book.

    Love the last paragraph, especially.

  2. If that's true then I'm really pleased, thank you. The value of the kittens and potatoes didn't hit me until I was deep into the Spaniard's story and realised that they'd disappeared, though I wonder if the gradual escalation of bullying in the monastery was better off without that side-stepping. (The idea of being sealed in a confined space in the power of an irritated bureaucracy that can lie to your face or tell you the truth, or be nice or cruel, whatever tickles it at the time, reminds me of some novels written by Soviets, about the U.S.S.R., back when there was a such a thing. Who was that one Graham Greene liked? I've got him in my head now. Josef Skvorecky.)

  3. Oh, sure, Melmoth as totalitarian prison literature.

  4. Or boarding school bully literature, that would work too. There you are, the new student, the headmaster despises you, the other students take their cues from the headmaster, you can't go home because it's the middle of term-time, your parents ignore your letters, etc. And the New Miranda on her Indian island in the next part of the book can be a nineteenth-century version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, come to renovate the protagonist's ennui with her wide-eyed hello-trees, hello-flowerisms.