Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Vathek (or Vathek, an Arabian Tale) is a 1786 novel by William Beckford (1760-1844, portrait above). I am reading this because it is available free online and is by an undisputedly bisexual author. Honestly, this idea of choosing a book based on some personal attribute of the author, as this Read Harder challenge suggests, does not appeal to me at all. But in for a penny, in for a pound, and I'll be doing that very thing this year as I read for this task. This particular book, with its caliph, viziers, and genii, reminds me of Arabian Nights-styled fairy tales and is quite enjoyable; and the author is an eccentric character, fun to research.

Since I'm reading the book because of the author's sexual orientation -See? Doesn't that sound bizarre?- I'll quote some information on him from Wikipedia:
William Beckford, was an English novelist, a profligate and consummately knowledgeable art collector and patron of works of decorative art, a critic, travel writer and sometime politician, reputed at one stage in his life to be the richest commoner in England.

On 5 May 1783 Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. However, he was bisexual and after 1784 chose self-exile from British society when his letters to William Courtney, later 9th Earl of Devon, were intercepted by the boy's uncle, who advertised the affair in the newspapers.

Vathek is an impressive work, full of fantastic and magnificent conceptions, rising occasionally to sublimity. His other principal writings were Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), a satirical work; and Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834), full of brilliant descriptions of scenes and manners.

Beckford's fame, however, rests as much upon his eccentric extravagances as a builder and collector as upon his literary efforts. In undertaking his buildings he managed to dissipate his fortune, which was estimated by his contemporaries to give him an income of £100,000 a year.
Vathek can be read online at,,, and It begins:
Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun Al Raschid. From an early accession to the throne, and the talents he possessed to adorn it, his subjects were induced to expect that his reign would be long and happy. His figure was pleasing and majestic; but when he was angry one of his eyes became so terrible that no person could bear to behold it, and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired. For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions and making his palace desolate he but rarely gave way to his anger.

Being much addicted to women and the pleasures of the table, he sought by his affability to procure agreeable companions; and he succeeded the better as his generosity was unbounded, and his indulgences unrestrained, for he was by no means scrupulous, nor did he think with the Caliph Omar Ben Abdalaziz that it was necessary to make a hell of this world to enjoy Paradise in the next.

He surpassed in magnificence all his predecessors. The palace of Alkoremmi, which his father Motassem had erected on the hill of Pied Horses, and which commanded the whole city of Samarah, was in his idea far too scanty; he added therefore five wings, or rather other palaces, which he destined for the particular gratification of each of his senses.

In the first of these were tables continually covered with the most exquisite dainties, which were supplied both by night and by day, according to their constant consumption, whilst the most delicious wines and the choicest cordials flowed forth from a hundred fountains that were never exhausted. This palace was called “The Eternal or Unsatiating Banquet.”

The second was styled “The Temple of Melody, or the Nectar of the Soul.” It was inhabited by the most skilful musicians and admired poets of the time, who not only displayed their talents within, but, dispersing in bands without, caused every surrounding scene to reverberate their songs, which were continually varied in the most delightful succession.

The palace named “The Delight of the Eyes, or the Support of Memory,” was one entire enchantment. Rarities collected from every corner of the earth were there found in such profusion as to dazzle and confound, but for the order in which they were arranged. One gallery exhibited the pictures of the celebrated Mani, and statues that seemed to be alive. Here a well-managed perspective attracted the sight; there the magic of optics agreeably deceived it; whilst the naturalist on his part exhibited, in their several classes, the various gifts that Heaven had bestowed on our globe. In a word, Vathek omitted nothing in this palace that might gratify the curiosity of those who resorted to it, although he was not able to satisfy his own, for he was of all men the most curious.

“The Palace of Perfumes,” which was termed likewise “The Incentive to Pleasure,” consisted of various halls, where the different perfumes which the earth produces were kept perpetually burning in censers of gold. Flambeaux and aromatic lamps were here lighted in open day. But the too powerful effects of this agreeable delirium might be avoided by descending into an immense garden, where an assemblage of every fragrant flower diffused through the air the purest odours.

The fifth palace, denominated “The Retreat of Joy, or the Dangerous,” was frequented by troops of young females beautiful as the houris, and not less seducing, who never failed to receive with caresses all whom the Caliph allowed to approach them; for he was by no means disposed to be jealous, as his own women were secluded within the palace he inhabited himself.

Notwithstanding the sensuality in which Vathek indulged, he experienced no abatement in the love of his people, who thought that a sovereign immersed in pleasure was not less tolerable to his subjects than one that employed himself in creating them foes. But the unquiet and impetuous disposition of the Caliph would not allow him to rest there; he had studied so much for his amusement in the lifetime of his father as to acquire a great deal of knowledge, though not a sufficiency to satisfy himself; for he wished to know everything, even sciences that did not exist. He was fond of engaging in disputes with the learned, but liked them not to push their opposition with warmth; he stopped the mouths of those with presents whose mouths could be stopped, whilst others, whom his liberality was unable to subdue, he sent to prison to cool their blood: a remedy that often succeeded.

Vathek discovered also a predilection for theological controversy, but it was not with the orthodox that he usually held. By this means he induced the zealots to oppose him, and then persecuted them in return; for he resolved at any rate to have reason on his side.

The great prophet Mahomet, whose vicars the caliphs are, beheld with indignation from his abode in the seventh heaven the irreligious conduct of such a vicegerent. “Let us leave him to himself,” said he to the genii, who are always ready to receive his commands; “let us see to what lengths his folly and impiety will carry him; if he run into excess we shall know how to chastise him. Assist him, therefore, to complete the tower which, in imitation of Nimrod, he hath begun, not, like that great warrior, to escape being drowned, but from the insolent curiosity of penetrating the secrets of Heaven; he will not divine the fate that awaits him.”

The genii obeyed, and when the workmen had raised their structure a cubit in the day-time, two cubits more were added in the night. The expedition with which the fabric arose was not a little flattering to the vanity of Vathek. He fancied that even insensible matter showed a forwardness to subserve his designs, not considering that the successes of the foolish and wicked form the first rod of their chastisement.


  1. I read this book because it was available online for free too, on my newly acquired Kindle a couple of years ago. I found it absurd and unlike you, not particularly enjoyable. It had a good flow though, I remember I finished it within days.

    1. Yes, it was a very quick read. I liked it, but I wouldn't pay to read it. I'm glad there's so much available free.