This had been sitting on my shelf to read for some time now, for some reason it never felt like the time. Most of the classic fiction I have read has been in much shorter form and I was quite intimidated by this Gothic epic that I worried might be quite hard work. After completing it, it did feel like a mammoth undertaking but well worth the effort.
Melmoth the Wanderer, damned for some undiscovered reason and doomed to wander the earth looking for individuals in the pit of despair and anguish in the hope that he can persuade them to take his place before he must submit to an unspecified (and unspeakable) fate. We gradually learn about the Wanderer through the investigations of a man who is his namesake and a descendent from the same family.
There is quite a complex narrative structure in which different stories become embedded within one another as we go back in time and discover some of the history of Wanderer and the kind of suffering of individuals went through before they were confronted by Melmoth and presented with his diabolical bargain.
As the reader, we witness stories of the utmost tragedy as people's lives go from bad to worse and they plumb deeper depths of anguish and despair. Yet it seems that no level of human misery is bad enough to make it appear a less favourable alternative to that which Melmoth offers. All this is set against a time in which Europe is beset by powerful religious institutions and stringent dogma. Corruption and cruelty in these institutions and the hypocrisy of their followers is a theme common to many of the stories contained here. I was also surprised by the amount of humour present, such as Melmoth's dying, miserly uncle and Isidora's priest who's obsessed with fine dining.
Sometimes I felt the story rambled on a bit in places but more often than not I found myself rapt by the the tragic stories as they unfolded and overall, I found this a powerful piece of work. A flawed masterpiece perhaps.