November 25, 2009

The Monk by Lewis : a major literary influence of Surrealism

Classic from Gothic literature, The Monk is an early work, written by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775 - 1818) originally to entertain his mother. It was published for the first time in 1796. The book, subversive by its themes (incest, kidnapping, torture, pacts with the devil, necrophilia, exorcism...) but also conventional by its morality, is very well received by the public to the point that the author earned the nickname "Monk Lewis." But, the criticism was outraged by the story and launched censure. So much so that Lewis published a second expurgated edition in which he withdrew the most scandalous part - when Antonia's mother offers her daughter a truncated version of the Bible to protect her from verses she considered unhealthy.
In the nineteenth century, The Monk influenced French writers including the young guard of Romanticism. In the twentieth century, in his Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton, makes of The Monk a literary model, with Les Chants de Maldoror, of the movement. In 1931, Antonin Artaud proposes a new approach, The Monk by Lewis told by Antonin Artaud published by Denoël & Steele. In the preface, he writes :
"That, therefore, all those whose spirit of new data flows back to the closed and purely organic senses as to their droppings, those who feed on the common residue and the usual excrement of the mind called reality, I continue to hold as an essential work The Monk, which shakes this reality at full arms, drags in front of me witches, apparitions and larvae, with the most perfect natural, and which finally makes supernatural a simple reality.(Photo: Matthew Gregory Lewis by Henry William Pickersgill - National Portrait Gallery, London - source: wikipedia).

Currently, the librairie Loliée offers the rare first French edition :
  • Lewis (M.G.). Le Moine. Paris, Maradan, an V (1797), 3 volumes in-12, green binding from the period. First French edition before the one published by Maradan the same year in 4 volumes.