Sarah Perry on the Origins of Melmoth

Posted on 13th September 2019 by Mark Skinner

With the gloriously gothic Melmoth due to be published in paper back, Sarah Perry, the book's author and former winner of Waterstones Book of the Year for The Essex Serpent, gives us a tantalising insight into the novel's genesis. 

Melmoth’s Beginnings

I have always been in the habit of getting lost. Once I grew so absorbed in conversation with a stranger that I became lost on the walk home from school, and I’ve since learned that in every city I visit I must fix on some landmark – a spire, say, or a bridge – and make it the magnetic north of my internal compass. In 2016, I spent two winter months in Prague, a city which could hardly be more charming an inducement to a state of bewitched disorientation. Being more or less unable to decipher the tram timetables, I went everywhere on foot, and found the whole city a palimpsest on which the modern age is written over still-legible years of Communism, and before that of the Nazi occupation; and again before that of the decadent age of Dvorak and Mucha; and back through the reigns of the Habsburgs and the Přemyslids to the stonemasons who built the first castle on the river. In that warren of alleys and cul-de-sacs and squares which suddenly reveal themselves under low stone arches, you may buy Costa coffee in a branch of Tesco, before turning into a lane marked by the brass stolperstein fixed outside places where Jews were taken to the camps to be murdered, and finally resting on the steps of a Renaissance church. Everywhere I went, I was followed by Jesuit priests telling their beads, going arm-in-arm with students of the Velvet Revolution and Czech matrons heading for the opera; and if the black statue of the martyr Jan Hus had turned one morning and corrected my grammar from a distance of 600 years I would not have been at all surprised. 

It was the river Vltava that offered me the one familiar sight by which I could navigate my way home. I’d known its name twentyfive years before I first saw it, because I’d once played the Vltava theme by Smetana, the patriotic Czech composer, on the school piano. It did not look anything as I had imagined, of course: it was not especially broad, and walked more than ran down past the opera houses and the cafés and the torture museum, and it did not freeze in winter, and on the west bank an installation of plastic penguins glow yellow when the nights draw in. But it was traversed by the great Charles Bridge, and so thickly thronged with swans that at dusk I sometimes mistook them for snow drifted on the embankment. Whenever I found that I was lost – and this was often, of course – I’d turn until I thought I saw the gleam of water, or the blackened turrets of the bridge, and wearily head that way. 

I discovered that beneath the current of tourists that pours over Charles Bridge from before the sun rises until long after it has set, there is a permanent community, and not all of it human. There was Tiger, a placid terrier that lived tucked in the overcoat of his owner, who sat all day begging at the foot of a stone statue. I never knew his owner’s name, because whenever he told me I could not pick it out; but he helped me with the pronunciation of my faltering Czech, and in due course I was permitted to give Tiger his morning biscuit. There were the swans, who would convene business meetings at which it was agreed to panic, at 5 pm precisely, at something nobody else could see, and then fly downriver in a fluster; and there were very fat and indolent ducks who jostled for scraps of rye bread tossed from café windows. None of these particularly interested me, because I had an instant and inexplicable fondness for the Prague jackdaws. 

Before that winter I could not have told a jackdaw from a rook or crow, and certainly would not have known how different their voices are from their rasping corvid relations. I had never paid the least attention to their pale grey cowls, or their canny blue-white eyes; did not know, for example, that the Czech for jackdaw is kavka, and that above Franz Kafka’s father’s shop a painted jackdaw swung on the sign. What I knew was this: whenever I went over the bridge, early in the morning, the jackdaws gathered in a particular place. There was a bare tree – a lime, I think, though in all the times I have returned to Prague I’ve never once seen it in leaf – that stood between a children’s playground and the parapet of Charles Bridge at the western end, and for no reason that I could fathom it would often be black with patient jackdaws. They were bold, and did not move when I looked at them, only cocked their gentlemanly heads and fixed me with a sequin eye. One morning at breakfast I concealed a piece of toast in my pocket, and crumbled it on the stone parapet; there was a polite but desultory flurry, and I was left with the impression that I ought to try something more tempting. The following week, I bought a packet of bacon TUC biscuits (I have subsequently been chided for encouraging the birds of Bohemia to consume too much salt), and was rewarded with twenty minutes of conversation. Their voices were not harsh, but had a curious upward inflexion, as if they were asking me a question, and I came to know one or two quite distinctly from their companions. One was very plump, and very sleek, and put me in mind of a bewigged judge slumbering on the bench; another was scrappy, as if picked on by his peers, though I never saw a fight; a third came close to taking pieces of biscuit from my fingers.

All that winter I wore a pale camel coat like a full-length cape, that brushed the cobblestones and grew black at the hem with filthy snow. I supposed I was quite a striking sight, and I became convinced my jackdaws saw me coming, and gathered waiting for me; later I learned that they are famously inquisitive and intelligent, and in all likelihood had marked me out as a soft touch from my first day. Tiger and his companion, and the street vendors and musicians, all knew where I stood, and in time greeted me with nods and generous smiles at my incompetent Czech; once I was greeted by a solemn man selling copper jewellery shaking his head, and gesturing to an empty tree, and saying that I was too late, and would have to come back the following day. I went home, looking behind me, expecting to see jackdaws in my wake. 

Melmoth already had her hand on me by then. I had not yet pinned her down on paper, but I was a little afraid of her: sometimes, even on sunny mornings, I’d find myself pausing and looking backwards over my shoulder as if I’d heard footsteps behind mine. It had been years since I had read Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer – a book that so horrified me I’ve only been able to read it once in its entirety – and conceived the idea of an ageless woman roaming the earth, but what her curse had been, and what she had in mind for me, I didn’t know. Occasionally a line from Hamlet would come to mind – ‘in thy orisons be all my sins remembered’ – and it made me think that perhaps Melmoth somehow had remembered all my sins, and those of anyone whose path crossed hers. At night when I heard the jackdaws conversing as they looked for places to rest – Here? they said, or seemed to: Here? Or there? – I imagined a woman looking for rest, and never finding it, or never being permitted to take it. When they cocked their shining heads and looked directly at me with their glittering implacable eyes – their clever, assessing eyes, which knew a great deal more about me than any bird has any right to do – I imagined a woman’s eyes, so pale they were almost white, and never blinking. One day I sat with a friend in the café where Kafka had drunk with his friends, and without thinking drew on a scrap of paper a bare tree in winter with jackdaws biding their time in the branches. When I came home I drew them from memory: that same tree, by that same bridge, and those same waiting birds. 

Now I find I can always pick out the voices of jackdaws above the birdsong and the noise of the city where I live. Their querying call carries down from the roofs of supermarkets and petrol stations, and the ledges of cathedrals and windowsills, and I always turn and greet them. It’s fanciful, of course, but it seems to me there is something direct and intelligent in their gaze – that they are kindly, I think, on the whole, but have been told to always keep an eye on me.


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