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Sarah Perry On 'Melmoth'


Helen Franklin is post-40-ish, an English exile who's had a pretty humdrum time for the 20 years or so she's been in the cosmopolitan city of Prague where she translates sparkling prose, like the instructions for washing machines. As Sarah Perry writes in her new novel, "Melmoth," Helen has an air of sadness whose source she cannot guess at. Karel, a scholar friend, gives Helen a pile of text - histories, diaries, letters, footnotes - and she begins to find in those pages the outlines of a woman who reaches across centuries, from 17th-century England to Germany in the 1940s and modern-day Manila to witness and absorb the horror of the forgotten and forlorn, Melmoth. Sarah Perry, author of the international best-seller "The Essex Serpent," joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SARAH PERRY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Sketch "Melmoth" in for us, could you please?

PERRY: So the premise of the novel is that this very lonely woman begins to hear that there is a creature called Melmoth the Witness who has been damned to wander the Earth for 2,000 years witnessing humanity at its worst. And she knows what you've done. She knows what you've thought. And she comes to you, and she says, look; I know how weak you are and how cowardly. And if anybody else knew, they wouldn't want you. But I'm lonely. Why don't you come away with me? And she offers people her hand. And she says, take my hand. I've been so lonely. And the people that she visits must choose. Either they go with her because they've given up hope, or they reject her because they believe that they can find some kind of redemption or contentment. So Helen hears about this legend, and she starts to think that maybe Melmoth is watching her.

SIMON: How is your Melmoth different from previous incarnations like Charles Maturin's 1820 "Melmoth The Wanderer" or Balzac's "Melmoth?"

PERRY: I had huge fun inventing an origin legend that would predate Maturin's "Melmoth" and the Balzac novel, which was a kind of sequel to Maturin's. So I invented the legend of a woman who was among the company of women that saw the risen Christ, but she denied it. And because of her denial, she is cursed to wonder the Earth kind of bearing witness. And, of course, the key difference is that she is female.

SIMON: Yeah. I wrote down a note of the way Helen lives in Prague - the uncovered mattress, the unheated room, the bitter tea. You begin to wonder early in the book, what's she trying to atone for?

PERRY: Yes. So I've always felt that one of the things I liked best in novels is a kind of whodunit or who-did-what quality? And so I wanted the reader to be very clear that this woman is punishing herself for something that she's done and to keep them intrigued and wanting to find out what on Earth could have caused her to try and atone for her sins in this way.

SIMON: Is your Melmoth a monster, a witch or a witness?

PERRY: I think of her as mostly a witness. But I often call her a monster, which is slightly unfair because she's been made monstrous by her loneliness and by her curse. I was really influenced by Frankenstein, actually, and by the fact that we talk about Frankenstein's creature as being a monster. And we forget that he was born innocent and that he was made monstrous by the cruelty of other people. So I'm really interested in at what point we start to think of people as being absolutely monstrous instead of objects of kind of pity and compassion.

SIMON: She appears - Melmoth - at what I'll call transcendent and tragic moments - the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and personal tragedies. I think all of us could call up on a screen now - and just in the regular course of following the news - see an hour worth of tragedy and worse. Are we all becoming Melmoths?

PERRY: I think that's almost something that I wanted the book to ask people. And I wrote the book at a time when I could hardly bear to watch the news - didn't want to open my Twitter account because I would be confronted with, you know, toddlers who had drowned on the shores of the Mediterranean while they were escaping ISIS, terrible sights all over the world, and I didn't want to look. And I began to feel that actually we have a moral obligation to bear witness. And so I think there's a quality to Melmoth I think all of us perhaps share, bearing witness to what's going on in the world around us.

SIMON: A distinctly literary question...

PERRY: (Laughter).

SIMON: Can Melmoth - your character - ever be happy?

PERRY: No. I don't think so. I think if you are constantly exposed to these things in the way she has been for 2,000 years, watching what is most distressing and wicked, I think happiness is probably beyond her grasp. But maybe there are things that are more important than happiness. And maybe if you have to sacrifice that in order to be engaged with what's going on and to live a compassionate life, maybe that's an acceptable trade to make. I don't know.

And I think Melmoth's main role is to force people into a confrontation with themselves and with what they have done so that, at that moment of confrontation, they must choose. And they can either choose that there is the possibility of hope and redemption and happiness, or they can give up. And they can take her hand. And they can go with her. So if she's not able to be happy herself, she may at least be the catalyst for others achieving a kind of contentment, I hope.

SIMON: Sarah Perry - her book, "Melmoth" - thanks so much for being with us.

PERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.