The Arabian Nights in Historical Context: Between East and West

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The Arabian Nights in Historical Context: Between East and West

Edited by Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum
Oxford University Press, 328 pp.

14 October 2008

by Marina Warner

(Published London Review of Books , 2008)

Like a dance craze or a charismatic cult , Les Mille et une nuits (The Arabian Nights) seized eighteenth century readers’ imaginations in France and England after the translations first appeared in print – in French in 1704-1717 , in English from 1708. Oriental fever swept through the salons and coffee-houses, the broadsheet publishers and the theatrical impresarios; the Thousand and One Nights fired a train of imitations, spoofs, turqueries, oriental tales, extravaganzas, pantomimes, and tastes in dress and furniture: the sofa, the brocade dressing gown, coffee itself. The diaspora of the Arabian Nights does in fact resemble the triumphant progress of coffee, as it multiples and metamorphoses from brass thimbles of thick dark syrup, in Damascus and Istanbul and Cairo, to today’s US and UK hybrids (skinny latte, macchiato et al.). So it’s very neat that Antoine Galland, the same French savant and explorer whose discovery of the earliest manuscript of the Nights in Syria on his journeys from 1670 onwards inspired his great work of translation also published in l699 a treatise in praise of coffee, one of the first if not the first of its kind. It is Galland’s version of the Thousand and One Nights that dominates the spread of the stories from the London News (Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, serialised in 445 instalments, three times weekly, over 3 years in the London News from 1723-6) to the fantasies of the ballets russes, the special effects of The Thief of Bagdad (l924; 1942), and even Disney’s Aladdin and Sinbad cartoons.

From the start, the Nights elicited complicated responses, in which horror, sympathy, and passion were laced with laughter and irony. In the countries of the book’s origin, the stories were considered popular trash, a kind of pulp fiction, and excluded from the classical Arabic canon. In Europe, the sense of the Nights’ negligible status arose because so many of its first enthusiasts were women. The Earl of Shaftesbury, writing as early as l711 (ie only 3 years after the book’s first appearance in English), denounced the Desdemona tendency: ‘ [the tales] excite in them a passion for a mysterious Race of black Enchanters: such as of old were said to creep into Houses, and lead captive silly Women.’ (P 154 ) It will become more significant, in the history of east-west relations, that Shaftesbury could only understand the alien bogeys in terms of beliefs rather closer to home than Baghdad or Cairo.

The Nights were also treated lightly because they eluded concepts of authorship: the stories were anonymous and composed at different periods in different places. The architecture of the frame story – Scheherazade telling stories every night till dawn from memory to the Sultan to save her life- insisted on the oral, collective, immemorial character of the tales, presenting them as a compendium of collective wisdom, fabulous story-telling but not literature with a single owner. Or rather, literature with a thousand and one owners and users, among whom the newcomers could include themselves. Madeleine Dobie, in the opening essay of The Arabian Nights in Historical Perspective , tells how Galland’s work set the trend. A brilliant linguist, antiquarian, and Orientalist, Galland inaugurated the process of treating the book as an omnibus; anyone could leap in and drive it –it was moreover a flying vehicle, one that could express every fantasy. So much so that the most popular Tales of all, the ones which have since become synonymous with the Nights and excerpted in children’s books and retold in films the world over, Aladdin, Ali Baba, The Ebony Horse, and Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou, are very likely the inventions of M. Galland, concocted of pomegranates and ebony, damask and jasmine to pay a kind of précieux tribute to the style of the stories. No manuscript has been found for these ‘orphan tales’, and the earliest Arabic version shows clear signs of being back-translated from Galland’s French, so most of the Nights’ scholars are now fairly certain that he was their inventor. The fine Italian translation by Francesco Gabrieli, which was published in l948, went so far as to print Aladdin in an Appendix, and the new, three-volume translation for Penguin by Malcolm Lyons follows suit, allotting Aladdin and Ali Baba separate quarters, and leaving out Prince Achmed’s adventures altogether. Indeed, from internal evidence, Aladdin’s rag-to-riches plot doesn’t occur in the Nights, and in other ways the success story of Ali Baba and the romance of the young man and the fairy queen echo the extravagant and often sly fairy tales – Puss in Boots, The White Cat - which were being retrieved and written down in France by Charles Perrault in l694 and l697. Mme. d’Aulnoy declared that her collection Histories des fees of l712 came to her from ‘une vieille esclave arabe’ (an old Arab slavewoman).

So the story of the Arabian Nights and its impact is a story of complex attentions, themselves formed by complex historical and social interests, and that has not changed in this century, but rather has intensified over the last thirty years, since Edward Said’s polemical Orientalism first exploded in literary criticism.

Said himself does not discuss the Thousand and One Nights as such, but he does scathe some of its scholars and translators, notably the English Arabist Edward Lane, whose three-volume edition, illustrated by William Harvey’s fine steel engravings, was published in l838-40. (The copy I have, which came originally from my great-grandfather’s library, has been one of the few books that I’ve owned and read since I was a child, and though it’s pretty fustian, Lane tranquillising so much of the book’s agitated emotions and adventures, it’s readable to a degree that Richard Burton’s lurid and archaichising version, made fifty years later, never reaches.) Wilful translations have been an intrinsic, lumpy element in the Nights’ history, a history that with its range, geographical, linguistic, and picaresque, echoes some of the tales’ wandering vicissitudes themselves. Translators like Lane expurgated, and Burton fantasticated, because the Nights have been treated throughout with a kind of insouciant liberty.

It’s an astonishing fact, but the first definitive rather than popular Arabic edition was the scholar Muhsin Mahdi’s, published in l984; basing himself on a manuscript dated variously to the 14th or 15th century, he only tackled a handful of stories. The ambitious new edition for Penguin, translated by the veteran Arabist Malcolm J. Lyons with his wife Ursula Lyons, can claim to be the first ‘complete’ English version rendered from the original language of the Nights without recourse to Galland. But the inverted commas are needed, because the 1001 Nights is a book for which a definitive edition can’t really ever be made. Nor in some real sense can it even be attempted. The Lyons translation, as Robert Irwin explains in his introduction, returns to the same later Arabic version that Richard Burton used because it is the most comprehensive, restores the interjected outbursts of song, erotic lyrics, and bawdy which Galland skipped and sternly avoids the free and easy wool-gathering habits of some others among his successors. It clearly aims to supersede the many versions that Galland has directly influenced for three hundred years.Yet this Arabic manuscript, known as Calcutta II, is itself a compilation of material from different periods, voiced by parties scattered between Cairo and Arabic scholar and Raj India and British interests, and it would have been good to have a much fuller account of why it should be given precedence. Reading it resembles going to a new production of Hamlet or King Lear: memory stumbles, as bits are missing, dialogue transposed, and some scenes turn up in different places. Leaving out Prince Achmed and Peri Banou, for example, without a word of explanation, cuts out the image which has come to crystallise the Nights: the flying carpet. It is in this tale, possibly by Galland, that it figures as a magic gift at the command of an ordinary romantic princeling, rather than the heavenly vehicle of Solomon and his djinns.

The new Penguin looks sumptuous; it’s a boxed set with different gold-tooled cloth bindings re-interpreting oriental motifs, by the designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. But it hovers uneasily between a scholarly attempt at a definitive edition and a popular (and canny) piece of publishing for wide circulation and entertainment. Borges’s illuminated comments, that every translator must work with the orchestration of his predecessors’ sounding on the ear, both affects this new version too much and too little. The phrasing doesn’t quite achieve a contemporary voice even as it subdues nineteenth-century excess and fancy, yet the phrasing is still packed with syntax involving ‘lest’, ‘know then’, and uncontracted verbs even in dialogue. Charming antiquated formulae have been kept – but they’ve been stripped of surrounding texture - eg death ‘the Destroyer of delights and the parter of companions’- for at the same time, literal fidelity is overdone to the point of bathos: ‘strange sea creatures that looked like humans’ replaces the former ‘mermaids’ in the closing scene of the elegiac Tale of the City of Brass, when they are presented to the Sultan as special gifts and given a basin of water to live in, only to die of the heat.

When Lane and Burton did their versions they added voluminous apparatus, trying to vindicate the Nights’ through a kind of literary Euhemerism: the stories communicated, they thought, real historical facts -customs, beliefs, manners - which had become transfigured in imagination’s crystal palaces. The new tendency, by contrast, emphasises heterogeneity and distinctive fantasy literature, so that the Nights represents a branch of human invention, not a historical era, geographical location and social mores. Here too, the new Penguin edition hasn’t altogether made up its mind: there are historical maps – ninth century Baghdad, 14th century Cairo – but gives scant help with many retained Arabic terms, words, and names. Robert Irwin, who has contributed concise introductions to each volume rightly points out that readers might need to look up puzzling elements in the invaluable Encyclopaedia of the Arabian Nights (more of a Companion, really) edited by Ulrich von Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen. But compared to the French Pléïade edition , immaculately edited, annotated, and translated by André Miquel and by Jamel Eddine Bencheikh, this new Penguin shows up the different character of Anglo-American publishing. To my taste, this version disappointingly still leaves a need for a new modern edition.

In the meantime, the Nights have been attracting some fine readers, such as the writers in Les Mille et une nuits en partage edited by Aboubakr Chraïbi in 2004, not yet translated. The fourteen historians and critics in the new essay collection from Oxford come from different cultures, and they continue the discussion with relish, refining some ideas, and considerably extending the range of materials in view. But their book’s effect can only resemble the model of an archaeological reconstruction, showing some fragments in place in a large landscape waiting to be filled. Still, the pieces here map a very different and absorbing story about east-west relations in the eighteenth century and into our time.

The character of the Arabian Nights opened different ways of interpreting one’s own experience, and it did so mostly along two axes. On the one hand, it opened vistas of new freedoms – freedoms of form and of fantasy, with consequent effects on political and social imagination; on the other hand, as Shaftesbury’s comment shows, it offered a stratagem of disavowal, by projecting magic, lust, and cruelty as unknown, foreign, and inimical.

This double dynamic unceasingly propels, sometimes in a single individual’s response, both attraction to the stories and repulsion of them. In Oriental costume, much could be enjoyed that was otherwise off limits, and the book became a playground for experiments in virtue and vice, a kind of Esalen for Enlightenment adventurers. Anthony Hamilton, for example, an urbane Jacobite aristocrat and soldier, living in Paris in exile at the court of James II, and a much petted cavaliere servente of the court ladies, must have been reading the stories straight off the press in Antoine Galland’s pioneering translation when he blithely wrote a parody, ‘Fleur d’Epine’ ( Mayblossom), to put an end once and for all, he cried, to the insane passion for this tripe. Dinarzade, Scheherazade’s younger sister, begs her sister to stop; she can’t bear, she wails, another night of her endless storytelling, and she bargains with her to let her take over so she can trick the Sultan into calling a halt to the whole process.

Such strictures have been heard before, and often, with regard to romances or novels or flights of fantasy per se. Yet, in spite of his impatience with the form Hamilton couldn’t stop himself Orientalising, and he wrote several more absurdist rigmaroles as parodies of the form, and did so so mischievously and so adroitly that Voltaire acknowledged his influence on his own stories. The mode, the form - the genre - of the Oriental tale became a last that gave many writers’ footsteps a particular spring. As Robert Mack writes in a perceptive bibliographical survey of the Nights’ impact in English literature, ‘The fecundity of the Nights can be perceived and represented as a source of aesthetic appeal and consolation, yet it is also (and no less naturally) as possible point of origin for threats to the varieties and orders of human experience ’. p 60

The writers who, as soon as Galland’s translation appeared, flocked to ventriloquise Oriental tale-tellers, took the example of Scheherazade to heart. The most patent lesson absorbed from the Tales arises from the overarching narrative: Scheherazade is talking herself out of her fate. The heroes and heroines may live according to preordained and thrilling, ineluctable destinies, but Scheherazade is resisting death through the tales she tells, and if she succeeds, will redeem all other women too, whom schahriar the Sultan has resolved to kill.

Voltaire began writing sharp contes like Micromégas and Zadig when he realised that, rather than write learned philosophical essays, he could reach an audience and transform their values by entertaining them. He gave spoof Oriental provenances to some of his biting and mortally funny satires on current politics and prejudice, and in Candide and The White Bull attacked tyranny with methods he was borrowing from Scheherazade, working to bring Schahriar round to see his own face in the mirror of her stories about irrational tyrants and flagrant injustice. In London, the Georgian stage also revelled in spectacular oriental pantos; depicting the accepted abuses of other societies – their treatment of women, their torments of slaves, their excesses of despotism – even a light-hearted impresario like John Rich was striking blows closer to home, as Bridget Orr discusses revealingly in this collection.

In France, the Nights flowed into enlightenment, libertine fiction: the young Diderot imagined licentious speaking jewels, hidden in the private parts of a long series of Scheherazade storytellers, and after him, Claude Crebillon, fils, spoke in the first person of a sofa, formerly a young rake, but transformed as a punishment for his misdeeds. Like a genie concealed in a lamp, he’s sentient, but captive, and in his sofa shape, able to know and foresuffer all. He eavesdrops on many gallant conversations, but will only be changed back into human shape when and if a couple makes true love when sitting on him. In 1782, William Beckford, took inspiration from Hamilton and both the wisdom fables of Voltaire and the galant tradition when he wrote - in French - his violent, hallucinatory fiction Vathek, about a Faustian figure drawn with comic-book virulence. Perverse Oriental dreaming similarly suffuses Oscar Wilde’s Salome - also originally composed in French. The voyage to ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ moves eastwards, but takes place mostly en Français.

Beckford took three days and two nights to compose Vathek - or claimed he did – after the phantasmagoric party that Philip de Loutherbourg , the master of special effects for the London stage, designed as an Oriental spectacular. But Beckford was also a connoisseur and a translator, who worked on the manuscript of the Nights that Edward Montagu brought back from his failed embassy to Turkey, and his fantastic fiction was published with copious learned annotations, compiled by his associate the Rev. Samuel Henley, but reflecting Beckford’s own concerns and vast knowledge. Henley published the book in Beckford’s absence, and pretended it was translated from a genuine manuscript. Combined with the extensive glosses, this created a very strong ‘reality effect’ and contributed significantly to a way of reading the Nights and oriental fictions as if they were authentic, documentary accounts of events in the past and customs in the present. However, as Donna Landry points out in her perceptive and original account of Vathek, his book’s blasphemies and salaciousness are directed principally against England and English conventions. With fine wit, she recognises the prodigious camel Alboufaki as a steed Beckford conjured in preference to the hunting horses of the rich landed gentry to whom he belonged by birth. Alboufaki is the mount of Carathis, Vathek’s malignant enchantress mother, and a kind of self-portrait of Beckford himself, Landry suggests, with ‘[his] desire for solitude, and his nose for the pestilential and the ghastly…[Beckford] gives us a monstrous camel as also a type of the self…as a Romantic solitary..’.

This takes the Oriental masquerade from the boudoir into the desert, where indeed many political and historical effects of the tie between east and west are still taking their violent course.

For a long time Orientalising was either overlooked or disparaged, seen as a low kind of taste, retrograde nostalgia and childish interest (Pottermania avant la lettre). By contrast today, contemporary relations with Islam both at home and abroad have drawn attention to the Nights in a very much sobered up spirit. The Tate’s recent exhibition, The Lure of the East, showed the new thoughtfulness, and excited interest to a degree that the paintings of David Roberts, David Wilkie, and Frederick Lewis haven’t ever enjoyed before. The society that made and read the Nights has become a quite different object of interest, so much so that the editors of this absorbing collection of essays now feel able to make the heady claim, ‘Alf layla wa layla (The Thousand and One Nights) changed the world on a scale unrivalled by any other literary text.’

Literary text, note, rather than religious, since the Nights would be outclassed by the Bible and the Koran. For while contemporary conflicts shadow the whole re-invigorated attempt to understand the Nights, the immediate and richest ‘historical context’ of the title remains Orientalism, a cult bible of its own, as well as, in some quarters, a candidate for burning. The contributors do not take up Said’s analysis head on as such – this is not another instalment in that quarrel - but they allude to him throughout and by implication reorientate his arguments, setting out new bearings on the compass of story. His thinking drafts the chart on which they’re moving, and their joint endeavour skilfully and richly both moves on his arguments and cools them. Reading the Nights as a case study in the contact zones of history offers a path towards changing preconceptions about Arabs, Islam, and the history and civilisation of the middle and near east. Contact or translation zones may be flash points for conflict and indeed fields of protracted oppressions, but they are also areas of mingling and interfusion, of ‘Creolisation… willy-nilly’.

The Nights, as a book of multiple transformations, putting on different guises and exciting different effects in various circumstances, reveals how much translations between cultures can alter and even mitigate the costs of protracted and entrenched hostilities. Indeed, in literature, hostilities don’t have purchase in a direct or simple way, and the Nights’ multiple layerings show this. The writers here join their voices to those raised by many inspired literary scholars, east and west, who are also exploring a less strictly antithetical model of east-west relations: Amit Chaudhuri, for example, is quoted here writing, ‘The Orient, in modernity, is not only a European invention but also an Oriental one’, and Srinivas Aravamudan brings in most fruitfully Said’s later concept of the ‘ travelling’ text, from his l983 study, The World , the Text and the Critic’ ( as a symptom of developments in this literary field, this study is about to be published by the Kalima foundation, in its first official Arabic translation, for the first time early next year).

The Arabian Nights is a pre-eminent travelling text; a prime example of world literature in deep time (to adapt Wai Chee Dimock’s reflections in Through Other Continents), it holds out for scrutiny an extraordinarily fertile case of cross-fertilisation, re-tellings, grafts and borrowings, over-writing, imitation, and dissemination back and forth between Persia, India, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Europe, and then back again into its homelands, over a very longue duree. The very concept of the sequence of narratives – the interlaced tales with the frame of a ransom tale - as well as its individual story elements, became global nomads, travelled back and forth, camping and settling until they became indigenous throughout the world of literature.

Edward Said also demanded, three decades ago, that the ‘ Orient’ should be allowed to speak, and the cast of contributors here represents different expertise in both Arabic and European culture. One of the most eye-opening essays, by Nabil Matar, explores the presence of Christians and other religious believers in the Arabian Nights, and depressingly tracks a growing intolerance in the stories. In the earlier romances, medieval in origin, the characters observe Islamic precepts (interfaith marriage allowed; hospitality a great good as well as a duty), though conversion only takes place in one direction. In the later strata of urban adventure stories, which often show traces of historical contact (pirates from Genoa) , hostility towards Christians has hardened.

Matar now teaches in Minnesota, but has taught in Jordan and Lebanon, and his is one of the very few essays which singles out particular stories for attention. But this collection of essays, as I say, was not intended to take up the stories as such, and it focuses on their historical impact: in a closely argued meditation on the role of Dinarzade, Scheherazade’s younger sister, who is entrusted by Scheherazade to ask for a story every night and so help forestall the threatened fall of the axe, Ros Ballaster focuses on women writers’ uses of Oriental plots and characters to draw attention to their concerns, and argues strongly that the Oriental tale, as practised by women writers such as Clara Reeve and Frances Sheridan, was turned to convey an ideal of nation and forge a new community, open to female independence, and opposed to domestic and political tyranny. In the fiction of the long eighteenth century, ranging from the work of the radicals Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft to the conservative Jane Austen’s novels, Ballaster identifies many pairs of sisters who, by colluding like Dinarzade and Scheherazade, manage to impress their alternative view of a new dispensation on to their fellow characters and – on their readers. New intimate forms were adopted to stage the storytelling scene: letters, confessions, ‘memoirs’ and ‘true reports’, even travellers’ tales and captivity yarns, brought women’s voices into play as communicators of hitherto unknown truths, concealed beneath the external appearances. The disclosures of such fiction relate to the unfamiliar worldscape of the Arabian Nights, as secret intrigues are revealed and resisted. At the level of plot, this process mimicks the unmasking of evil designs in the Tales, of enchanters’ secret machinations successfully resisted, but by analogy, at a deeper, metaphorical or even metaphysical level, it also assumes a world where hidden djinns and peris lurk in old bottles or padlocked boxes or simply swarm invisibly in the air, who can strike malignantly but can be controlled and used. These unexplained spirit presences begin to infuse Gothic: Horace Walpole was a defiant advocate of the Nights against the insipid fiction of his contemporaries, and his lurid, haunted Castle of Otranto shows his taste.

Between the supernatural, which presumed belief in god, and the uncanny, which saw inexplicable, dreadful or wonderful things as the dream products of the mind and, often, of personal disturbance, the Nights opened up a vista of spirits that did not command religious belief. The Victorians dismissed the genies of folklore as belonging to the most primitive stratum of spiritual development, animism, but they provided no explanation for their stubborn appeal to their contemporaries, and to some of the most highly philosophical intellects among them, and Tim Fulford, in his essay on Coleridge’s orientalism perceptively comments on Coleridge’s enraptured response to the capricious motions of fate in the Tales, beyond logic, beyond ethics. The 1817 version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ‘before Coleridge added the moralizing marginal gloss’ strikes the same cold thrill in us because it too conveys ‘the inadequacy of human morality to comprehend the world in which we live.’

The fatalism of the tales, combined with its exaggerated luxuries and treasures, penalties, and rewards, aligned it for European readers until now with irrationality, supernaturalism, and transgressive self-pleasuring. But the very terms of the condemnation opened up another horizon that beckoned. Khalid Bekkaoui, who teaches at Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah University in Fez, discusses the real-life attractions of ‘turning Turk’, and discusses several ‘captivity narratives’ (as in Linda Colley’s recent study of Eliza Marsh). In these, the flickering lamps of the seraglio throw shadows over historical events until they become impossible to distinguish: fiction giving fact its form.

The concluding essay crucially continues the reverse angle view, as Maher Jarrar, who teaches at the American University in Beirut, examines the return of the Nights to the Middle East and its impact on the modern Arabic novel. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswani, published too recently to be included in his discussion, here continues the process he unfolds: an enthralling piece of story telling as well as an exceptionally brave and straight-dealing account of Cairo in his time, Al-Aswani’s novel adapts the urban labyrinth of the Nights’ polyphonic structure when he nets his cast of characters into an overlapping and intricate fabric within a single many chambered building.

The difficulty of reading the tales themselves has proved a persistent tendency in the discussion of the Nights: and not just because of the prophecy that anyone who finishes the book will die (this is in itself an interesting extension of the Scheherazade’s prolonged work of weaving and unweaving, as she endlessly defers the day of her own death). But the tales instantly leaped out into the world by word of mouth: the book became a genre, a style, an image-language before it was even grasped as a text: ‘Araby’, as James Joyce’s story in Dubliners communicates, was a dream, a place of promise and pleasure. The title alone of the Arabian Nights summoned a mood, an atmosphere, a sphere of the imagination, dominated by enchantments and prodigies, terrifying metamorphoses (into animals, into stone, captivity inside things); flagrant coincidences and cruel horrors, voluptuous pleasures and the extreme injustice of despots: Oriental tales instantly struck dreams of glamour, vice, languor: fountains, rubies, sherbet, genies swarming out of caskets like smoking chimneys. Coleridge’s tendency to disjointed and morbid fancy, here explored by Tim Fulford in a thoughtful meditation, was nourished from childhood by motifs of the Nights: the sudden, arbitrary stroke of a terrible fate gave him and others a way of thinking about human psychology that matched his own sense of fragmentation and thrall to outside forces. Today, the Nights, with their emphasis on possession and demons (djinns) express current consciousness, in an age when ‘agency’ and ‘autonomy’, those personality watchwords so endlessly vaunted by the world of credit card advertising, have been hollowed out and turned weightless in the present financial chaos.

Reading the stories is hard because they disobey so many internalised rules about character, motive, verisimilitude, plot structure; they do not easily fit existing theories about fiction, history, or psychology, and their excesses of emotion, desultory and extreme violence, twists of fate and improbable outcomes, seem to flout the general accepted order of things. This makes them exciting, alarming, and compelling: why is one young woman, with every sign of reluctance and remorse, beating two bitches every evening till the blood runs? Why have all three wandering holy men, or Kalenders, lost an eye? Even after all the enthusiasm, the inventions in the tales are still utterly fantastic and a have an eerie compulsion : the magnetic mountain that will draw every nail from a ship if it falls by ill fate within its sphere of attraction and reduce it to splinters, the giant bird the Rukh which breakfasts daily on two Bactrian camels; the frozen cities of past glorious civilisations, where everyone is turned to stone and heaped in riches, and the dead queen with wide open eyes of mercury lying on a bier guarded by automata who slice off the head of anyone daring to steal the jewels that cover her body.

But once one starts reading, as Coleridge discovered, the way Scheherazade sets one story inside another, with others starting before the first or the second has come to a conclusion, acts like metre and rhyme in poetry: the reader/listener’s mind is rushing ahead before you can put up resistance (just like the Sultan). Given the intricacy of the Nights’ tales, which means that sometimes you find yourself four or five steps down from the first story’s level, the prosody resembles something fiendishly patterned, more terza rima than heroic couplets, so it’s interesting that one of the most exacting forms of all, the pantoum, is based on Arabic lyric pattern. Also, though the book collages so many different materials and forms of literature, it does in the end - like a very long and complicated puzzle - come out, as Scheherazade’s tales gradually move on from the virulent, complacent misogyny of the frame story and of many earlier tales too, into a politics of love and justice that opens the cruel Sultan’s eyes to another vision of humanity and his responsibilities as a ruler.

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