Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace of Desire

Translated by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny, and Olive E. Kenny.

Honestly, my feelings for this trilogy so far mimic those felt among members of a big family.  Sometimes you love being around them, other times you want to scream, “What the what are you doing? Stop!” but you always like (well, love) them.

Palace of Desire, the second in Naguib Mahfouz‘s Cairo Trilogy, is filled with just that: desire.  How powerful it is, how it makes people act, what happens when two persons’ desires intersect.  Al-Sayyid Ahmad, while slowed down by his grief and his age, is still as lustful as ever, taking a lute player as a mistress.  Yasin is a man almost completely controlled by his desires and continues to chase after women no matter how many wives he’s taken and divorced.  Kamal’s desire is more genuine (if over-inflated) than that of Yasin and his father.  He falls for Aïda (“the beloved”), but she’s unattainable and perhaps not even that special.  Some parts of his laments over her were relatable for me, but it just when on a bit too much.  (I got it, she’s everything you want.  And more.)

I miss the women.  So much.  Or maybe I just miss the coffee hour scenes, since later in the book the coffee hour has dwindled to Amina, Kamal, and Umm Hanafi.  There was a scene early in the book when both Khadija and Amina’s families were over to the al-Sayyid Ahmad residence which I loved.  There were even moments of true tenderness from al-Sayyid Ahmad to his grandchildren.  I’m thinking that the absence of women from the novel may have to do with  the Muslim precept that when women marry, they belong to their new families (I think this is correct, but if it’s not let me know!).  Maybe since Khadija and Aisha married into new families, their lives don’t contribute a central component to their original family, and thus the novel.  But this doesn’t really explain Amina’s absence, but perhaps her thoughts, mostly mourning Fahmy, aren’t that relevant?  Also, a lot of my enjoyment (if that’s the right word…) of Palace Walk came from the thoughts of the suppressed female characters.  The narrowed scope results in a somewhat less interesting narrative.

It was more prevalent in the first novel, but Mahfouz often makes some bizarre metaphors and comparisons.  I noted a few while reading:

…for an argument may improve a relationship like cayenne pepper, which adds zest to food…  (pg. 575)

He had been a stone with obscure inscriptions carved on it, until love had come and solved the riddle.  (pg. 582)

Affection is an ancient melody but seems marvelously fresh in each new rendition.  (pg. 724)

He was like a vaulter who keeps trying to go just a foot higher only to find himself soaring high into the heavens. (pg. 802)

Maybe it’s a cultural/translational thing?

While the ending of the novel is tragic, I’m very interested (and happy about it?) to see what happens next, as I assume their would be a greater focus on the women characters, especially Aisha as her life will be changing dramatically.

I read this as part of The Cairo Trilogy Readalong, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos

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Aristophanes’s The Birds: Welcome to Cuckoonebulopolis!

Something fanciful . . .
A touch of clouds and airy spaciousness
And lightness.

The Birds is an Old Comedy classic by Aristophanes, which according to Wikipedia, was originally performed in 414 BCE at the City Dionysia (major yearly Greek drama festival) where it won second prize.  It’s regarded as a “creative fantasy,” an assessment I agree with.  I think this is the first time I’ve been exposed to an Ancient Greek or Roman work in which the events could not possibly happen in their reality (by which I mean the the existence and meddling of the gods are accepted ideas).

When the play begins, Pisthetaerus and his friend Euelpides are wandering around the outskirts of Athens searching for a new place to live.  They complain of the over legislation in Athens:

A splendid city, Athens, rich and free,
Denying none the right to . . . pay a fine!

They decide to talk to the Hoopoe, who is really Tereus (a real jerk and an ex-Thracian king who I had to refresh my memory about by reading the section on him in Ovid’s Metamorphoses).  Basically, Tereus was transformed into a Hoopoe, a really gorgeous bird, and now lives among the other birds, teaching them English in his spare time.  In Aristophanes’s version of events, the transformation didn’t go so well and leaves the Hoopoe comically missing feathers, for which he gives the excuse of birds molting in winter.

The “happy idea,” a requirement in Greek Old Comedy, occurs when Pisthetaerus decides that the birds should build a city in the sky (“Unite, and form a bird metropolis”), called Cuckoonebulopolis (or Cloud Cuckoo Land, don’t you want to go?), which would make birds the kings of everyone, including the gods.  However, getting a meeting with the birds proves difficult, as the birds are mistrustful and hostile towards humans, causing the men to defend themselves against the bird attacks with kitchen utensils.  But once the birds listen to the men, they agree to the plan, and construction of the city in the sky is completed quickly.

There’s a lot of comedy involving various characters that attempt to take a stake in the new city or to profit from it, including a surveyor, an inspector, a statute salesman, and a lawyer (shyster lawyer jokes have apparently been around since Ancient Greece).

The vase above is thought to be depicting a scene from the play.  I’m glad to have found it, since the Chorus is composed entirely of birds (from flamingos to owls), and I was curious about their costuming for much of the play.

I read the R. H. web translation.

I read this for The Ancient Greek Classics Circuit, touring now.  Other stops today include A Striped Armchair and Cousins Read.

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Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers

Sara Smolinsky is a young Jewish immigrant living in a poor area of New York City with her family in the early 20th century.  Her father, a scholar of the Torah, rules his house like a “tyrant more terrible than the Tsar from Russia,” using quotes from scripture to justify his every decision and personal belief (on women being allowed admittance into Heaven: “Only if they cooked for men, and washed for men, and didn’t nag and curse the men out of their homes, only if they let the men study the Torah in peace, then, maybe, they could push themselves into heaven with the men, to wait on them there.”).

Sara’s three sisters are weak-willed in the face of their father’s tyranny and bend eventually to his desires (mostly concerning marriage), and as Sara grows up in this environment, she deeply senses the unfairness and the cruelty of her father and sees the unhappiness that stems from his decisions.  While she is a good, hardworking, (mostly) dutiful (she has a habit of back talk) daughter, she finally finds the strength to break free from her father’s reign and his Old World values and attempt to transition into a daughter of the New World, an educated woman, not in fear of being labeled an old maid.

Skimming through the introduction, I learned that this novel is partially autobiographical, which I had assumed, but had had doubts about it.  I never really connected with Sara.  Of course I wanted her to achieve her dreams, but I never doubted she would escape her father and find her place in the world.  And I cringed at a great number of things her father said to his family.  But these characters never felt real to me, I couldn’t feel them breathing, they were predictable and almost stock-like.  Perhaps this is because of the over saturation of these types of tales in society today: parents are unreasonable and stuck in their own ways, so child rebels and starts out on his or her own.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not Jewish or very well versed in that culture.  (However, I can see that this novel would lend itself particularly well to a teaching setting, from middle school up.)

I read this as the January selection for The Wolves, hosted by Eileen.

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Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

I read this during Virago Reading Week, hosted by Rachel at Book Snob and Carolyn at A Few of My Favorite Things.

I have officially been convinced of the genius of Edith Wharton.  Until recently, I would give her novels dirty looks whenever I saw them, having not forgiven her for (my incorrect high school opinion of) the awfulness of Ethan Frome.  I so deeply hated this book.  It seemed over dramatic, melodramatic, too much fuss over a pickle-dish (what was a pickle-dish anyway?), but most of all, Boring.  I didn’t understand my eleventh grade English teacher’s obvious love and affection for this little novel(la?), how he could be so deeply affected by this simple story of unconsummated love during a New England winter.

Over the summer I decided to give Wharton another chance with Summer, which I liked, but wasn’t quite ready to rescind my previous opinion.  Then in October, I read The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, some of which I enjoyed very much, and others not so much.  Not wanting to attempt one of her larger novels while still unsure about her, I (somewhat reluctantly) decided to go back to the beginning, the scene of the crime, Ethan Frome. Everything seemed to line up, it was Virago reading week and there was snow on the ground (though not as much as in the fictional Starkfield, Massachussettes), it was winter (can you see my love of seasonally-appropriate reading?).

And it was perfect, the exact opposite of everything I thought it was before.  Not the slightest bit boring, I hung on every word.  Even though I knew where the story was headed, it was still heartbreaking to see it tumble tumble tumbling towards its inevitable conclusion.

The initial (present) Ethan we meet is “the ruin of a man,” but (past) Ethan we meet later has within “him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished,” which Mattie’s arrival in Starkfield awakens in him: “All his life was lived in the sight and sound of Mattie Silver, and he could no longer conceive of its being otherwise.”

Although the construction of the narrator ostensibly makes the story seem at least partially contrived (how could he know every thought and feeling of Ethan’s?), I never doubted the credibility of it (much like James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime).  Of course this was exactly how Ethan felt, of course this was exactly how Mattie acted.  (How could it be any different? It all seemed so genuine, so affecting.)

I know I will come to treasure every facet of this little gem (even more than I do now, it seems like one of those books that grows larger and more powerful over time) from Ethan’s past, his family troubles, his unfulfilled dreams, to his present, shriveled, irrevocably trapped human form, but the part that remains most beautiful to me now is his love for Mattie:

These alterations of mood were the despair and joy of Ethan Frome.  The motions of her mind were incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches.  The fact that he had no right to show his feelings, and thus provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic importance to every change in her look and tone.  Now he thought she understood him, and feared; now he was sure she did not, and despaired.

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Homer’s The Odyssey

Odysseus.  There was a man, or was he all a dream? 19.363

So.  I’ve been finished with The Odyssey for weeks.  But I keep thinking, can you ever really be finished with The Odyssey?  Not only because of its impact on literature, but because Odysseus’s story seems so eternal, to me.  It’s pervasive both in my mind and in culture.

I mistakenly believed I’d read the entire work in high school, but I now realize I’d only read selections, I remember the Circe and Scylla and Charybdis portions well.  So I’d had a taste in high school, but with a focus on Odysseus’s adventures.  Reading the entire work, I felt more deeply for his family, Telemachus his son and Penelope his wife.  The precarious situation they’d been placed in, and their undying loyalty to their king.

Compared to The Iliad, which I read last year, The Odyssey seems more human to me, more concerned with the actions and desires of people.  One of my favorite parts of The Iliad was the interferences of the gods, inserting their own agendas, helping out their favorite warriors, even to the point of pleading on their behalves.  This was present in The Odyssey, but to a lesser extent, mainly Athena aiding her Odysseus, her favorite, Poseidon raging against Odysseus, and the occasional thunderbolt from Zeus.  The focus is more on individual motivations, Odysseus’s search for home, Telemachus’s search for his father.

None of this is to downplay his adventures, which are fun and incredible.  There is a reason Odysseus’s wit and cleverness are famous.

The structure is also fascinating, beginning towards the end of the linear story and Odysseus himself telling of his adventures and hardships towards the middle.

There is an incredible amount of thoughts regarding The Odyssey rumbling around in my head, thoughts I’m sure many, many scholars have already expounded on.

I should mention I read the Robert Fagles translation, and I recommend his translation highly, as well as for The Iliad.  And a few quotes for the end:

Penelope on Odysseus’s return:

I’m stunned with wonder,
powerless. Cannot speak to him, ask him questions,
look him in the eyes . . . But if he is truly
Odysseus, home at last, make no mistake:
we two will know each other, even better–
we two have secret signs,
known to us both but hidden from the world.” 23.119-25

And my favorite, Odysseus’s mother Anticleia when he is visiting the underworld:

…this is just the way of mortals when we die.
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together—
the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,
rustling, flitters away…flown like a dream.
But you must long for the daylight. 11.249-54

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James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime: “The relics of love.”

“I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh. It’s a story of things that never existed although even the faintest doubt of that, the smallest possibility, plunges everything into darkness. I only want whoever reads this to be as resigned as I am. There’s enough passion in the world already. Everything trembles with it. Not that I believe it shouldn’t exist, no, no, but this is only a thin, reflecting sliver which somehow keeps catching the light.” pg. 17

While going through a phase of reading books about food, cooking, and eating (mainly food centered memoirs) about a year ago, I read James Salter’s Life is Meals, co-written with his wife Kay. While I picked up many useful bits and a few recipes from that reading, I wasn’t inspired to look into his fiction. Perhaps this was unfair, as it was an entirely different type of work than fiction.

Going through The Millions’ Year In Reading feature, I noticed two authors had chosen his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime to highlight. Julie Orringer (whose stories I want to read) complains that it, “received enthusiastic reviews when it was published, but fell into relative obscurity since—a fate that seems wildly unjustified to this reader.” And Mark Sarvas called it “a marvelous, haunting rendering of an erotic affair in France (sex, Paris, what’s not to like?), and now I am feverishly reading all the Salter I can get my hands on.” Now I, too, have fallen in love with Salter’s writing and am contemplating which Salter to read next: short stories, another novel, or his non-fiction recollections?

At the time, I had skimmed their thoughts, fearful of plot discussion, and soon after put a hold on it at the library. By the time it reached me, I had forgotten even the barest details of the novel, and I began reading it with no preconceptions or hints of what would be in store. And I think this is a good way to approach it, at least it was for me, someone who prefers a blank slate approach to fiction.

But, yes, sex. The novel is full of it. The way it’s described never seems wrong or untrue to life (to me), quite the opposite. I contribute this mostly to his incredible command of language. It’s dream-like and gorgeous. Numerous passages have been copied down into my journal/commonplace book. Instead of writing about it, I’d almost like to just copy out many long passages from the novel, like the one above, hoping that would be enough to convince you of its beauty. Perhaps I’ll restrain myself and leave you with just one.

“Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored by a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.” pg. 53

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Ma Su Mon: An Oral History of Resistance in Burma

Burma’s 50 million residents have lived under the rule of a violent authoritarian junta since 1962.  Millions have fled the country, and hundreds of thousands now live in refugee camps along the country’s borders.  Ma Su Mon is an ethnic Burman who became involved in the pro-democracy movement in 1966, when the government shut down the nation’s universities.  After the National League for Democracy–the country’s main opposition movement–made her a full youth member, she was arrested by military intelligence officers and taken to Insein Prison, where she was held in solitary confinement for eleven months.  At the time, Ma Su Mon was just twenty-two years old.  Since her release, she has moved to Thailand, where she is pursuing a career as a journalist with Burmese-exile media groups.

That is the introduction to Ma Su Mon’s short (30 small pages) oral history of her life in Burma as part of the resistance, which was excerpted from the forthcoming Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime, edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoe West. This excerpt came to me in the most recent issue of McSweeney’s.  Her story is not an easy one, and I’m in awe of the strength she showed against the government who harassed and imprisoned her.  I’m happy to know that she is now in Thailand pursuing her dream, journalism, but it’s heartbreaking to know that she was forced to leave her home, her family, without a promise of ever returning again, in order to do so.

I want to be reading the full book now, but its release date is in a month or two (I found conflicting information).  It’s the most recent in a series of Voice of Witness books published by McSweeney’s.  I’m now interested in reading the rest in the series, but I feel particularly drawn to this topic.

I’ll end with Ma Su Mon on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s (political activist who was placed under house arrest for many years and Nobel Peace Prize winner) influence and legacy:

Auntie was the role model of our young generation and of all the party members–we call Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “Auntie.”  We love her.  When I became a full member of the NLD [National League for Democracy], it was because I was so impressed by Auntie.  I love her work and her actions.  But nowadays I try to think about what we have to do.  I mean, we should not just depend on her.  We have to do some work by ourselves to change our country, because all of us are just dependent on Auntie.  If Auntie were not beside us, how would we do it?  Our young generation should prepare for our future, to change our country.  We all put everything on her shoulders, and it’s not fair for her.  She’s an old woman now.

(The cover photo is of students and members of the National League for Democracy, with Ma Su Mon in the center of the bottom row.)

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