Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz

Please enjoy the colour-coordination here!

I wanted to write something about Palace Walk before the end of the week, because on my customary posting day of Sunday, I will in fact be in Prague. I’ll be there for PhD stuff, attending a week-long summer school on Romanticism (a literary movement which falls at the extreme end of my time period of interest, but my supervisors thought it would still be relevant to what I’m working on). So it’s unlikely I’ll be able to post much until the week after that—and Palace Walk deserves attention while still fresh in my memory!

~~plot details ahead~~

This was the second book in my African Summer reading project, and the first installment of a trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Set in Cairo during and after the First World War, it focuses on one family, that of the tyrannically conservative patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. By an ex-wife he has one son, Yasin; by his current wife, Amina, he has four other children: sons Fahmy and Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha. His family are kept under the strictest of rules; Amina is not allowed out of the house at all. al-Sayyid Ahmad, on the other hand, spends most of his nights on the town with friends, drinking, singing, and having sex with other women (who range from the publicly available, such as the great singer Zubayda, to more private arrangements, such as with the otherwise chaste widow of his neighbour). One of Mahfouz’s great themes is the hypocrisy of Ahmad’s behaviour juxtaposed with the total coherence of his self-image. He truly believes himself to be better than his wife and children, worthy of blind deference merely because he is the male head of the household. The disobedience of his wife Amina—which happens only once in the book, when she takes advantage of his absence on a business trip to visit a mosque in their immediate neighbourhood—is the start of a gradual slope, though, as one by one, his children begin to reveal their independence and to rebel against him. Fahmy, his second son, becomes entangled in the Egyptian nationalist movement and refuses his father’s orders to desist; his eldest son Yasin becomes bored with a wife who seems perfectly pleasant and turns to raping the maids, which leads his wife to divorce him. The daughters, Khadija and Aisha, don’t rebel so overtly, but they marry a pair of brothers and escape his orbit, becoming part of their husbands’ (slightly) more liberal household. The family’s youngest son, Kamal, befriends the English soldiers occupying the streets of Cairo—the same soldiers who humiliate Ahmad and eventually kill Fahmy. Mahfouz interweaves personal, local and global history with a light touch, so that news of the outside world filters through to the women of the household only through their menfolk, but eventually affects them all.

Palace Walk was translated from Arabic for its first English publication in 1991; it was written long before that, in the 1950s. The translation, by William M. Hutchins and Olive Kenny, struck me as frequently stilted and mannered, and it appears I’m not alone in this: a 1992 review of the translation notes that it “fails to capture the spirit of the Arabic” and “does little justice to Mahfouz’s style. What constitutes modern and spirited prose in Arabic has been rendered in a largely dated and stilted English register.” The rest of the review can be found on JSTOR, for those of you with access. I highly recommend it; it explains several things about the translation’s old-fashioned and stuffy flavour. There don’t appear to be any other English translations available, which makes it all the more impressive that Palace Walk has retained its reputation—but having read it, I have to confess that it manages to be extremely engaging despite those linguistic flaws, pulling a reader in with multiple compelling characters and then retaining readerly interest through the tension it establishes between the imperative of complete honesty and obedience, and the reality of unspoken emotions within the al-Jawad family. Mahfouz didn’t write the novel with a twenty-first-century sensibility, naturally, but he knows the price for Ahmad’s persistent abuse of his power: his family, his subjects, can’t trust him with their vulnerability, and so they lie to him, implicitly or explicitly, every day.

The novel ends with the promise of the British Protectorate’s departure and the return of political control to Egyptians, the death of Fahmy al-Awad, and the birth of his sister Aisha’s son—Ahmad and Amina’s first grandchild. The second book, Palace of Desire, will surely shift some of its focus onto the new generation; I’ve already requested it from my local library.

Sunday miscellany 14

Two very different, but both extraordinary, books this week (plus a third I’ll talk about later). First, Ursula K. Le Guin’s astounding The Dispossessed, a novel about anarchy, community and the social responsibility of the intellectual that manages also to be a page-turner. How to describe what is achieved in this book? This book that presents as natural, daily realities so many things we’re told are impossible. The thrust of the plot follows Shevek, probably the most brilliant physicist of his generation, from life on his native planet Anarres–an anarchist commune whose inhabitants broke away from capitalist society on the planet Urras two hundred years ago, following a female philosopher/prophet named Odo, and were given Anarres as part of the terms of settlement. Further terms mean that people from Urras are not permitted to land on Anarres except to offload cargo in a demarcated area of the spaceport, and scarcely any Anarresti are allowed off-planet. Shevek flees Anarres when it becomes obvious that his academic work is being stolen and his career suffocated by his supervisor, but on Urras he is a political pawn in a struggle that seeks a proprietary relationship to the technology he’s working on as a potential weapon or tactical advantage. (The tech would enable faster-than-light communication.) Le Guin is smartest in not making Anarres an uncriticizable utopia. Parts of it are brilliant (the scene where an Anarresti doctor comments scathingly of her Urrasti counterparts that they’re so understaffed and inefficient, they have to work a shocking eight hours a day! The lovely walking holiday Shevek and his friends, including his future wife, take in the mountains! The clear understanding that people are motivated to work by love for their community and the dignity that good work well done can provide!), but Shevek’s maturation comes when he realizes that power can be abused anywhere, even in places where there is nominally no power hierarchy. Urras, meanwhile, is decadent and has grossly unequal wealth distribution, but they have animals (Shevek has scarcely ever seen any, as Anarres is virtually devoid of non-human life), and flowers (likewise), and variety. It’s an intensely thought-provoking book about almost every aspect of society. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s The Book of Not is a sequel to Nervous Conditions, which I read for my African Summer reading project. It starts with an almost unparsable sequence in which a human leg flies up into the air. We don’t know where we are, whose leg that is, why it’s happening, and our narrator, Tambu, give us little help for pages at a time. Her trauma and dissociation at the sight is channeled into this first chapter, where we’re as disoriented and confused as she is. It is in fact her sister Netsai’s leg, which has been blown off by a hidden land mine. Most of the book subsequently takes place at the Convent of the Most Sacred Heart, where Tambu is receiving a Western education, but that leg keeps cropping up in her mind at the most inappropriate of times, a sinister implication that the damage done to her psyche through that experience is profound. The Book of Not is an intensely frustrating read, in very large part because it is about an African girl’s total absorption of white colonialist values and priorities and her equally total inability to ever be “good enough”, to ever relax her guard or experience her emotions fully or let go of an oppressive and prejudiced standard that will run her, physically and mentally, into the ground before it gives her the approval that she craves. It makes her a craven and deeply unsympathetic character–she is selfish, she is strategic (but never strategic enough), she is merciless to herself, she inwardly sneers at other people–but also an extremely comprehensible one. The pain of The Book of Not is that nowhere in its pages does Tambu wake up and try a different strategy, not even when she leaves school for a job at an advertising agency where her ideas are stolen by her white coworkers. She quits that job eventually, in despair, but the book leaves her with no notion of how to move forward. There is a third installation in the series, This Mournable Body, which I’m almost afraid to read after the excoriating experience of being inside Tambu’s adolescent head. I may come back to it.

This week I also read Dr. Gwen Adshead’s The Devil You Know, about her experiences as a forensic psychiatrist. The hardback was marketed with a definite eye to true crime/sensationalist markets, but the paperback is rather more subtly designed with a colourful Rorschach-esque abstract blob, and I think that reflects the book’s contents better. Adshead is a thoughtful and compassionate chronicler of what can make a mind move beyond the bounds of what we consider normalcy, and she’s capable of illuminating human corners of sadness, terror, helplessness and loss even in the minds of people who have done appalling things. Her chapter on Ian, who sexually abused his two sons, springs to mind here, as does the opening chapter on Tony, who killed and dismembered several young men. Adshead is very open about the way therapists are trained and taught, including learning to pay attention to your own feelings within the consulting room and to treat any fear, revulsion or scorn you may feel initially towards a patient as an interesting artifact instead of an objective truth or a moral imperative. Although it’s cowritten with Eileen Horne, it doesn’t have the awkward sense of ventriloquism that seems to dog other cowritten professional memoirs–it all feels organic and as though Adshead’s voice is what we’re hearing throughout. Highly recommend this too, especially to people with interests in psychology, criminal justice, and/or the intersection of the two.

Sunday miscellany 13

We went to Yorkshire over the Jubilee weekend to visit my uncle and sort of also to avoid too much flag-waving (hooray for walks in the Dales!), but on the Friday we went to York, which contains at least three independent bookshops that always, always ensnare me. Fossgate Books happened to be open and had also apparently just bought a truly gigantic tranche of paperback classic fiction from one person; I’m guessing it was either an estate sale or a retirement downsizing. I scored four Turgenevs, Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph, Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtenay, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, and the one remaining Palliser novel I didn’t have in OWC paperback (Phineas Finn). Then I went to Minster Gate and bought remainder copies of Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower (I’d read the sequel already, out of order). Somehow got them all back in the same suitcase!

I’ve made a start on this pile with Home of the Gentry, by Ivan Turgenev, which is a very short and heartbreaking novel about a man (Lavretsky) who returns to Russia from abroad, his marriage having imploded thanks to his wife’s infidelity, and tries to find happiness with Liza, the pious and beautiful daughter of an old cousin. You could see it as sentimental, but I think you’d have to be heartless; there’s just so much delicacy in the treatment of hope, budding love, and eventual, terrible disappointment. Liza is particularly interesting—she reminds me a little of Dinah Morris, George Eliot’s female Methodist preacher in Adam Bede, in the way she derives dignity and power from her religious convictions.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders: Recommended to me by someone (Laura?) who thought I might like it after my Russian Spring, and lo! I did. Saunders teaches a course on the nineteenth-century Russian short story to students on Syracuse University’s creative writing MFA. The book takes seven of his favourite stories to teach, and teaches them to us. In the process, Saunders made me (I think) a better reader; he is a good reminder, particularly to those of us who look at literature through academic eyes, that returning to texts with technical, writerly spectacles on (what are the effects it achieves and how does it achieve them?) is most rewarding and illuminating. (Also, I have to read more stories from Chekhov and Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot” absolutely slew me, and Chekhov’s “In the Cart” is a perfect place to start the book.)

Easy Beauty, by Chloé Cooper Jones: Loved this, a memoir by a journalist and philosopher born with sacral agenesis (a medical condition where the pelvic bone hasn’t developed or hasn’t connected to the spine). She uses experiences of travel (to Italy, where she looks at art and goes to a Beyoncé gig; to report on Roger Federer and the Sundance Film Festival) to structure her examination of the ways in which her body challenges prevailing ideas about aesthetics and worth, and the trajectory of both her own feelings about herself and the differing ways she has presented herself to the world. I particularly liked her account of using her disability to get into more appropriate seating at the Beyoncé gig; it’s an extraordinary scene that bravely looks head on at questions of manipulation, communication, and social inaccessibility. Integration of her relationship with her husband and her desire to be there for her unexpected but much-loved son round the book off beautifully. Highly recommend.

Fantomina and Other Works, by Eliza Haywood: Read for the PhD (I’m hoping to write the next chapter on Haywood). Fantomina is the best-known of these texts (for a given value of “well known), in which a well-born but reckless and unsupervised young woman assumes a number of disguises, including that of a prostitute, in order to continue sleeping with a young man who seems to have tired of her. I am, obviously, looking at the prostitution part, the way that Haywood imbues her language with the vocabulary of commerce and the way in which Fantomina’s money is the only thing protecting her from genuine downfall into actual prostitution and social ostracism. Haywood flirts with prostitution and class in other parts of her oeuvre as well, including The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, a much longer and later novel which I’m trying to read at the British Library. Other texts reproduced in this volume include Reflections At the Tea-Table, which is fairly relevant, and Love Letters On All Occasions, which is less so, and less interesting (though having read it, I’d say it’s a great exemplar text to look at to see how the epistolary novel evolved—there are potential novel plots threaded throughout, they’re just not followed up on.)

Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga: My first book for the African Summer Reading Challenge! It follows thirteen-year-old Tambudzai through the early steps of her education, which is being financed by her English-educated uncle, Babamukuru (though only after her older brother Nhamo dies, freeing up the position of “investment child” for Tambu to step into). Written in 1988 but set in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) during the late ’60s and early ’70s, it places Tambu’s initial passive obedience to and acceptance of patriarchal, white supremacist, and Anglo-centric hierarchies in contrast to her cousin Nyasha. Nyasha has been raised in England, and her return to Rhodesia puts her in a position of cultural cognitive dissonance: the servile worship of her father by members of the family who are financially and socially reliant on his goodwill clashes with her awareness of Western/modern ideals of individual dignity. Eventually Nyasha becomes anorexic and the book closes with her admittance to the care of a white psychiatrist, while Tambu, increasingly resistant herself to a patriarchal system that considers her inferior and a racist neocolonial system that does the same, refuses to attend an event that her uncle has decreed will occur, and finds, a little to her surprise, that the world does not stop turning when she stops complying. Nervous Conditions (the title comes from a Frantz Fanon quote that also serves as epigraph: “the condition of the native is a nervous condition”) is the first book in a trilogy, and my only complaint about it might be that Tambu seems not to have made much headway in her personal development by the time the book ends; one suspects that volume two, The Book of Not, will contain much more in the way of overt rebellion and self-fashioning. That said, I’d very much like to read both that and the third volume, This Mournable Body, which came out only a few years ago.

Reading plans: an African summer

The Russian Spring was such a successful experiment that I am renewing it, and the people—through the medium of a Twitter poll—have spoken: my next themed reading challenge will be African Summer!

The rules, such as they are, remain the same: this is not intended to replace my TBR and proof piles, but to supplement them. I can’t buy any of these new. I have access to Senate House Library, the London Library, Birkbeck College library, Bromley local library, and now the British Library; it should be theoretically impossible for a book to remain unfindable. (If I feel dead set on a title and it’s not available somehow, I have given myself permission to check Abe Books for an un-costly secondhand copy.)

Since five titles with a reserve list of two turned out so well last time, I’m sticking with that again. My preliminary list is as follows:

  1. So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba (discussed here). One of the titles that came up repeatedly as I researched for this project. Written by a pioneering Senegalese author and feminist, it explores the sorrow of a woman over her husband’s death, and her ambivalent relationship with his second, younger wife.
  2. Petals of Blood, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (discussed here). I read his gigantic speculative novel Wizard of the Crow in the first lockdown and, rather unexpectedly, loved it. Petals of Blood is in a more realist mode, following a murder investigation in a small Kenyan town to reveal the corruption and greed of the government.
  3. A Question of Power, by Bessie Head (unfinished; discussed here). Sanity, mixed-race heritage and refugee/immigrant status (within Africa) are all in play in this short novel by an author born in South Africa but usually claimed by Botswana. It seems to take a lot of inspiration from psychoanalysis, and to have a very modern/-ist flavour. Edited to add: instead, I replaced this title with The Brave African Huntress by Amos Tutuola, also discussed here.
  4. Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga (discussed here). The modern classic about a young Zimbabwean woman’s education, and the ways in which it changes her. Really excited to get to this.
  5. Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz (discussed here). Mahfouz was a Nobel Prize-winner for this and its two sequels, which explore a tyrannical patriarch in pre-war Egypt. I like a family saga, especially when it’s skeptical about the characters it follows.

If I get through all of these, can’t find one and don’t want to buy it, or if there are problems of dullness or lack of interest with any of them, I have two alternates:

6. The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing. Disturbing, Faulknerian vision of racism and violence in apartheid South Africa. I’ve only read one Lessing—The Good Terrorist—and really would like to get some of her African fiction under my belt.

7. July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer. The Smaleses, a white family, are caught up in violence and taken for safety to the village of their servant, July. The shifting power dynamics are what appeal to me about this title, though I don’t know how much sympathy we’re expected to have for the Smaleses.

I’ll give myself until the end of August to have a crack at these. I’m also going to combine them with Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer, although I won’t make it to 20! Along with these five (or seven), I’m also going to re-read A Room with a View by EM Forster when I go to Florence in July, and read The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart when I go to Crete in the same month. That’s nine books that are set; I’m sure I’ll read more than that in two and a half months, but that’s enough commitment for now—everything else can be at whim.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them interest you? Where should I start?