Monday, February 06, 2017

My New Massey Course on the 1001 Nights

Bronwyn Lloyd: Arabian Nights bookcase (3/2/17)

In three weeks from now, my new paper 139.329: Advanced Fiction Writing will be starting at Massey Albany (where I teach), as well as in an extramural version for distance students.

The most innovative aspect of this course is that it's centred firmly on the Arabian Nights - or, rather, on the almost infinite variety of fictional techniques on display in that work (if it is a work, that is, rather than just an eclectic anthology of stories collected over the centuries by different compilers in different languages and cultures).

How exactly am I proposing to do that? Well, if you're curious, you could do worse than check out the following link to the (publicly available) course website: That will give you a pretty good overview. If you're really interested, of course, we're always open to new enrolments. (After all, as an old Linguistics Professor told the idealistic young J. R. R. Tolkien when he first arrived at university, "What is a university, lad? It's a factory. And what does it produce? It produces fees").

For those of you who are bit less passionate about the subject, I thought it might be best here to reprint a kind of q-&-a interview I did on the subject with the Canadian-Sikh Indian writer Jaspreet Singh when he came to stay with us a few months ago. He was particularly intrigued by the large bookcase full of all the different translations and versions of the collection which we have in our living room.

Given his upbringing in North India, in Kashmir and New Delhi, Jaspreet preferred to use the Persian form of the title, Hazar Afsaneh [Thousand Tales], rather than the more familiar Arabic Alf Layla wa Layla [One Thousand Nights and a Night].

Bronwyn Lloyd: Arabian Nights bookcase [close-up] (3/2/2017)

Hazaar Afsaneh [The Thousand Nights]:
An Interview by Jaspreet Singh

John W. MacDonald: Jaspreet Singh (2008)

[Jaspreet:] Who introduced you to Hazaar Afsaneh as a child? How old were you? Where were you based?
[Jack]: You know, it’s quite hard to say. I suppose it must have been my father. At any rate he was the one who bought the beautifully illustrated editions of Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor which I remember poring over with such attention. I still have one of them now:

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. Retold by Shirley Goulden. Illustrated by Maraja. London: W. H. Allen, 1964.
I suppose that puts it back well before the age of 10 or so. We were already in the house in Mairangi Bay. All my siblings were born and brought up there.

When did the Nights become an incurable obsession?
I think that they really took over – from being one of many other bookish interests – after I’d finished my PhD thesis and was utterly sick of the subject matter of said subject of study (books about South America in European literature). So that would put it around 1990: 25 years ago.

Ah, well, you make a good point. It was while I was in Tahiti, studying French, in 1978, at the age of 16, that I bought my first substantive copy of the Nights (or, rather, arranged to have it given to me as a birthday present: they’d bought me another book which I already owned, and offered to exchange it. I – somewhat cheekily, in retrospect – asked to be allowed to swap it for the two volume Classiques Garnier edition of Galland’s Mille et Une Nuits.) I read virtually every word of it in French, then, long before I owned it in English.

Do you have a name for the bookshelf? Hazaar Afsaneh (1000 Stories) bookshelf?

Bronwyn Lloyd: Glass-fronted bookcase (2/2/17)

Just the Arabian Nights bookshelf, I suppose. Before that they were scattered all over the place: the main ones in that glass-fronted bookshelf I inherited from my grandmother.

When exactly did you start seeing your growing collection as a separate bookshelf?
I suppose, probably, when I was living in Palmerston North in 1991. I already owned a number of editions in various languages, and the sheer bulk of them was beginning to make it difficult to house them.

Strange, the bookshelf is only a few meters away from the room where you first read 'Sindbad the Sailor' and 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves'!!! Talk a bit about this.
Yes that’s right. Of course, it’s true to say that if you stay in or around the same house for a very long time, it goes through a number of evolutions in your mind. That far-off house of my childhood is harder for me to remember than some of its more recent incarnations: the house my mother and father grew old in together, after all of us had left to the four corners of the globe.

Nevertheless, there is something strange about literally being in the same place – again. Comforting on the one hand, but also somewhat disconcerting. It doesn’t seem to fit with the peripatetic nature of the modern world.

Memory/Story of the 'last' book you acquired for the bookshelf? The first 3 books (now part of the bookshelf)?

I think that the latest book I inserted into the bookshelf (every one that goes in means that another one has to go out now) was a beautiful little copy of Dr J. C. Mardrus’s The Queen of Sheba: Translated into French from his own Arabic Text. Translated into English by E. Powys Mathers (London: The Casanova Society, n.d. [1924]). I bought it in the Browns Bay market (of all places!) Mardrus’s turn-of-the-century version of the Nights is – though wildly inaccurate – extremely entertaining, and the English translation of it is in some ways even more stylish than the original (Powys Mathers was a far better poet than Dr. Mardrus).

The first three books I got for this bookcase were, I would imagine:

  • Les Mille et Une Nuits: Contes arabes traduits par Galland. Trans. Antoine Galland. 12 vols. 1704-17. Ed. Gaston Picard. 2 vols. 1960. Paris: Garnier, 1975. (bought in Tahiti in 1978)

  • Burton's Translation (1885-88)

  • The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments. Trans. Richard F. Burton. 1885. Decorated with 1001 Illustrations by Valenti Angelo. 3 vols. New York: The Heritage Press, 1934. (bought in Auckland sometime in the early 80s)

  • Lane's Translation (1839-41)

  • The Thousand and One Nights; Commonly Called The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Trans. Edward William Lane. 3 vols. 1839-41. Ed. Edward Stanley Poole. 1859. London: Chatto, 1912. (the first two volumes I found in one shop; the other, a couple of years later, in another – the coincidence has always intrigued me …)

But is it really a 'book'? What kind of a book is the 1001 Nights?

It’s more the assertion of a book than an actual book. Certainly there was (or must have been) a Persian collection called the Hazar Afsaneh, which almost certainly predated Islam. It doesn’t survive, however. What does survive is a tiny scrap of manuscript from the ninth century AD, which seems to be part of a translation of the frame-story of the Nights – though probably not quite as we know it. After that there are various not-entirely-consistent references in Arabic reference books around the turn of the millennium, and finally the Galland ms. – a fourteenth-century, 3 vol manuscript of the (so-called) “Syrian” version of the Nights. This is the oldest extant text and was – interestingly – also the first one to be translated more-or-less in full.

After that, after the Nights had become the rage of 18th century Europe, the pressure to find a “complete” version of the collection became overwhelming. It was possibly in response to this that the (so-called) “Egyptian” text was put together – it’s also known as “ZER” ("Zotenberg’s Egyptian Recension”) after the scholar who first identified it. It was a version of this text which was first printed in Cairo in 1835, and it was a variant of it which was translated by Lane, Payne, and Burton, the three most significant English translators.

In other words, it has no identifiable author, dates from a variety of eras, originated in a language and tradition different from the one with which it’s now identified, and has an endlessly varied table of contents. All that really makes it a book is the central idea of Scheherazade telling stories for her life to the tyrannical King Shahryar. In other word, a fictional character constitutes its main authority for being (a little like the Bible, perhaps, which similarly rests its status as a book on the fiction of “divine inspiration”: i.e. having God as its author) …

Galland's Translation (1704-17)

Storytelling techniques?
These are very interesting, and repay much study. While it’s true to say that it’s more of a library than a single book, nevertheless the central core of stories already present in the Galland ms.: “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “The Porter and the three ladies of Baghdad,” and the “Tale of the Hunchback” establish a set of conventions which, while gradually adulterated in much of the rest of the collection, give us our notion of an “Arabian Nights tale.” The Chinese box effect of tale within tale within tale is part of it (what Todorov calls “l’homme récit”: the person who is the story they have to tell); also the supernatural atmosphere of magic and enchantment, particularly the ubiquitous presence of genies and magicians alongside scenes from everyday life; also the convention of Haroun Al-Rashid’s boredom, which leads him to undertake visits to the seedier quarters of his own city; also the highly eroticised encounters between beautiful youths and maidens; also the cliffhanger convention of ending each story at a dramatic point each morning in order to take the serial up the next night; also the highly ritualised and repetitive language employed to maintain our interest (there are hundreds of poems embedded in the stories, also: each one quoted by a character as a kind of reflection on the situation they find themselves in). Is that enough?

Djinn or Gin?
The French word génie, which Galland used to translate the Arabic word “Djinn” (plural “Djinni”) of course really means “spirit” – hence its use as a loanword in English for a “genius” (great spirit). “Gin” in the sense of a gin-trap, yes indeed: since once I fell into this particular pit I quickly realised there was no obvious way out. As for other kinds of gin, I’ve always been more of a wine and beer man myself …

Will your bookshelf continue to grow?
I’d like to say no, but I fear that the real answer is probably yes.

What is unique and unusual about this bookshelf? Books absolutely essential? Books you are proud of? Trophy books? Books you would like to add? Books you would like to discard? Books you have given away?
Books you have tossed aside? Thrown away?
Books you would like to steal?
Books others would like to steal from your collection?

I suppose I treasure most the books I’ve had longest: the 1934 3-volume “Heritage Press” edition of Burton; my first complete 16-volume set of Burton’s Nights, that French edition of Galland I bought in Tahiti almost 40 years ago.

Ideal Hazaar Afsaneh bookshelf?

Well, that would include a complete copy of John Payne’s 1882-89 translation as well as my complete Burton (1885-88). It would include Henry Torren’s 1938 attempt at a complete translation (which he abandoned after one volume). It would also include a copy of the 4-volume 1839 MacNaghten Arabic edition of the Nights, as well as the 1835 Bulaq edition. I’d also like a copy of Weber’s three-volume Tales of the East (1812).

What does your mother think about it? Your partner? What would your father say? Your ancestors?
I think they all think (or would think, in the case of those no longer with us) that I’m quite mad on the subject.

The mind, and impulses, of a collector?
Strange, certainly. One can contemplate the assemblage with perfect satisfaction without it having any appreciable contact with the rest of your life. If the whole thing suddenly disappeared, would one be any worse off?

Have you read your entire collection?
No, not really. There are many versions of the Nights I haven’t read, as well as a lot of the associated collections. I proceed by fits and starts.

The number of times you've read the Nights? When and where and how?
It took me a number of starts to get to the end of the Burton edition, and as I worked my way through some of the more arid regions of the 16 volumes, I think at times I was impelled only by the desire to prove Borges wrong (he said it was impossible to get to the end of that version).

For instance, is it possible to read Hazaar Afsaneh in the kitchen?
I question whether I could read any book in the kitchen.

Do you prefer reading during day or night?
I used to be able to read any time of the day or night. Now I only really read first thing in the morning, over coffee, and last thing at night, before going to sleep. Sometimes I have a bit of a read in the middle of the day, in the guise of a siesta.

Did someone ever read them aloud to you? Did you?
No, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really experienced that outside movies and audio books, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Illustrators of the nights?
There are so many! Edmund Dulac, Marc Chagall, Kay Nielsen, Maxfield Parrish, and – going back a bit – the beautiful illustrations of William Harvey from the original edition of Lane …

Edmund Dulac: Arabian Nights (1907)

Maxfield Parrish: Arabian Nights (1909)

Marc Chagall: Arabian Nights (1948)

William Narvey: Arabian Nights (1839-41)

Translations of the nights?
Translators of the nights?

Some swear by the German translator Littmann; others (Marina Warner, for example) by the 3-volume French Pléiade translation of Bencheikh and Gabrieli; some like Malcolm & Ursula Lyons recent complete Penguin translation; personally, my adherence is still to Burton, for all his eccentricities. Joseph Campbell was a great fan of John Payne’s translation. For sheer entertainment, I think I would read Powys Mathers’ English version of Dr. J. C. Mardrus’ belle infidèle turn-of-the-century French translation.

The Lyons' Translation (2008)

A landmark: indispensable, never to be superseded.

Talk a bit about your blog.
I put up the blog ["Scheherazade's Web"] because I couldn’t face the task of editing and reconciling all the various essays I’d written (and published, or read at conferences) about the Nights at various times into a single rational text. Instead, I just plonked them all online, together with a lot of the supplementary materials I’d collected. It seems to provoke a lot of correspondence from isolated Nights fanatics in far-off places.

Did the Nights inspire your own writing?

Jack Ross: EMO (2008)
Cover illustration: Emma Smith

It has had a certain influence, yes: one of my novels, EMO, has a character in it who has written a book about the Nights, said book being my own projected, half-written book about the Nights. It also comes up in quite a few short stories.

Do you recall ever dreaming about the 1001 Nights?
I’m not sure that I do, though I have had many dreams where I was in a second-hand bookshop making all sorts of amazing discoveries in the stacks …

Did you ever dream about your Hazaar Afsaneh bookshelf? About a paradisiacal library of sorts?
No, my dreams tend to be much more suffused by anxiety than that.

Borges and the Arabian Nights?
Well, I wrote an essay about that, as well as various other twentieth-century interpreters of the Nights (John Barth, Andras Hamori, Abdelfatto Kilito) – I even translated his poem on the subject (both are on the blog).

The whole world is within this bookshelf? Not W. G. Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn' but Jack Ross' 'Rings of Arabian Nights'?
In a sense, yes, though I’d hate to be condemned to read only the Arabian Nights for the rest of time. There are other stories, however all-encompassing this one collection has come to be.

Thoughts about Marina Warner? A. S. Byatt? Salman Rushdie?
All have been inspired by the Nights – none know quite so much about it as they think. Quite superficial thoughts about it keep on coming up again and again in their work. Rushdie, of course, has been more inspired by the Kathasaritsagara [Ocean of the Streams of Story] than by the Nights themselves. Warner failed to write the book she could have written on the subject. Byatt has done some nice, rather mannered, imitations of it.

Why are Non-Western books about the Nights not very popular in the West?
Interesting question. It’s true that Mahfouz and other Arabic novelists (especially female ones) who’ve been inspired by it are not widely read – but then, I’m not sure that any contemporary Arabic writing - most unjustly - is very much read in the West!

New Zealand Maori and Pakeha and the 1001 Nights?
I think that would be for Maori writers to say. If they see value in its structures and formulae, it would be very interesting to hear in just what way.

Do you recommend the Arabian Nights Encyclopedia?
Very much so. An indispensable work.

Freud, et al.?
I guess Freudian readings of the central Shahryar / Sharazad dilemma are pretty frequent and (some of them) pretty persuasive. But then I’ve always been rather a fan of Freud as a literary critic.

Edward Said, et al.?
He has little to say about it directly, but I imagine it would strike him as a particularly egregious piece of Orientalist clap-trap – in its larger cultural overtones, at least.

Future of Hazaar Afsaneh?
I think the Academic mill has only just begun to grind away at it. I hope they don’t succeed in crushing its appeal altogether.

Future of your bookshelf?
I like to fantasise about presenting it to some appreciative institution, but I doubt that will ever happen. Sooner or later, I fear, it will be dispersed into a second-hand bookshop somewhere and hopefully continue to fertilise and inspire future bookworms like myself …

Early Copies of Lane's Translation (1839-41)


Kay Nielsen: Scheherazade (1922)