While I was on my recent trip to France, I read The Arabian Nights. I also decided to take along Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion, thinking that a little literary criticism of a classic never hurts. I was expecting an exegesis of each story, or of groups of stories — classic textual criticism, perhaps analyzing themes or motifs — and that’s not what I got. But what I did get was just as interesting, if not more so, and very enlightening as I read Shahrazad’s light-hearted, ingenious, winding tales.
Irwin begins his book by giving a long history of the various translations of the Nights (not only into English — they were wildly popular in France, for instance.) He demonstrates the strong points and weaknesses of different translations, some of which were not translations at all, but pure inventions on the part of the author, who was often capitalizing on a fad for orientalism. Richard Burton’s translation, for instance, which is still widely read, is hugely exaggerated, especially in the areas of sexuality and race:
For instance, in the opening frame story, where, in the Arabic, Shahriyar’s wife gives herself to ‘a black slave’, in Burton this man becomes ‘a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight.’
While this made me laugh, it was also obviously a cautionary tale.
Irwin goes on to discuss the history of the text of the Alf Layla Wa-layla (The Thousand Nights and a Night) itself, following the Syrian branch, the Egyptian branch, and the many stories that were created after the original medieval text. There is a chapter on other long and significant story cycles from the time period that either contributed to the Arabian Nights or received stories from them (or both); these “oceans of stories” provide the literary pool in which many of today’s smaller fish swim.
Two of my favorite chapters were on the actual art of storytelling itself. Irwin gives the history of storytelling in the medieval Middle East: the social caste of storytellers, the prestige of poetry versus funny stories in cafés, street entertainment and the vital importance of storytelling at court. The notion that a largely oral culture (as all culture was, until very recently in the West) would have its own ideas about what sorts of stories were all right to tell and to listen to, and which were vaguely low or louche, was a novel idea to me, but of course it makes perfect sense.
There are chapters on the sexuality of the Nights, on tricksters and confidence men, on the marvelous and the wondrous. This last is actually one of the few chapters that didn’t work for me. Instead of analyzing the use of magic and wonder in the Nights, which is quite different from most Western use of magic, Irwin gives several examples of formalists’ attempts to codify the Nights into their framework of the fantastic, and shows why each one doesn’t work. I’d have preferred to see something that did. Though it is in this chapter that you find my favorite quotation: Irwin is describing a strange kind of Dewey Decimal system of the fantastic, as invented by Stith Thompson, in which each fantastic motif is assigned a number and letter. For instance, B is devoted to animals, B 0-99 to mythical animals, B 40 to bird-beasts; B 41.2 to the flying horse. Irwin says, in an aside:
It would be pleasant if something like The Motif-Index existed for the modern novel. Then we could look up entries like ‘N.P. (novel plot) Type A 493 Middle-Aged Adultery, 493a adultery of successful middle-aged man in Hampstead… see John Braine, Margaret Drabble….’
Perhaps my own favorite chapter of all is the last, “Children of the Nights.” Here, Irwin goes into great detail describing the influence of the Nights on later works, from the Canterbury Tales to Proust to Borges. This was really great fun to read, and even if the rest had been dry as dust (which it wasn’t), this part was worth the price of admission.
All in all, this book is a glorious patchwork. Reading it, I got the strong sense that there is far more to say about the Arabian Nights than could ever be covered in a dozen books, let alone one Companion. But this was a wonderful way to dip my toe in the ocean of story.