Sunday, May 16, 2010

Literature and Culture: 10 Literary Great Reads--Part I (# 1-5)


The inspiration for this post came from Souma’s at Chapter One, Top 10 Works of Literature I'll Definitely Have My Children Read. As I commented there, she has shared an impressive and eclectic list--one that reminds me that I am behind on my Margaret Atwood reading, and a few others too!

As someone who has always loved reading, and for whom literature has been a major aspect of life, it has been somewhat disconcerting to learn through blogs that although the literacy rate of the young in Saudi is high, love of reading is not. Or at least it seems that most favour other past times than reading books for pleasure and expansion of one's horizons. "My Saudis" seem well read and avid readers. Perhaps this aversion to reading is a blogospheric myth?

Great literature usually comes from a very culturally specific text that has universal resonance and appeal artistically and thematically. It stands the tests of re-reading, of age at which one reads it, and of socio-cultural time. While there is no doubt that what is considered a classic is partly a question of dominant cultures and world powers, one of the wonderful, in literary terms, aspects of post-colonialism is an embarrassment of riches from former colonies written in European languages, or as the title of a book of academic papers on Post-Colonial writing states: "The Empire Writes Back".


Also, literary scholars have deliberately endeavoured, through research, publication, teaching, editing and presenting, to broaden the canon of classical or academically studied works to include those of major non-Western cultures, minority cultures, indigenous peoples, women, GLBTQ authors, the disabled [sic], etc--ie not just “dead white guys”. For indeed the traditional canon of “great literary works” has usually been set by white guys in ivory towers eulogizing their dead brethren, or forefathers. This is lamentable in that much great literature is thus unknown, or overlooked. As literature is one valid lens through with to understand a culture, this is a greater loss to those who search for a more nuanced understanding of a culture's underpinnings and current challenges.

The literary greats listed below include ones I have read in depth and multiple times at different life stages, ones I read only extracts from, and ones I am aware of in terms of literary theory and criticism but haven’t read at all--yet! Of course, knowing me, you realized this couldn’t just be a list, it has to be an annotated, pictified list! And of course it grew too long for just one post, so #1-5 are here, and #6-10 follow on in a second post.

1) Don Quixote--Cervantes
2) A la recherche du temps perdu--Proust
3) La divina commedia--Dante
4) One Thousand and One Nights
5) Romeo and Juliet--Shakespeare

My list is one of personal favourites, or “to be reads”, of high calibre in no particular order. Most are not contemporary, but as great works, they resonate through contemporary literature and the arts in their cultures of origin, and because of their impact, internationally. The list is all too short, but sufficient for now. Arab literature is relatively absent, except indirectly and as represented in some, because it deserves a post (or more than one) of its own!

1) Don Quixote--Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) is one of the more adventuresome writers, and one who gives hope to late bloomers. A soldier, a captive, a purveyor for the Navy, then a tax collector, and a jail inmate (for irregularities in the receipts from his tax collection), Cervantes was 38 when he published his first work, La Galatea, 58 when he enjoyed success, and 60-67 when he was most prolific, publishing Novelas Ejemplares (1613), Viaje al Parnaso (1614), Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses (1615), and the second part of Don Quixote (1615) during that period before his death.


Battle of Lepanto, Paolo Veronese
This battle is considered to be one of the greatest naval victories to date,
and a turning point in relations between the West and the Middle East,
in a religiously tinged power struggle which is ongoing

As a young man, in 1570, Cervantes may have joined the military under dubious conditions, but he acquitted himself well in his chose career path, one of few conduits to success, the military (the priesthood being another). A member of an elite infantry fighting unit with the Spanish Navy, or Infantería de Marina, Cervantes fought bravely in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a decisive naval battle won by the Christian alliance of the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire, which opened the Mediterranean to Western dominance. Already feverishly ill when he insisted on going into battle, Cervantes was shot 3 times, one bullet forever crippling his left arm. These injuries kept him out of battle for 6 months but between 1572 and 1575 he participated in a number of campaigns against the Turkish forces, notably in the Fall of Tunis (to the Turks).

In 1575 he was sailing from his base in Naples to Barcelona with letters of recommendation for service to the King, when he was captured and held for 5 years as a slave in Algiers. After 4 unsuccessful escape attempts, his family, with the help of a holy order, the Trinitiarians, one dedicated to preaching the Trinity and to converting non-Christians, was able to ransom him and return him to Madrid. The years as a slave and captive marked Cervantes' writing in fictionalized form, in various ways and episodes within works, but most markedly in the Captive's tale in Don Quixote, in the play El Trato de Argel, and in another, Los Baños de Argel(The Treaty of Algiers, and The Baths of Algiers, respectively).

The Embarcation of Moriscos in Valencia, Pere Oromig, 
represents the expulsion of moriscos from Spain in 1609 from Valencia and in 1614 from Castille

Cervantes' interest to readers here may also lie in the current scholarly debate over whether he was not the "Old Christian" he was thought to be, that is a Spaniard descended from those who remained Christian even during the Muslim Conquest of  Spain (roughly 800-1500), but rather the son of a conversa, a mother converted recently from Islam to Christianity. In the pre-Enlightenment era of Cervantes, just after the completion of the Reconquista, the dominance of the Catholic Monarchs over all of Spain, and the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition to determine loyalties,  religious affiliation and origins were all important. Some scholars believe this descent from a morisca (a New Christian of Moorish origins), with its attendant connotations of  "unclean bloodlines" and suspicions of apostasy (away from Christianity) or hidden ongoing Islamic belief and practices, accounts for some of the mysteries and unexplained episodes in Cervantes' biography.

Expulsion of the Moriscos

This idea that Cervantes was a descendant of maternal New Christian Moriscos has been raised in part to explain, and in part because of, his sympathetic portrayal of Moriscos in Don Quixote, and in one of the Novelas Ejemplares, "The Conversation of the Two Dogs". The first part of Don Quixote was written before the expulsion and includes a Morisco character who translates a supposed Arabic history text, which Cervantes claims to publish. Cide Hamete Benengeli, Lord Hamid Aubergine-Eater, is supposedly the author in Arabic of the history of the adventures of Don Quixote, which Cervantes has found, had translated and publishes as the Don Quixote the reader is currently enjoying.
A sample of aljamiado writing, Spanish written in Arabic script with some Arabic expressions

The second part of Don Quixote was written after the edicts against Moorish clothing, the enserfment of Moors, the forced conversions, forced name changes, forced Christian education for children, and the ultimate expulsions. The Morisco character Ricote is a wealthy shop owner, and old friend of Sancho Panza, whom the Knight and his squire meet as he returns from exile in Germany. Since his family were exiled to Algiers, Ricote attempts not only to recover his treasure left behind in Spain, but to reunite with them. Unlike himself, his daughter is a genuinely devout Christian, and is the key to the Ricote family being allowed to remain in Spain. Still, what Ricote lacks in piety, he makes up for in honesty about it.

"El colloquio de los perros" or "The Conversation of the Two Dogs" from the Novelas Ejemplares or The Exemplary Novels (actually a collection of short stories) is a dream sequence of one of the main characters in another of the short stories. In that story "El casamiento engañoso" ("The Deceitful Wedding"), a bride has duped her groom out of his wealth, and he now lies delirious in his hospital bed, dreaming of a conversation between 2 dogs who share their observations on human society, with an emphasis on its foibles and hypocrisy, including towards Moriscos. As so often, Cervantes uses satire and the artistry of his narration to critique fundamental concepts of his society.

Though later eclipsed by the 17th century Golden Age Spanish playwrights, Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina, Cervantes was an accomplished playwright. Similarly, his own prose writings have eclipsed his poetry. Along with Don Quixote, the prose writings include the Novelas Ejemplares, a collection of short stories often considered his best work aside from the great novel, though others argue that the Ocho Entremeses (Eight Farces) deserve that honour.

Bronze sculptures of the knight Don Quixote, and his squire Sancho Panza,
in the Plaza de España, Madrid

There is no doubt however that Don Quixote is Cervantes greatest work, and one of the greatest works of literature. Part I introduces the 50ish Alonso Quixano, a retired gentleman who reads too many courtly love novels, ignoring sleep and food, until he falls into a madness, thinking himself a knight named Don Quixote de la Mancha, taking his servant Sancho Panza as his squire, the neighbour farm girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, as his Lady Love and muse, renaming her Dulcinea del Toboso, and sets off on his skinny old horse, now a steed named Rocinante, to deserve her adoration by fighting battles of good over evil.

In 2 separate quests he has numerous adventures, mostly of a farcical nature, and is humoured in his follies by the panorama of society. However, his habits of challenging violently imaginary wrong-doers, or at least intervening where not wanted, of not paying his debts, and of generally causing mischief means that he is taken to task and punished. When he is returned to his home at the end of the first quest, he convinces Sancho Panza to accompany him on his escape, and the 2 set off again, most famously to tilt at windmills. Though at times beaten, humiliated or captive, Don Quixote remains undefeated in his delusion of being a courtly knight.

Part II of Don Quixote was, in fact, published 10 years later as a sequel to the successful Part I. It initially maintains the artifice of El Quixote and his squire basking in the fame of their published adventures, yet takes on an aspect of more philosophical inquiry into the nature of deceit and madness, than the more farcical Part I. Humour is again used in a variety of types and techniques, but this time El Quixote is the butt of attempts to both deceive him and to put him straight about his identity. Ultimately both endeavours result in him slipping into a profound melancholic state, from which no one can rouse him. He dies, perfectly sane, but a broken man. In a much larger more complex literary fresco, this echoes some of the themes of  one of the Novelas Ejemplares, "El licenciado vidriera" ("The Glass Graduate").

El Quixote, Salvador Dali

The power of Don Quixote is not only in the tales told, but in the telling. Primary techniques are those of humour (punning, rhyming, irony, satire, farce, inversions, mock heroic) and of embedded stories (tales within tales). While ostensibly a picaresque novel, in fact this novel challenges that genre, and satirizes it and the society that supports it. Two aspects of characterization were particularly innovative: including ordinary members of society as major characters; and, developing the humanity of the main characters, rather than recapitulating the customary stock attributes of Medieval literature. El Quixote helped to codify and disseminate the politically dominant Spanish language, el Castellano, over regional dialects.

The impact of Don Quixote on world literature and culture has been immense, and is ongoing. Among my favourite authors who have been inspired by this great work are Borges, Dumas, Flaubert (Madame Bovary), and Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac). Others are Dickens, Greene, Kundera, and Rushdie. Philosopher Michel Foucault's L'ordre des choses (The Order of Things) is a favourite theoretical work of mine, and uses the novel Don Quixote extensively.

Don Quijote, Francisco Goya 

El Quixote has been an inspiration not only for book illustrators but for major artists from Goya to Picasso, and beyond, most famously Gustave Doré, Honoré Daumier, and Salvador Dalí. Orchestral composers (Strauss, Mendelssohn, Ravel), opera composers (Massenet, de Falla), ballet choreographers (Minkus, Gorky, Balanchine, Nureyev), and filmmakers (Roehmer, Yates, Gilliam) have also represented this great picaresque or pseudo-picaresque novel. Most recently (2010) British band Cold Play has introduced the song "Don Quixote (Spanish Rain)" on their Latin American tour.

El Quixote, Pablo Picasso

A fitting honour to the impact of Cervantes, both the Spanish government non-profit cultural institute and the largest Spanish digital library were named after him. The Instituto Cervantes, analogous to the British Council, or the Alliance Française, is an international centre with branches in 20 countries, which advises the government on pedagogical matters of Spanish language teaching, and provides language, literature, and cultural courses and events to hispanophiles throughout the world. It also maintains the Centro Virtual Cervantes online, an outstanding resource for materials on teaching, literature, language, the arts, and the sciences, aimed at professors, students, journalists, researchers, and hispanophiles.

The Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes (BVMC) or Miguel de Cervantes Virtual Library is "the largest open-access repository of digitised Spanish-language historical texts and literature from the Ibero-American world", now at greater than 22,000 works.

Honoré Daumier, Don Quichotte

2) A la recherche du temps perdu--Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) is a 7 volume novel (9 volume if one counts the double volumes of 2 of the main volumes) with more than 2000 characters, 1.5 million words, and running between 3000-4500 pages total (depending on the edition and language). These are pages of rich poetic prose dense with allusions linguistic, literary, philosophical, and societal. As my French literature professor said, with a modicum only of exaggeration, "It should take you an hour to read each page". Indeed, one could easily spend an hour analyzing while reading and absorbing each page.

Or, one could join in the young Marcel's enthusiasm for life, and just say "Zut! Zut! Zut!" while admiring the wild roses, savouring a madeleine (a certain type of sweet biscuit, or cookie), or exploring each of the paths leading in opposite directions from the family home in Combray. I have read, studied, and written on A la recherche du temps perdu for courses, exams, essays, and articles, and also enjoyed reading it on the beach, or in a crowded ski lodge (waiting for the "downhill people" who shall remain nameless).

Galley Proof of Du côté de chez Swann, note the original meaning of "cut and paste"

While ostensibly linear in its chronology, from Marcel's late childhood, through adolescence, and young adulthood, the novel is far more synchronous and cyclical, as in philosopher Henri Bergson's theory of time, which Proust knew and deliberately incorporated. Theories of perception, sensation, cognition, memory, and knowledge are all integrated in a fascinating tableau of life in the upper classes. Published over a number of years from 1913-1927, unlike in the 19th century novels from which it deliberately sets itself apart, a narrative choice which helped revolutionize the 20th century novel, in A la recherche du temps perdu exploring multiple perspectives and voices on the same event is more important than plot and episodic narration.

Psychoanalysts have a field day with Marcel's devotion to his mother, the impact on development and imagination of being a sickly child, and his suppressed (not repressed) homosexuality. Add in that the protagonist's first name matches that of the author, and that the novel is semi-autobiographical, or fictionalized autobiography (scholarly wars are waged over less obvious distinctions), and the gifts to the psychologically minded literary scholar keep on giving.

My own interest is in the literary technique and philosophy of the novel, so I am free to just roll my eyes when character after character is revealed to be gay or lesbian--all except Marcel that is. In focusing on form and theoretical underpinnings one never is at a loss either. Others enjoy the antics of the wealthy and well-connected, and search for the named society members and those barely hidden behind pseudonyms.

Robert de Montesquieu, the inspiration for the character Baron de Charlus

Indeed, the novel abounds with insightful observations of human behaviour around social, gender, and sexual relations. While it is a staple of GLBTQ literary theory and criticism, much of the novel deals with attraction between the (hetero-) sexes, at various ages and stages of life, and across social strata. There is no doubt, however, that it also explores homosexuality of both men and women, and normalizes it. The best and the most beautiful are same-sex oriented.  Much as in the novel Marcel is SHOCKED to learn that his best friend Robert de Saint-Loup is gay, and even his beloved Albertine is a lesbian, Proust never during his lifetime revealed his homosexuality to family or publicly, except for a very close circle of friends. Posthumously, his friend and editor André Gide did, however.

Proust at the centre back

Marcel Proust (1871-1922) lived during a time of rapid change in Paris, in France, and in the world. His earliest years were marked by the end of the Franco-Prussian War, and its attendant geographical (Alsace- Lorraine went back to Prussia) and governmental changes (the Third Republic was born). He was a young man for the exuberance of the fin-de-siècle and the Belle Epoque; and, his publishing career coincided with WWI and its aftermath (the last 3 volumes were published posthumously, with final edits by his brother Robert).


The aristocracy was in decline, and the upper bourgeoisie ascendant. Proust made no efforts to hide his snobbery and social climbing, seeking to frequent the best salons, and the most famous socialites, male and female. Even his writing suffered from his time spent in social pursuits, until his brother Robert married and left home, his father, Achille Adrian Proust, a famous physician and public health specialist, died (both events in 1903), and his beloved mother, Jeanne Clémence Weil, an Alsacian Jewess from a wealthy and cultured family, died in 1905. He himself suffered from deteriorating health, and used his maternal inheritence to finance his retreat from the world into the world of his writing. He began his opus in 1909 and continued working on it until his death in 1922.

Achille Adrian Proust, and Robert Proust, Marcel's father and brother

Proust had been a "sickly" child, since suffering his first asthma attack at 9. Although he was often home ill, he did extremely well academically, particularly in literature. He spent time between his home and that of his grandparents in Iliers, both homes contributing to the fictitious one in the fictitious village of Combray. Similarly his summers taking the waters at Cabourg became the summers at Brabant that he writes about. He did his military service, which became part of one volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, and then joined the social and literary scenes in Paris which permeate much of the novel.


Though it is often said that he didn't work, he took a position just long enough to gain a sick leave pension, and worked in editing, journalism, translating and writing for literary and cultural venues in Paris. He moved in the best circles, and kept his homosexuality strictly out of the society columns, including his own. Years after retreating home to write, Proust died of respiratory ailments: pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess. The last 3 volumes of his masterwork were edited by his brother Robert, and published posthumously.


It is hard to overestimate how thoroughly A la recherche du temps perdu pushed literature from the 19th into the 20th century. Not only did its publication coincide with the cultural watershed WWI, but its impact was felt post-WWII in the nouveau roman or New Novel, which began in France and spread to other national literatures. The novel deals in a non-linear way with the theme of memory, using multiple flashbacks, as well as detailed description of the process of remembering, as in the famous scene of the taste of a madeleine. It also expands at leisure on theories of art, on the role of the artist in society, and on artistic temperament--self-reflexive themes characteristic of  the 20th century novel. Psychological insights into the inner feelings and workings of a character's mind, and the subtleties of interpersonal interactions in society further characterize both this novel, and those inspired by it. Technically the use of highly poetic prose, and interior monologue stand out, and were much imitated.


Specific volumes of the novel have been produced as a play or a film, most often Swann in Love (Un Amour de Swann) a 1984 film, among others; but also the whole work much abridged, as in Harold Pinter's Remembrance of Things Past (play, 2000), and other volumes, like the 1999 French film,Le temps retrouvé, which premiered at Cannes. Most significantly for English language readers and for scholars, a new full translation into English was published in 1992 by The Modern Library--the current definitive English edition.

Manuscript copy of the final page of the final volume

3) La divina commedia--Dante Alighieri

A painting of Dante, and the rings of Hell, in a larger work on Florence, by Michelino

I first became aware of, and read, La divina commedia, as a high school student called upon to help my mother by dictating for her Italian language courses, and noting the Italian literature books on the study table. I should say that, at the time, my Latin was good enough, and my French sufficient, with just enough Italian (from dictating vocabulary lists and reading the grammar beside them) to get through the Inferno. The other 2 parts, Purgatorio and Paradiso, I am more aware of from literary studies. My mother also shared her essay ups and downs, course options, and favourites--Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Pirandello, Verga--and dislikes--I promisi sposiand I promisi sposi andI promisi sposi (it is a looooong 19th century novel usually translated as The Betrothed), giving me a rather broader knowledge of Italian literature than someone who has never studied it would normally have.

1337 manuscript of the opening of La Divina Commedia

Beatrice "Bice" di Folco Portinari (1266–1290), was the great "courtly love" (a form of love from afar expressed in Medieval literature) of Dante's life. He saw her at a May Day party at her home when he was 9, and she 8. He fell in love at first sight. However, he was contracted in marriage at age 12 to Gemma di Manetto Donati, as was customary at the time. Beatrice was married to a banker at 21, and died at 24.

Nonetheless, throughout his life, it was Beatrice who was Dante's muse, inspired his collection of love poetry, La vita nuova, and was his guide in the third part of the Divine Comedy, Paradise, because as a pagan the poet Virgil, who had guided him through Hell and Purgatory, could not enter. The beatification of love could, however. She was later idealized not only in Dante's work, but in that of the Pre-Raphaelites.

 Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (1863) 

Pre-Raphaelite Henry Holiday's Dante and Beatrice (1883)

As well as a poet, Dante was a statesman from a prominent family, and well entrenched in Florence's warring factions, on the side of the Guelphs, those supporting the Pope, against the Ghibellines, those supporting the Holy Roman Empire. As an active participant in political affairs, and quarrels, Dante was ultimately exiled from Florence when a different faction within the Guelphs took power. It is thought that he lived in various cities of Italy; and, free of the strife in Florence, deepened his knowledge of literature and philosophy. All of this, his biography, his peers, his knowledge and sensitivities, shows in the Divine Comedy, which is replete with historical and contemporary, literary, artistic, philosophical, and theological references.

Dante, painted during his life time by Giotto, in the chapel of the Bargello Palace, Florence

The basic structure of the Divine Comedy is that of a journey. Virgil accompanies Dante through Hell and Purgatory, then Beatrice accompanies him through Heaven. Within that structure of a journey are descriptions and explications of Antiquity, then the Middle Ages, and the tenets of philosophy and theology contemporaneous to Dante. Most readers here are familiar with the idea of the 9 circles of Hell, each of which has a special punishment for a certain type of sinner.

Infamously for Christian-Muslim relations, Dante expresses the Medieval Christian view of  the Prophet Mohamed as one of the Malicious sinners, specifically found in the 8th circle of Hell reserved for Fraudsters, and very specifically within that, in the 9th bolge or ditch (of 10) as a schismatic among the "sowers of discord". For the Medieval Christian world, the Prophet Mohamed had caused a schism within Christianity, by creating Islam as an offshoot. Ali is also there, with the Prophet Mohamed, to be punished for causing the schism of Sunni vs Shi'a.  The punishment consists of being hacked at with swords, being split, as they have split others. Yet the wounds heal, and the devil wielding the sword strikes again--perpetually.

Portrait of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), by Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510)

This view of Islam was typical of the time, and part of what contributed to the religious motivations for the Crusades (which were also motivated by a number of other political, demographic, and economic factors). Dante's work, for all its brilliance, was a product of its time, and did help to perpetuate these ideas. One might argue that the core structure of this view continues to today, though in much modified form in the details.

Ironically, scholars have shown that Dante would have been familiar with Muslim scholarship of the time, and with Islamic theology, which has influenced his own conceptualization of  Heaven and Hell. While there is debate over which texts in particular he might have been familiar with or read, in general there is agreement that he incorporated elements of Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, in his own world view and theology as expressed in the Divine Comedy. Certainly some of the Christian theologians he was reading were marked by their interactions with the courts and centres of learning in Muslim Spain. Still, Dante's view of Islam as expressed overtly in the Inferno adhered to his religious roots in the pro-Papist, Roman Catholic faction of Florentine politics, and in Medieval Christianity.

More happily, Dante's La divina commedia promoted "Italian" rather than Latin as a language fit for high literary purpose. Dante's language in his epic poem is a combination of Latin and the Tuscan dialect of Florence. To this day. more modernized Tuscan Italian predominates among the dialects of Italy (unified in 1867 as a country from the pre-existing city states), and Tuscan culture is held in high regard. Most happily, the artistry within the poetry of the Divine Comedy has been a driving force for Italian literature since. The "Father of the Italian Language" is also the "Supreme Poet", and one of the "3 Crowns" or "3 Fountains" of Italian literature--along with Boccaccio and Petrarch. Unlike Dante himself, they had an immense direct impact on English literature of the High Middle Ages (Chaucer) and the Renaissance (Shakespeare), in particular.

Beatrice and Dante in Paradise

4) One Thousand and One Nights
(Arabic: كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎ Kitāb 'alf layla wa-layla; Persian: هزار و یک شب Hezār-o yek šab)


One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, is in fact a collection of literary stories and folktales from throughout MENA, originally in both antique and medieval Arabic, Egyptian (Coptic) and Persian, with some of them, particularly the Persian ones, influenced by Indian (Sanskrit) sources. The original collection in  Arabic dates from the 14th century but the grouping was in place since the 9th, though changing over time and place. What gives the Nights cohesion as a single work is the frame tale, the one that opens and closes the collection, and which is a Persian one. It tells the story of Scheherazade, a beautiful virgin and the Vizier's daughter, who offers to marry the King Shahryar--a man who, after discovering his wife's infidelity, has married one by one all the virgins in the land, having them killed the morning after the consummation of the marriage. Her offer is in order to spare her father, who as Vizier is required to produce the virgins, of whom there are none left in the kingdom, save his own daughter. Scheherazade stays alive by telling enchanting stories each night, and ending in suspense with the beginning of a new one, such that her execution is postponed; she remains alive to tell another story that night to save her life again. In different versions the details vary, but in all versions Scheherazade is eventually pardoned.

Henri Matisse, 1001 nuits, "Elle vit apparaître le matin, elle se tut discrètement" [She saw morning arrive, she discretely said no more]

Within this frame tale, the other stories are told. Some themselves are frame tales; some are even embedded in multiple frames. This structure in itself has made the 1001 Nights a rich source of narrative study and literary scholarship. Add in that the tales are a compendium of literary and folkloric tales from a broad region over a broad period of time, and there is further historical and ethnographic interest. Some stories are essentially fairy tales, some are histories, whodunits, satires, or self-parodies; some include discussions of nuances of Islamic philosphy, or recountings of the state of contemporary science. In this way the reader, like the King, remains curious, and the scholar continues mining a rich vein.


Contemporary Muslim feminists have taken up the metaphor and revindicated Scheherazade as a self-empowering woman. In Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, Moroccan feminist sociologist Fatema Mernissi invents 2 male characters to explain the male perspective on Western women to the female narrator--a plot device to make the reader more receptive to what they say. Overall, Mernissi exposes the similarities and differences while explaining Islamic gender politics, and Western ones cross-culturally.

The number 1001 is a general indicator of a large, open-ended collection, a way of keeping the idea of infinity a possibility. Some editions of One Thousand and One Nights have far fewer than 1001, some 1001, and some more. 9 stories are at the core, that is, common to all, and the rest vary from one edition to the next. Ironically, some of the most beloved folktales and children's stories thought to be from the Nights, are in fact independent, but were included by European translators: "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp", "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor".


Like other great literary works, the Arabian Nights have inspired and influenced many great writers from diverse national and period literary traditions. They include some of my favourites: Barth, Borges, Byatt, Calvino, Flaubert, Mahfouz, Perec, Stendhal, Thackeray, Tolstoy, and Yeats. Film versions and influences range from Pier Paolo Pasolini's high art Il fiore delle Mille e una notte [The Flower of the One Thousand and One Nights], winner of the 1974 Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prix Spécial, to Disney's commercial art Aladdin.

Musical compositions deriving from the tales or inspired by them include Russian Rimsky Korsakov's 1888 Scheherazade Op. 35,  Maurice Ravel's Shéhérazade, numerous operettas and musicals, and a surprising (to me) plethora among metal bands of various types from various countries,  "Nights of Arabia" by power metal band Kamelot, "Sahara" by Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish, and  Ebony Horse, an Australian metalcore band which named itself after the "Tale of the Ebony Horse". There is also, of course,  the famous maqam (a form of  Arabic music) sung by Oum Kalthoum:

Oum Kalthoum, "Alf Leila wa Leila" ام كلثوم : الف ليلة و ليلة

5) Romeo and Juliet--Shakespeare

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, 14 and 16 respectively at the time of filming
Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Oscar-winning Romeo and Juliet
Act I scene v
ROMEO [To JULIET.]
93 If I profane with my unworthiest hand 
94 This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this: 
95 My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand 
96 To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
       JULIET 
97 Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, 
98 Which mannerly devotion shows in this; 
99 For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch, 
100 And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
       ROMEO 
101 Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
       JULIET 
102 Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
       ROMEO 
103 O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; 
104 They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
       JULIET 
105 Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

Act I scene v
ROMEO
106 Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
[Kisses her.]
107 Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
JULIET
108 Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
ROMEO
109 Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
110 Give me my sin again.
[Kisses her.]
JULIET
110 You kiss by th' book.

Officially and religiously married, and the marriage consummated (otherwise it could be annulled),
 but not yet socially recognized; and, Romeo has been banished from Verona, until a pardon is issued, and permission to return given

One of Shakespeare's earliest plays (written and revised 1591-5), Romeo and Juliet is also one of the simplest yet most beautiful poetically, and reprises a universal theme of art and life: "star cross'd lovers", those whose families prevent their marriage. It is often taught in high school, which corresponds to the ages of the protagonists, and, in most families, to restrictions on romantic activities and partners.

The play seems so familiar that it seems hardly worth reviewing, but in fact it is much richer than the key scenes and bare plot lines which are a commonplace. The opening street brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues is counterbalanced by Romeo Montague's melancholy at his impossible love for Rosaline Capulet. He is persuaded to attend a masquerade ball at the home of Capulets, where instead of Rosaline he meets and is smitten by Juliet Capulet. They cautiously with metaphor and chaste gestures establish their mutual attraction, leading to the ardour of the famous balcony scene later that night, then a secret Church marriage the next day officiated by Friar Lawrence.

However, in addition to the longstanding hostilities between the 2 families, Juliet, still only 13, is being pressured to accept a 2 year courtship with Count Paris, and then wed at 15--quite impossible. Meanwhile, her cousin Tybalt sees Romeo on the street, the same day as the Church marriage, and, angry that he attended the Capulet ball, challenges him to a fight. Romeo refuses, though doesn't say it is because they are now kin. His friend Mercutio steps in, and is killed by Tybalt, whereupon Romeo picks up a sword and kills Tybalt. The Prince exiles Romeo, never to return, on pain of death. Before departing, Romeo spends the night with his bride Juliet, and they consummate the marriage (in Catholicism, unless a marriage is consummated, it can be annulled, as if it never happened).

Juliet, whose marriage to Count Paris has been moved up to the following day, seeks the help of Friar Laurence. His plan is for Juliet to take a drug that will fake her death, freeing her to join Romeo. Unfortunately, Romeo does not learn of the plan, but only of her "death", and, grief stricken, visits her lain in the family crypt. There he encounters Count Paris, who attacks him as an intruder, and whom he kills. Despairing, Romeo drinks poison. Wakening to find him dead, Juliet stabs herself to death. In the face of this tragedy, the 2 families end their feud.

Within this framework, Shakespeare experiments with sonnets, blank verse, humour, juxtaposition of farce and tragedy, and the light and shades of love. It is a play which has become iconic in theatre, art, music, and dance. Famously, West Side Story, and then Michael Jackson's Thriller reprise the story, which was itself derived from the earlier 15th century Italian novella Giulietta e Romeo, and is part of a corpus of similar tales since antiquity: Pyramus and Thisbe, Troilus and Cressida, Hero and Leander.

Romeo and Juliet, (1968, Franco Zeffirelli), Part 1 of 15
Warning: Like all directors, Zeffirelli altered the standard Shakespeare text;
you cannot watch instead of reading for your exam or essay :)


In Arab literature, the Virgin Love genre (Arabic: حب عذري), best exemplified by Layla and Majnoon, tells similar stories, but the love is either unrequited or unconsummated. This particular Arab story is based on the real one of Qays ibn al-Mulawwah (Arabic: قيس بن الملوح‎), a young man from the northern Arabian Peninsula in love with Layla. When her father refused to marry them he went mad, and became known as Majnoon (Lunatic) or Majnoon-e-Layla (Layla's Lunatic). Other literary works in the Virgin Love genre are "Qays and Lubna", "Kuthair and Azza", "Marwa and Al Majnoun Al Faransi" and "Antara and Abla".

Majnoon in the Wilderness

What literary greats (read, or to be read) do you recommend?
A strong preference for an unreliable narrator like that of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw?
A fan of Balzac's Human Comedy? Zola' Rougon Macquart series? or a Stendhalian?
Enjoy walking with Yeats through the Lake District, stopping to view ”The Wild Swans at Coole”?Novels, plays, or poetry?
Like the staccato prose and manly action in Hemingway?
Favour John Steinbeck's social activism in The Grapes of Wrath; or Of Mice and Men?
Prefer light reads? Which ones?

What is your view of the relationship between literature and culture? between literature and cross-cultural understanding?
What have been your experiences with that aspect of literature and reading?
What are your impressions, from reading the post, of the portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the works of Cervantes and Dante?
What is the impact of such representations on modern mindsets?
What strikes you most about A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time? Why?
How does the 1001 Nights continue to influence contemporary impressions of Arabs and male-female relationships in the Middle East?
Do you agree that Scheherazade should be a feminist icon?
Does the refusal of parental permission, the legal inability to live in the same city, and the family discord of Romeo and Juliet sound familiar? How?
What about contracting engagements at young ages for later marriages? Solving a problem by marrying someone off?

Is it true that Saudis only read for school, and few have a genuine love of reading?
If so, why?
What should/could be done about it, or not?
If not true, how is this idea given credence and spread?

Any other comments, thoughts, recommendations?

Costume sketches for Don Quixote's courtly love, Dulcinea

Ah, I see my quest for a list was quixotic. No matter, coming soon... Part II (#6-10)!

Dulcinea

16 comments:

Qusay said...

If this is part one, then I can't wait for the others :)

I did not know spanish was ever written with arabic letters before.

Wendy said...

Chiara, it's a lovely list. I must admit that I am an avid reader but much prefer contemporary novels and am very pleased to see more coming from MENA countries. I have a special fondness for Canadian and Indian authors - mostly Indo/Canadian or Indo/American because of their wonderful way of telling a story and being able to put a positive spin on some very hard stories.

I spent a few hours in the Jarir bookstores in Saudi accompanied by my teen and young adult nieces who were very bored with my joy at finding such wonderful books in KSA. They do not read books. Two of them are in University. There were no books in the house and it was the same thing in Sudan. All the family are well educated but only one or two read anything other than the Quran. I am very saddened by this and hopefully one of the posters here will have an explanation for it. I have my own thoughts and that is anything but the Quran is discouraged in the schools, mosques, etc.

Usman said...

There are two fundamental factors: Literacy rate and purchasing power. Higher literacy rate and strong purchasing power create Culture of Literacy. Otherwise you end up with "culture of Illiteracy". At best, I can speak for Pakistan which has one of the lowest literacy rate in the world. More than half the population is outright Illiterate, thus reading a book is out of question. It is my guess that merely 20-25% Pakistanis make it to the colleges. And of course they too are thriving in a largely Illiterate society and bearing some effects of it.
Pakistan also ranks low when it comes to purchasing power. When I left Pakistan, It cost some 300 rupees to purchase a hard cover book of 300 pages. An amount totally out of reach for a student like me coming from lower middle class. If the book is in English or illustrated then price is even higher. In fact only a very small fraction of population could afford to purchase some reasonable book. A large fraction of society is struggling for its day to day survival. A book is Luxury!. And those who could purchase were after all part of the same society bearing "culture of illiteracy".
In my city of Lahore, there were only three reasonable libraries for a city five times the population of Toronto. To add the injuries, Pakistan Govt spends very marginal budget on Education.

So, you got less literacy, less purchasing power, less market for books, less budget, few libraries, all adds up in making a trend that less people drawn to reading books. Of course, whatever I listed indicates a disaster. And that's why we call a third world country a third world country. Situation in Sudan would not be much different than that from Pakistan. But, Iranians on the other hand are totally opposite. They are well know in the region for their reading habits.

As for What's going on in Saudi Arabia, I don't know. They have already enacted enough nonsense in their society. Let it be another one.

Susanne said...

Great list of books! I love to read, but I suppose my tastes are a bit different than this. Though these sound great from your descriptions. My Syrian friend said before that his people don't tend to read a lot of books either. I'm glad Usman explained the Pakistani point of view on this. Hearing that "a book is luxury" made me thankful for all the "luxuries" in my life. I forget how blessed I am sometime just to have a public library less than ten miles up the road. Thank you for this post, Chiara, and, Usman, for explaining what you did. Thought-provoking.

Chiara said...

Qusay-Thank you for your comment! I was happy to see it, especially since it was the first one; then extra happy because I thought you of all regular commentators would be most reluctant re: the length. :)

The Spanish in Arabic script was new to me too, even though I have done a fair bit of study and reading of Spanish literature and language. It makes sense thought that after 7 centuries there would be a bit of a transition period with language and alphabet!

I am glad you are looking forward to Part II. So am I!

Thanks again for your comment which gave me idea(s) for a (some) post(s)! :)

Chiara said...

Wendy--thanks for your comment! Any MENA novels in particular? or any particular contemporary ones? I like Rohinton Mistry (Indian Canadian) and Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lankan Canadian) as well as other contemporary Anglo-Indian writers (in the Indian writing in English sense of the term, not the other colonial sense).

I am sure if I visited Riyadh that Jarir would be a must stop. It is sad that your teenaged nieces don't find joy in books but perhaps that is the judgement of a bibliophile. I also know highly educated people with minimal book collections. Some don't like collecting books, some read only trash for leisure and donate the books as soon as they are finished etc.

I do wonder about the influence of religious teachings on having only a Quran in the home. At one point it was common for the only book in Christian homes to be the family Bible. I suspect that the issue was as much one of literacy and money as Usman has described for Pakistan.

It is interesting which countries develop a book culture and why. Major cities in Ireland seemed to me to have a bookshop on every corner (whereas in France there is a patisserie on every corner). Ireland has a huge literary tradition, and earlier manuscript production by monks. Perhaps the influence of the Church and the monasteries there has something to do with it. Not to mention the climate! Books and tea!

Thanks again for your comment! I do hope that Saudi readers will share their thoughts on the topic! :)

Chiara said...

Usman--Thanks for your informative comment!

I liked your analysis and particularly juxtaposing literacy and purchasing power. I have never seen that done before. The issue about lending libraries is a major one in countries where books are so far out of reach of the average person. They truly are a boon to all everywhere since most cannot afford all the books they may wish to read or consult.

In Saudi literacy rates and purchasing power are relatively high, particularly among the young. However, I would imagine that the traditional society was much more given to oral forms of literature, like poetry, song, folktales, stories, histories, and that the newer society was rapidly engaged in the audio-visual age. That is a guess however, and probably worth a little research.

Thanks again for your comment. You always add a unique perspective and a wealth of information.:)

Chiara said...

Susan--thank you for your comment. Any favourites you would like to share? I am a huge Faulkner fan, have taught Flannery O'Connor (and wound up in a major dispute over good and evil with a former priest with academic power! LOL :) ), and enjoy Mark Twain, including Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain evening--just to mention a few writers from down your way. The American South is so replete with writing talent. Not to mention wonderful words like "chifferobe" (took me forever to figure out to use my French on that one!)

I agree that Usman's comment gives one pause. It reminds me how shocked I was initially at the relative lack of public library systems even in Europe as compared to North America. One of Benjamin Franklin's better ideas! :)

Thanks again for your comment! :)

Chiara said...

I hope those who commented already will follow-up, and that others will comment as well on the topics in the post and in the comments.

Please share your favourites too!

Although the post is rather long, it is in chapters! :)

Chiara said...

Susanne!!!! Sorry, it was late, I had a migraine, it was a dark and stormy night! LOL :) Sorry though, and it was late and I did have a migraine! :)

Susanne said...

No problem, Snoopy! ;-P

I'm sorry about your migraines lately. :(

THE HOLY SINNER said...

If we zoom out a bit from what Usman has rightly but still slightly said about Pakistan, we see that Muslim countries collectively spend less on education. America alone has more universities than the universities in the whole of muslim world combined. We are not encouraged to read. This is not a hobby or interest for us. In Pakistan, the 26% government claimed literacy rate includes people who can only read and write their names in Urdu! Comapre that with...Sri Lanka, 91% population is graduate. It was a treat being there.

We need to see the light of day and realise the fact that mere day dreaming, night dreaming, dreaming, expressing emotional affiliation to the religion, segregation of sexes, covering up the women from something short of an armoured suit, will only push the whole society back in the hole it is unable to come out from. And will add to the hatred of the west. It really is the frustration of not-having (muslim world) vs. having (western world), that draws the line. Religion comes after that.

And Islam, is the first religion that makes it compulsory for all believers to be educated. Sadly, the society here will measure being Islamic by slapping restrictions on women, music, photography et al, and not by following the compulsory requirements of being just, educated, tolerant etc.

Souma said...

Glad to be an inspiration :D

As you mentioned, Dante's perception of Hell is very like the Islamic one. Can't blame him though really, we haven't been very nice regarding what happens to Christians after they die. we should expect people to treat us in the same manner we treated them.

Arabic poetry is the most beautiful thing! Pre- Islamic poetry and a while Post-Islam is unbelievably beautiful!

But when it comes to Shakespeare, I'd rather Hamlet. Totally in love with that ghost seeing, conspiracy theorist!

And Saudis only read for school, it's the entire society's outlook on reading. Why should one read when they can play video games or watch TV? Or go to a mall instead. Put down that book and start acting like a girl! who'll want to marry a girl who could outsmart him?

My own father's been trying to talk me out of it since i was a teenager, which didnt work. So now he doesnt let me buy more than 6 books per vacation abroad.

We have one rundown public library in my city, and by rundown i mean it looks like a bulldozer went through it then everything was left to rot for a decade. NOT KIDDING!

There has been "talk" about opening a new one, but that "talk" has been going on "since before you were even born! that building's been standing there with a "public library" sign on it for so long." to quote my mother.

single4now said...

Hey Chiara,
I'm sorry for the delay in commenting. But phew, how long did it take for you to finish this post?
Honestly, there are very few books that I actually find interesting to read. There are lots of books that I've bought and never ended up reading because the writing style bored me to death even though the book originally seemed intriguing. Majority of the books I've enjoyed read were works of fiction - either romance, horror, adventure, etc. Of the most recent ones was Harry Potter.
In school, we often had plays of Shakespear and I never once enjoyed his style of writing. Hope I don't give people a heart attack. His characters speak in poetry and double meaning which usually goes above my head. I don't enjoy interpreting it. I lose interest.
I haven't read Arabian Knights but someone I know bought it and was telling me about the stories and it mentioned the same one you've mentioned here. Unless I'm confused.

Wendy said...

Once again two of my posts have gone astray so will answer your post about my favorite Indian authors and books by MENA authors that I enjoy later today or tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is a hard question, I never thought of picking up the top 10 books I've read. I shall give it a second thought --perhaps 30 years from now I can choose the best 10 books I read.

Oh, Chiara, you didn't mention Umberto Eco. In the Name of the Rose, it's clear that he has been influenced by the Arabian Nights. It's a fantastic work. Semioticians in particular should enjoy the book immensely.

I'm sure I'll enjoy reading Burgos, since, actually, several people recommended him, but till now I didn't find the time to read anything by him.

In KSA, I like going to both Jarir, and Al Ibikan. Both have great collections of Arabic and English books.

Actually we have at KSU and KAU 2 huge libraries. You might not believe it if I tell you that the library at KAU as an example is bigger than some North American Univs that I've been to.

Re, Canadian writers, the first Canadian book I've read was The Handmaid's Tale by atwood. I read it in my first year as an undergraduate when my English was so weak! I got it from KSA. I didn't know at that time that it was a Canadian book, I just remember that one of the profs, mentioned the name of the book, so I directly went and bought it. Then I've read other Canadian writers ChineseCanadian JapaneseCanadian Aboriginals etc.

Re, light read, J K Rowling, Dan Brown, Paulo Coelho ...

Sometimes I wish there are 54 hours a day, so I can read more, but unfortunately I'm a muggle, the same as you :) , so I cannot have more than 24h a day :) ..

BTW, why you are biased when it comes to German speaking writers! :) Kafka, Hesse, Sebald are among my favo, and of course Habermas for nonfiction.

When it comes to poetry, Arabic is the best!

I look forward to reading Part 2, 3 , 4, 5 and 100.. Quickly, quickly, we are waiting!

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