Midaq Alley – Naguib Mahfouz (Arabic)
Reading novels that originate in a different culture teaches us that people are basically the same. A few of Mahfouz’s characters are virtuous, but only a few. On display are an abundance of quite recognizable vices. Though “If, by God’s will” is a constant refrain, people act according to their needs and weaknesses and desires. We get hashish smoking; we get grave robbing (for the gold teeth in the corpse); we get a man who deforms beggars so that they can be more profitable; we get lust (in one case, homosexual lust). The major story line involves a young woman’s descent into prostitution. Hamida is endowed with beauty, but her inner core is ugly. Still, as I watched Faraj – every inch a predator – patiently manipulate her, I felt her vulnerability. At one point he parts from her with the words, “We will start a wonderful new life. I love you . . . I love you more than life itself.” Then: “He watched her as she walked away, a sardonic smile on his lips. He told himself: ‘Delicious, no doubt about it. I’m quite sure I’m not wrong about her. She has a natural gift for it . . . She’s a whore by instinct.’ ” I was a bit surprised that a novel with such scathing aspects (even a political rally is mocked) would be published in Egypt in 1966. Mahfouz (who won a Nobel Prize) is able to make each of the many characters assert themselves; after Mrs. Afifi is introduced, you never forget who and what she is. But the prose is sometimes overwrought. This may be attributable in part to the difficulties encountered when translating from Arabic; Trevor Le Gassick admits that he could give only an approximation of how Mahfouz might have expressed himself. But I can’t blame the translation for the ending, in which luridness spills over into frenetic emotionality: anger foams, a mad frenzy sets in, and it all ends in murder. It’s melodrama, and it doesn’t work. But the next short closing chapter, while leaving every strand of narrative unresolved, settles back into a life-will-go-on attitude, which is the right tone: “. . . the alley returned to its usual state of indifference and forgetfulness. It continued, as was its custom, to weep in the morning when there was material for tears, and resound with laughter in the evening. And in the time between, doors and windows would creak as they were opened and then creak again as they were closed.”
Miramar – Naguib Mahfouz (Arabic)
This novel is one of three in the same volume as Midaq Alley. I started Miramar idly, then continued because I liked the premise. A man in his eighties moves into a pension and develops feelings for a young and pretty girl who works there. It’s a pure form of love in that it’s without a sexual dimension. Amir Wagdi simply wants what’s best for Zohra, and she responds with trust. But his first person narrative is cluttered with italicized stream-of-consciousness memories, and there’s a lot about political issues which meant nothing to me. As for the next characters whose minds we enter – young men who take up residence in the pension – they’re all shallow fellows beset by angst and confusion. Two have mistresses, one frequents prostitutes, but they all fall in “love” with Zohra. Naturally they lock horns, and this results in a murder. (The extreme emotions that marred Midaq Alley are laid on thick.) These three youngsters weren’t worth my time; and Zohra, by becoming a mere object of their desire, loses her substance. At the end we briefly return to the old man, but this chapter is so flat it could have been omitted. Why didn’t Mahfouz develop the aspect that initially caused me to read the book? I think that task may have been too difficult for him to tackle. Instead he took the easy route.
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris
Around Christmas time National Public Radio plays the piece in which Sedaris recounts his stint as one of Santa’s elves. It’s funny, unique and bracingly acidic; with it he made a name for himself. Although I hadn’t read any of the books which followed, I knew that he delved into dysfunction, both his and his family’s. But the “personal essays” that make up Dress Your Family are more fiction than memoir. “Full House” describes something that never happened; it’s a homosexual teenager’s fantasy. I began to wonder how much else in this book is made up. Are the members of his family that far over the edge? He seems to be milking the premise of “Boy, are we Sedaris’s a weird bunch!” and “Boy, am I gay!” I liked the gently amusing “The Ship Shape” and the sinister “The Girl Next Door.” In the latter piece Sedaris’s mother is bluntly practical and he’s a dope; he likes to portray his weaknesses. Some stories (oh, sorry, personal essays) are ho-hum, but others are distasteful. Really distasteful. In “Blood Work” Sedaris is cleaning the apartment of a sicko gay man who (among other things I didn’t want to know) masturbates while watching porn movies. In “Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post” his brother is an obscene and insensitive macho male; it ends with a dog . . . But I had enough. The characters and situations in these two stories aren’t real; they’re a means by which Sedaris can dispense a calculated dosage of creepy prurience and scatology. Maybe that’s a formula for success: “Rooster” appeared in Esquire, “Blood Work” in The New Yorker.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Michael Chabon
Chabon has talent: he uses the language inventively while keeping up a nice narrative flow. But this is a novel written by a twenty-two year old, and it shows. In the first sentence it’s announced that the main character’s father is a gangster. Nobody is your run-of-the-mill human being; everybody Art gets involved with is extravagant; they do outrageous things and their talk is cutting edge smart. If you’re between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, you may find it enjoyable; but to me it was pretty silly, and I quit reading at the halfway point. At any rate, what Harper Perennial chose to include at the end of the book is worth noting. Under a dreamboat photo of the author is an introduction given by Ben Marcus to an audience at Columbia University in 2009 (Mysteries came out in 1988). Marcus is radiant in his praise; he claims that you have “to read novels like Chabon’s to experience the fullness, the complexity of life.” Then Chabon takes the stage; the text of his talk is engaging; he again shows how good he is with words. But he portrays the genesis of Mysteries with the same extravagance that marred the novel. He was preparing to enter the MFA program at the University of California at Irvine where everybody, it seemed to him, was writing a novel; so he felt it was incumbent on him to also do so. But he fretted about the prospect: “What the hell was a novel, anyway, when you really came down to it? A really, really long short story?” Despite this faux naivety, and guided by the twin inspirations of Gatsby and Goodbye, Columbus, he embarked on writing about summer, as did those other “great American poets of summertime like Ray Bradbury and Bruce Springsteen.” Even the muse lends a hand. The creation of a novel is presented as a mythological act. This may go over well with an audience at Columbia, but from my perspective Chabon left out the nuts and bolts. Perhaps early and easy success leaves one starry-eyed about one’s art. Chabon’s debut effort is not a work of genius; not close. If you want to read what a real genius writes in his early twenties, read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.