Aug 5 2006

Literary Expeditions

The Nobel-prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz neither knows nor cares anything about it, but he owes his presence on my library shelves to a little-known British zookeeper with a penchant for exaggeration and a wicked sense of humor.  When I was ten years old, my mother decided it was time that I made the transition from reading books written for children to those written for adults.  So she handed me a copy of a book called My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

My Family and Other AnimalsFor those of you who have been suffering from the absence of this funny little memoir in your lives, My Family and Other Animals is an account of the five years the rather eccentric Durrell family lived on the Greek island of Corfu.  Gerry Durrell was, at the time, also only ten and completely obsessed with animals—an enthusiasm he never out grew and which explains his future occupation as a zoo keeper and animal collector.    Durrell wrote the book to finance one of his collecting expeditions, and as such he had intended it to be a casual account of the fauna of the island. A ten-year-old boy’s memories of his first dog. His first turtle. His first pet gull. His first pet snake. His first pet scorpion.  But, as he states in an introduction he felt impelled to call “A Speech for the Defense”, “…I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.

Gerry Durrell has reason to thank his family’s impetuous commandeering of his memoir.  Their eccentricities and sheer outrageousness turned a nostalgic account into a fine slapstick comedy, and the book became an immediate bestseller and has remained in print for the last 50 years. But what is significant in terms of Naguib Mahfouz’s future book sales is that Gerry Durrell’s oldest brother was named Larry.  And Lawrence Durrell is now known as one of Britain’s greatest novelists.

At the time of Gerry’s hilarious account, “Larry” was only twenty-three, so one can perhaps excuse him for being the self-centered, self-important, and self-indulgent artiste that his younger brother says he was.  Even at the time he was a writer, which in ten-year-old Gerry’s mind meant something vague to do with typewriters and the consumption of large quantities of home-made Greek wine.

Sadly, my mother made me return my copy of My Family and Other Animals to the library so other people could have a chance to enjoy it. I made a beeline for the “D’s” on the shelf, and that is how I found Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet.

This is how I found most of the books I read when I was young: One book would naturally lead to another, which would lead to yet another in a meandering sort of progression; a literary expedition.

JustineNow, it could be argued that while a humorous story of a boy growing up in Greece with a bunch of animals might be appropriate reading for a ten year old girl, the rather more sophisticated Alexandrian Quartet most certainly was not.  But my mother was never one to censor my reading; trusting, perhaps, in that supreme self-centeredness of children that allows them to blithely skip over anything that does not pertain directly to them. She was right to do so, because while the ten year old me disregarded the heavy sensuality of the books, the allusions to sex in all shades of its perversions, I was very much captivated by the city of Alexandria; it was the first time I understood that a city—a place—could be a character itself in a book.  I was also mesmerized by the way the stories were told; conversationally and poetically, braided, with people and events constantly shifting before the reader’s eyes as the point of view changed in the novels.  I had never realized stories could be told like that. It was the first time I consciously thought that I would like to be a writer.

The four books of the Alexandrian Quartet—Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea—became one of the way-stations of my bookish explorations.  Because of Lawrence Durrell, I went looking for works by D.H. Lawrence and C.P. Cavafy—both writers whose work are tantalizingly flirted with in the Quartet.  I’ll leave it to another time to talk about where DH Lawrence led me—that is another journey entirely.  But Constantine P. Cavafy, who Durrell called “the poet of the city”, was a revelation. For one thing, his was the first poetry I read that didn’t date back to the time of Robert Frost. His verses preserve an Alexandria of a bygone era—rich, romantic, decadent, tragic:

C.P. Cavafy: Collected PoemsIn Harbor

A young man, twenty eight years old, on a vessel from Tenos,
Emes arrived at this Syrian harbor
with the intention of learning the perfume trade.
But during the voyage he was taken ill. And as soon
as he disembarked, he died. His burial, the poorest,
took place here. A few hours before he died,

he whispered something about “home,” about “very old parents.”
But who these were nobody knew,
nor which his homeland in the vast panhellenic world.
Better so. For thus, although
he lies dead in this harbor,
his parents will always hope he is alive.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1918)

Cavafy was born and died in Alexandria. He was a Greek, and the central, luminous star of the pre-war city’s intelligentsia.  I think I was in love with the idea of it as much as the verse.  I scribbled little snatches of his poems in a journal throughout high school, and started to comb used bookstores for books about Egypt.  When I was let loose in Boston, my first month away from home for college, almost the first thing I did after I dumped my suitcase in my dorm room was find the college bookstore and start wandering around, looking at all the texts.

MiramarSomebody that semester must have been teaching Middle Eastern Studies because there was an entire isle of literature from the area—Greek, Turkish, and Arabic. And there, on a shelf with the cryptic label “EGP 405” was not only Cavafy, but, at last, a hitherto unknown writer named Mahfouz.  I bought a slim little novel called Miramar because it was set in Alexandria, and read it in about two hours.  I came back, decided I’d rather have books than a new pair of sneakers, and spent the rest of my money on Midaq Alley and Children of GebelawiMidaq Alley remains one of my favorites, possibly because it does for Cairo what Durrell and Cavafy have done for Alexandria—made it breathe, given it life.

In 1988 I was hired by a bookstore in Cambridge and Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was the only one in the store who had read or even heard of him (I think that’s what got me the job).  To this day, I still feel compelled to go back to his early novels to capture and understand some of the Arab feeling in the perennial conflict that besets the Middle East. I’ve read the writers that he claimed influenced him (he doesn’t mention Cavafy specifically, but he must have known of him), and those that claim him as an influence. He may be the “father” of the modern Arab novel, but for me he is more of an ambassador, or a guide.

This little reading expedition has one final scene; a brick thrown through the window of my Cambridge bookshop in 1989.  Mahfouz’s most controversial book was Children of Gebelawi, an allegorical tale in which women are depicted as strong and independent, and the Prophet Muhammad does not come across as especially holy.  It raised an outcry among Muslims in Egypt, and there were calls for the book to be banned and the author to be arrested for blasphemy and obscenity.  A leading Egyptian theologian, Omar Abdul-Rahman, went so far as to issue a “fatwa” against Mahfouz in 1959.  The author has survived one attempt on his life and lives to this day under armed guard.

Three decades later another Muslim writer had a fatwa issued against him: Salman Rushdie, for his novel The Satanic Verses. Abdul-Rahman (soon to be arrested for conspiracy in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993) claimed that had Mahfouz been properly punished for his blasphemy thirty years earlier, Rushdie would never have dared publish his novel. Which means we would not, to show our support for the writer, have put Satanic Verses in the window of our shop. And presumably, no one would have become so offended they felt compelled to hurl a brick through the window in response.

The scattered broken glass, the tumbled, bent books, the dirty red brick and scratches it made on the old floor was another “first” for me: my first and best lesson in how literature has real and physical consequences in our lives.