|Jul/Aug 2001 • Miscellaneous|
The Strand Bookstore sits at the corner of Broadway and 12th Street about a mile or so from where the World Trade Center stood, as everything in New York will be measured from now on. Its main floor and basement are filled with tables and shelves of used and remaindered books: dusty reviewers copies of novels you've never heard of and likely never will, buckram backed birthday gifts for children grown old and passed on, stacks of dust jacketed tomes prepared for that best seller list they never quite made. When I was young and lived in New York, I spent hours in the Strand browsing for that one book I just had to have, and now no return visit is complete without shopping bag full of treasures I probably won't have years enough to read.
But if they don't get read, it will not be for want of trying. Two from my latest collection of bargains have occupied my in the past few days: one in the hopes of finding some kind of insight into a new world, the other for the comfort of the old.
All I knew about Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Until then I had never heard of him, and certainly I had never read a word he had written. So when I discovered the pile of bright new copies of The Harafish on a table of recent arrivals, I stopped to glance at its pages, and after a page here and a page there, I tucked the book under my arm and went in search of more such gems. Nobel Prize winners are Nobel Prize winners even when their work is remaindered.
The Harafish, which is translated as the common people, the less fortunate, is an epic chronicle that traces the history of the Nagi family from the appearance of the foundling patriarch, Ashur al Nagi, a heroic giant of a man, who becomes a mythic figure of goodness and benevolence through the generations and degenerations of his descendants. Until finally another Ashur appears and reestablishes the glory of his ancestor on an even more solid foundation. For even in his goodness, in the first Ashur were the seeds of his family's decline--his appropriation of riches after the plague, his passion for the woman, Fulla who becomes his second wife--and while he is able to rise above these flaws, his progeny are mired down in their passions and by their pride in their lineage.
It is only when that pride is overcome, when Ashur becomes one with the harafish, not first among equals, but an equal among equals that there comes "one of those rare moments of existence when a pure light glows. When body, time, and place are all in harmony."
The stories follow generation to generation as the al Nagis find and lose huge fortunes, marry and divorce, steal, cheat and murder. They are archetypal tales of brother killing brother, son killing father, men seeking eternal life, woman enthralled by their own beauty, and all told with the economy of myth or fairy tale. Perhaps it's the subject matter, perhaps it's prior associations with Sheherazade nightly bedtime story, but Mahfouz's writing has the feel of Aladdin without the genie, Sinbad without the magic carpets, Ali Baba without the magic words. In The Harafish, if there is magic, it is magic that doesn't work. If a ghostly spirit hands out food to the poor, it is really a man in disguise; if a man builds a minaret in the desert to seal a bargain with the evil spirits, it is a bargain that bears no fruit. The world Mahfouz describes is a world where evil is in men, not in supernatural creatures, and where goodness must be in men, too.
In 1876, William Beckford, one of most minor of minor British novelist, influenced by a current fad for all things exotic and oriental produced a short novel called Vathek, which vividly illustrates the preconceptions of the world of Arabian tales we still have today. In that world we don't think twice about Caliphs with an eye that can murder, an Indian who rolls himself into a ball to be kicked all over the countryside, fifty children fed as sacrifice to a Giaour. It is a world of harems and viziers, Ethiopians and eunuchs. There is evil in Vathek, but it is the evil of monsters in lands so far away and mysterious that we are willing to believe that such evil, evil impossible in our word, is possible there.
For the westerner Mahfouz paints a place as far away and as long ago, but if the world he sees is not the world we see, the evils he sees are in fact the very same evils that we see. The social structures he describes may be strange to us. People live in communities that the translator calls allies which are ruled by a clan leader. There are civic authorities but they play almost no role in the life of the harafish. There is a monastery which keeps its gates locked to the world. The rich live in houses off the allies and pay protection to the leader of the clan. But the greed and lust, fear and pride these people feel are the very same that we and those around us feel.
Wordsworth and Coleridge in their discussions of what they were trying to do in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, say that Coleridge would take the exotic and strange and make of it something real, and Wordsworth, the everyday, the normal and make of it something magical and mysterious. Coleridge produced "Kubla Kahn;" Wordsworth "Tintern Abbey." My second remaindered treasure, Bernard Malamud, is Wordsworth to Mahfouz's Coleridge.
If Mahfouz is a new acquaintance, Malamud is an old friend, so familiar I almost set aside The Complete Stories, because I already owned most of them in separate volumes. Yet somehow, I couldn't leave the store without it. "Angel Levine," "The Magic Barrel," "The Jewbird:" these were stories that have lived in my imagination for more than forty years, but more enticing among the fifty odd stories were those, mostly early work, that I had yet to meet.
The stories are arranged chronologically as they were written, and in some cases the early work foreshadows themes and ideas that reappear in the later work more richly developed as Malamud's voice and style matured. The hard working "plum-ber" Ephraim of "Benefit Performance," disdained as a suitor because of his lack of learning, is transformed into Sobel the shoemaker's assistant in "The First Seven Years." "The Grocery Store" barely providing a living for its owners because of the competing super markets becomes the agent of doom for its owners in "The Bill" and "The Cost of Living."
Malamud's butchers and tailors, his egg candelers and landlords live in a world that has moved past them like a speeding express they can run after, but never quite catch.
A Kessler can pay his rent every month without fail and find himself out on the street. A Rosen can take his life to help a widow and her family only to find her in hell with him. A Kobotsky can come for a loan from an old friend and find only a stone hearted denial from the man's wife. It is a world that seems to weigh oppressively on all who live in it.
But even in the bleakness, there is hope. There is help. There is an angel, if only you can recognize him and believe. The Angel of Death in the guise of railway attendant will see the horror of his image in your eyes and give you the time to put your idiot son safely on a train to your uncle. Another may appear to you as a black man without wings in a frayed shirt and a badly fitting suit. When you look for him you might find him drinking and dancing in some cabaret in Harlem, but if you believe and accept, there will not only be hope, there will be a lifting of that terrible burden.
This is not to say that Malamud avoids the exotic altogether: there are after all the Italian stories. Jews in Italy, these are usually fish out of water stories. Italy always seems to be icy cold. Apartments are impossible to find. The Italians are incomprehensible aliens. Inevitably, accidentally, in a world where there are no accidents, usually with disastrous results what they find is other Jews. In "The Lady of the Lake," Henry Levin denies his Judaism to impress a woman he thinks is gentile only to discover that she is in fact a Jew, and a concentration camp victim as well. In "The Last Mohican," Fidelman finds himself bedeviled by a Jewish refugee, a schnorrer, who takes and takes and always wants more. Malamud's Jews in Italy more often than not travel to the foreign land only to find images of themselves.
Mahfouz and Malamud, though the worlds of their fiction are alien to one another, have this in common--no matter how bad things get, there is hope for the righteous: Ashur will return; Angel Levine will come.
Naguib Mahfouz, The Harafish, tr. Catherine Cobham, New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Bernard Malamud, The Complete Stories, ed. Robert Giroux, NewYork: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.