Wednesday, August 30, 2006

In Memorium, Naguib Mahfouz, 'The Egyptian Balzac'

... "Mr. Mahfouz’s city was teeming Cairo, and his characters were its most ordinary people: civil servants and bureaucrats, grocers, shopkeepers, poor retirees, petty thieves and prostitutes, peasants and women brutalized by tradition, a people caught in the upheavals of a nation struggling through the 20th century.

Around their tangled lives, Mr. Mahfouz chronicled the development of modern Egypt, and over five decades wrote 33 novels, 13 anthologies of short stories, several plays and 30 screenplays. It was a body of work hailed by the Swedish Academy of Letters as “an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.”

Mr. Mahfouz, a slender, modest, shy man who once described himself as “a fourth- or fifth-class writer,” was often called the Egyptian Balzac for his vivid frescoes of Cairenes and their social, political and religious dilemmas. Critics compared his richly detailed Cairo with the London of Charles Dickens, the Paris of Émile Zola and the St. Petersburg of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

He was the first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize, and while many of his works had been translated into French, Swedish and German, he was largely unknown in the United States and Europe in 1988. Only about a dozen Mahfouz books had been rendered into English, and many were out of print.

Since then, his best-known novels have been published in the United States and other English-speaking countries by Doubleday and sister companies. They include “The Cairo Trilogy,” widely regarded as his masterwork.

While Arabic has a rich tradition in poetry, the novel was not a strong art form in that language until Mr. Mahfouz made it accessible. For English-language translators and readers, Arabic presents special difficulties: the dialogue sounds overwrought, the descriptions stilted. As Brad Kessler wrote in a 1990 article for The New York Times Magazine: “Mahfouz writes in the florid classical Arabic, which is roughly the equivalent of Shakespearean English.”

Peter Theroux, the American translator of several major Arab novelists, wrote about completing a new version of “Children of the Alley” in 1996: “Readers of Mahfouz in any language are in thrall to his magic. The warmth of Mahfouz’s characters, the velocity of his storytelling, his gift for fluent dialogue and telling details are unique in modern Arabic literature.” ...

Robert D. McFadden "Naguib Mahfouz, First Writer in Arabic to Win Nobel Prize, Dies at 94" New York Times, August 30, 2006

Photo credit: (c) Norbert Schiller for the New York Times. With thanks.


"Curiously, Balzac continued to worry about money and status even after he was rich and respected, and believed he could branch out into politics or into the theatre without letting up on his novels. His letters and memoranda reveal that ambition was not only ingrained in his character, but acted on him like a drug — every success leading him on to enlarge his plans still further — and ahead of time, around 1847, his strength began to fail. A polarity can be found in his cast of characters between the profligates who expend their life-force and the misers who live long but become dried-up and withdrawn. His contemporary Victor Hugo exiled himself to Guernsey in disgust at French politics, but lived on to write poems about being a grandfather decades after Balzac's death. Balzac himself could not, by temperament, draw back or curtail his vision.

In 1849, as his health was failing, Balzac travelled to Poland [today, Ukraine] to visit Eveline Hanska, a wealthy Polish lady, with whom he had corresponded for more than 15 years. They married in Berdyczów [today, Ukrainian town south of Zhytomyr, Ukraine] in 1850 , and three months later, Balzac died.

He lies buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, overlooking Paris, and is commemorated by a monumental statue commissioned from Auguste Rodin, standing near the intersection of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse. "Henceforth" said Victor Hugo at his funeral "men's eyes will be turned towards the faces not of those who are the rulers but of those who are the thinkers."

Source: Balzac. Wikipedia. With thanks.


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