A Book at Bedtime

William Gass

  • The Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin
    Allen Lane, 344 pp, £20.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 7139 9105 4

We all know about Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, the rook’s egg, the thieves’ cave. There’s a rule which requires us to begin our lives as children. We will have seen or heard and thereby passed a Night or two, in some pop or papped-up version, even if we have never leafed the picture book or read Burton’s luxuriant prose. Splendid stories eminently suitable for children – that’s the line. Yet these tales were originally told, not by a campfire, in some mom’s soothing voice, or listened to in the lap of dearest daddy, but – instead of the once customary cigarette – enjoyed during the calm following copulation, after lengthy and enervating love-making: the man a murderer of his mistresses, the woman a willing but ofttupped victim, while a third, the belaboured lady’s sister, naps beneath the bouncing bed where she’s been staying out of love’s way until tale-time comes and she can clear her throat to request a bit of post-coital edification and escape.

Sex doesn’t save the women the King beds. Their cries of pleasure, faked or real, only remind him of the faithlessness of the female, and the shame that is their game. Fictions, instead, do the trick. They do the trick because they charm, but charm because they never really end, or rather, because the climax of each tale, prolonged sometimes over many nights, occurs only within the words, and affects their always eager auditors in quite another way than physical release. Tale-time is dream time, although everyone’s awake. Replete, the King sinks into story instead of sleep. It is the dream alone which defers the dream-spinner’s death: on one thousand and one occasions.

How shall we say it came into being – this strange, perhaps magical, text? The way small creeks and streams combine to create a river? As alleys in an ancient Arab town stumble and twist into a market square? In order, later, to present for the pleasure of Jorge Luis Borges the offspring of a labyrinth? Or as if many days, over and done with and torn from the calendar, had nevertheless survived their own passing to come together and shape another life – a night life, this time? And who knows when or how this new union may dissolve, as Destiny decides?

At least as early as the middle of the ninth century, a cycle entitled The Book of the Tale of the Thousand Nights was apparently put together and written down in Arabic. In their nearly thousand-and-one-year journey to our time, these Arabian contes drew additions, endured omissions, submitted to revisions, suffered expurgations, were betrayed by translations, fussed over by annotators, and stuffed into editions aimed at special interests, while experiencing normal negligence and the customary incompetence of sellers, scribes, scholars and consumers: the tattering, dispersal and destruction of copies; the corruption of text; the misunderstanding of its meaning; the exploitation of its exotic scenes and settings; as well as the decline of its importance into what, so ironic for the Nights, we call bedtime stories.

Robert Irwin’s Companion will describe how these humble and mainly entertaining street stories grew into an enormously influential masterpiece. He will talk about the way the themes in these stories manifest themselves; he will point out their motifs and explain the uses, often odd, to which they have been put; he will describe the vicissitudes these adventures underwent, and the unlikelihood of their accumulation; he will admire their earthy details, their shrewd understanding, the splendid craft of their contriving; he will walk the same streets the stories do and enjoy the sights; he will learnedly yet without pomposity discuss the ambivalence of these tales regarding homosexuals, the character and status of the women in them, the mostly futile attempts to evade what Destiny has writ; and he will comment fairly on the Nights’ love of the ordinary, their attraction to the miraculous, their occasional cruelty, their matter-of-fact but bawdy interests; he will explain the relation of these frequently fantastic tales to the routines of every day, to the fated outcomes of actions, to the relentless harshness or unmerited good luck of one’s lot. (In Arabic, he will point out, sometimes the sentence never stops.)

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