One’s Thousand One Nightinesses

Steven Connor

  • Stranger Magic by Marina Warner
    Chatto, 540 pp, £28.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 7011 7331 9

There can be no new reader, and therefore perhaps no wholly new reading of the collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights. Not because they have been exhausted by retelling and explication, but because we always seem to have encountered them, or some of them, already, somewhere else, at some other time in our lives we are not able quite to pin down. They are, in the phrase George Grote applied to Greek myths, a past that has never been fully present – translations without originals. And yet, just as there can be no authentic first time for the reading of The Arabian Nights, there can be no once and for all signings off either. As Marina Warner observes in her effulgent new study of the lives and afterlives of the tales, even the forms of their inexhaustibility are plural. First, despite the promise of a precise count held out in their title (or one of them at least), you can never be sure you have taken an exact tally of all thousand and one of their tellings. Erotically, they ‘spread and mount like arithmetic’, in the words of Middleton’s De Flores. Second, their complex, nested structure, in which stories mirror, invert and parody each other, gives them a labyrinthine internal relation that is almost impossible to disintricate. Finally, if one takes account of all the reworkings of the tales, it is clear that they are still in the process of being composed. Like Bottom’s dream, they have no bottom. Even in the final pages of this plethoric book, Warner confesses her reluctance to declare her case closed.

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