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.)

Every dimension of his scholarship is impressive, but most admirable of all is the easy and eloquent manner of its presentation. So I suggest that you think of this book as a true and unstealthy companion such as Dunyazade, Sheherazade’s sister was; and keep it conveniently by, though not beneath, your bed, where you can follow the pleasure of the Nights themselves (in Husain Haddawy’s fine contemporary translation), with another from Robert Irwin’s chapter on low life, or the one on marvels – whatever properly complements the story you’ve just concluded.

The origins of storytelling are all oral, of course. Some stories are reverently believed and retained in the tribal memory through repeated voice, thereby placing the community in the handhold of its history. But belief by itself is a state of mind easily feigned, a gift as temporary as attention, offered and withdrawn like a smile, so that storytellers plying their trade in the bazaar are both believed and doubted at the same time. They sometimes instruct, satirise and warn; they sometimes tie their tales to precise times, exact facts; but, more often, their words create a world of might and maybe, both magical and matter-of-fact, far off and nearby, wondrous and banal. They are paid by the ears they please. They learn to entertain. Kings have their jesters and their troubadours, while ordinary folk get small relief from work and worry, chained to their daily chores; but there are always layabouts, idlers who fill the bars, who hang out in the markets and whose heads are empty enough to let in the sounds of another life.

All sorts listen, these stories have a broad appeal; but listening and looking, writing and reading, have always required leisure, whether laziness provided it, or inherited money, or sheer luck. Madame Bovary read too many romances. Villon hung out with a bad lot. The theatre is filled with pimps and whores. And the widely running tale takes time to tell, time off to listen to, rest to revel in, and a meditative mind to relish. Proust is several summer vacations long. And a Thousand and One Nights will not pass in a wink, though in some of the stories events may move so fast or be so compressed, life will seem that swift.

The storyteller has to have a head full: of history, narratives and characterisations, epithets and verbal formulas, moral lessons and other upshots. Though no retelling will be word for word and there are many ways to pluck a plot, the essentials have got to be there. The Jewish physician’s tale has to stay the Jewish physician’s tale. Moreover, recital is a slow sit in the seats compared to the rapidity of reading, especially now when we tend to look at language rather than listen to it; so the rhapsode or the tale-spinner, like the Ancient Mariner, will want to keep one hand on our lapel. He will certainly not ignore the response of his audience, but learn what pleases, what bores, what reinforces active prejudices, what brings down the house or sets the table on a roar. But just as surely, he will suit his own fancy, too, and allow his inventions to have their moment in his hour.

He’ll pick up an anecdote in one town, a colourful phrase in another; from a talkative traveller hear a bit of business too good to be left out of his repertoire. And his stories, like the analyst’s 50-minute hour, will tend to round themselves off at a point near his listeners’ patience, perhaps at a moment of anxious expectation, so that the audience will return on the morrow to another of poor Pauline’s perils, and her hoped-for rescue from the clutches of the villain by Hairbreadth Harry.

And in the process stories will pass from one language to another. Action, agent, outcome, lesson, best survive such movements, for fancy verbalisation is just dress and fashion. It can be added at whim, divested with a wink. The tales will consequently be like large, handsome houses with surprisingly cramped interiors (a complaint about the Nights which has been frequently voiced); but I like to think that the readers who listen to Sheherazade, as if they wore the ears of the King, will invent a motive and create a character for this young lady who has willingly placed her life in jeopardy; who allows herself to be fondled while in fear of death; and who boldly figures to ward off the fate of so many others by telling tales until dawn interrupts and the sun is suspended, as the King’s interest is, till darkness stimulates desire again (the rhythm is one of love/breath), and the stories can re-begin.

King Shahriyar has persuaded himself (not without evidence) that the women he wives will betray him during the first half-instant of opportunity, and, as he knows, with anyone handy, too – kitchen boys, black slaves; no one is secure, for the King himself, his royalty unknown, has made a cuckold of a demon, while the demon slept like still grass through the transports of his accomplished wife’s newest adultery. In order to avoid being deceived a second time, King Shahriyar decides to marry for one night only, devouring, like an ogre, an apple a day, and in this fashion prevent his betrayal and shame, and keep his peace of mind. The community soon begins to feel the drain. The King’s desire has become a plague. So the beautiful, well-read and wise Sheherazade offers to risk her life – risk it, but not surrender it, because she has a plan.

The frame for these tales is concerned with one thing: the restoration of the King’s trust. Sheherazade will bear her husband three children before his fatwa is lifted, so that she will have been pregnant during at least 710 of their thousand nights of love. And presumably recovering from childbirth for many of the rest. But these are details which have no bearing on the content or continuity of her accounts; nor is the state of her father’s – the Vizier’s – health of any concern, although he must execute his daughter, Sheherazade, if her strategy fails; nor is the King’s habit of falling asleep on state occasions, neglecting the country’s business, worth a moment’s mention; nor the fact that while the string of these stories protects them like an amulet, the virginal daughters of the kingdom have been regularly spirited away to stay with relatives in London, Berlin, New York and Paris, so that by tale’s end Sheherazade’s sister, Dunyazade (nightly asnooze beneath the bed, don’t forget), is the only comely maiden remaining in the entire realm.

Realism in The Arabian Nights is reserved for other things; food, for instance, such as the pomegranate-seed dish (preserved in almonds and sweet julep and flavoured with cardamom and rosewater) which plays such an important role in the witty and altogether wonderful ‘Story of the Two Viziers’. Here, whether there is too little sugar or not enough pepper in the food is crucial. Nor are the little rituals of robust dining neglected:

They ate together, and Badr al-Din kept putting morsels, now in ’Ajib’s mouth, now in the eunuch’s, until they were satisfied. They rose up, and Badr al-Din poured water on their hands and, loosening a towel from his waist, gave it to them to wipe their hands with, and sprinkled them with rosewater from a casting bottle. Then he ran out of the shop and rushed back with an earthenware pitcher containing a sweet drink, flavoured with rosewater and cooled with snow. [Husain Haddawy’s translation]

Perhaps the flattest chapter in Irwin’s otherwise perfectly flavoured book is the one called ‘Formal Readings’. This is not through any fault of his, but because the efforts of scholars, critics and folklorists, to classify and anatomise the Nights seem for the most part quite beside the point, and their remarks on repetition (so central to the structure of these tales as a whole, as well as to their various parts) are relatively tame and predictable.

I won’t retell the ‘Story of the Two Viziers’, though I feel temptation take me by the pen and pull me to its paper. It should be sufficient to say that a cook’s shop has been vandalised, the cook thrashed and then carted about in a locked chest, apparently because, in one dish, he has not put enough pepper. Here’s how one portion of the cook’s lament sounds in Husain Haddawy’s splendid version:

Badr al-Din said: ‘Because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper, you have beaten me, smashed my dishes, and ruined my shop, all because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper! Isn’t it enough, O Muslims, that you have tied me and locked me up in this chest, day and night, fed me only one meal a day, and inflicted on me all kinds of torture, because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper? Isn’t it enough, O Muslims, to have shackled my feet that you should now make a crosslike figure to nail me on, because I have cooked a pomegranate dish that lacked pepper?’ Then Badr al-Din pondered in bewilderment and asked: ‘All right, suppose I did cook the dish without pepper, what should my punishment be?’ The vizier replied: ‘To be crucified.’ Badr al-Din said: ‘Alas, are you going to crucify me because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper?’ and he appealed for help, wept, and said, ‘None has been crushed as I have been, and none has suffered what I have suffered. I have been beaten and tortured, my shop has been ruined and plundered, and I am going to be crucified, all because I cooked a pomegranate dish that lacked pepper! May God curse the pomegranate dish and its very existence!’ and as his tears flowed, he concluded: ‘I wish that I had died before this calamity.’

The almost fugal return of the missing pepper to the prose – the phrase beginning a sentence for the pleasure of ending it – perfectly mimics poor Badr al-Din’s bewilderment, his futile exasperated outrage, and elevates the absurdity of his crime, as well as his threatened punishment to operatic heights.

This frame tale, to distinguish it from its imitators (The Decameron, The Heptameron, The Pentameron, The Canterbury Tales, Borges, Barth, Calvino), might better be called a ‘chain-tail’, because its framing devices do not merely box its stories in, embed them, as logicians so appropriately say: they link them by beginning a new one while the old one is being told, and continuing it into still a third, as if to staple or stitch (as the ancient rhapsodes were said to do) these narratives together. The frame appears in the very number, now famous, which names them: 1001 – one thousand nights and a night – that is, for a very long time, and then some.

The frame-tale format seems to spring naturally from the way gossip comes and goes, as well as the way we interrupt ourselves, start several hares at once: Fred told me that Mae said Irene was sleeping with that guy Ralph described as a Don Juan. (Don Juan’s conquests came to 1003, the odd number always suggesting that additions might be made at any moment.) Do we want to learn more about Ralph before we return to Irene and her guy? He’s a hunk, I hear, who was a lifeguard in Santa Monica once.

Certainly Sheherazade admits to no originality. ‘I heard, O happy King,’ she says; or: ‘It is related, O King, that Ja’far said to the caliph ... ’ She has been an auditor, herself, as her sister and the King are (as we are, sitting on Dunyazade’s stool), and now they can transmit the gift she gives them to others, without losing the least feature of the story. For each tale ends in an ear only to begin life on the tongue again. Moreover, it is the pull of the possible dénouement that gives us the patience to take pleasure in the many delays which lovemaking imposes on the way to its climax; for lovers can be in many places at once, lips and thighs and fingers touching (the parenthetical is an unexpected caress); there is a rhythm to it, as well as a pattern of uncovering and discovering, of encountering developments so surprising, so tender, so alluring, the lovers nearly break into song (or anyway, into poetry, as the tales often do in their Post-Mod way); nor can we avoid the resemblance between the King’s two intentions (which amount to taking a maiden’s head), and what goes on in Sheherazade’s bed (since it is truly her bed now), or with what happens when our companion, Robert Irwin’s enticing book, tells us how ...

But morning overtook this reviewer, and he lapsed into silence.