Performances for Sleepless Tyrants

Marina Warner

  • Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange translated by Malcolm Lyons, introduced by Robert Irwin
    Penguin, 600 pp, £25.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 139503 6

When Marie-Antoinette couldn’t sleep, she would ring for a lady-in-waiting to come and read to her; a rota of lectrices was on call at Versailles at any time of day or night; before radio or talking books, this was one of the luxuries of the Ancien Régime. The queen could have lit her bedside candle and read to herself, but it wasn’t just a rich woman’s indolence that made that remedy less appealing. Voices have a charmed quality and can lull and give comfort and distract far more soothingly than reading to oneself. Similarly, around ten centuries before Marie-Antoinette, a weary king or prince – for example, Harun al-Rashid, the legendary caliph of Baghdad in its heyday – would ask for a story to calm his troubled mind. Or so it is said in this compendium of stories, freshly unearthed by the Arabists Robert Irwin and Malcolm Lyons, who also worked on the recent Penguin three-volume Arabian Nights.[*]

In Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, the storytellers are mostly described as learned sheikhs with vast libraries and, in contrast to the lectrices of the Bourbon court, they don’t read aloud but perform the stories they know, ex tempore or by heart – we are not told exactly. Similarly, Shahrazad, telling stories in bed with the sultan, isn’t making them up: she already knows them, because she has a library of a thousand books and has read them all – and committed them to memory.

This book is a find, originally made by a German Orientalist, Hellmut Ritter, in the library of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul in 1933. Ritter, who was born in 1892, worked for a year as Aby Warburg’s research assistant and then spent the First World War in the Middle Eastern campaign, translating from Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Back in Germany, he was convicted in 1925 under the law against homosexuality (this during the Weimar Republic). After a year in prison, he left Germany (he spent the entire period of the Third Reich outside the country) for Istanbul, where Erich Auerbach would also take refuge: he must have been starting on Mimesis around the same time as Ritter was rummaging through archives in the former Ottoman capital. Robert Irwin, the editor of Tales of the Marvellous, believes from internal evidence that these stories date as far back as the tenth century; six of them are pretty much reprised in The Arabian Nights, but all of them recognisably belong to that copious genre of fabulous romancing, trickster exploits, bawdy, travellers’ ‘true reports’, and share narrative devices that go back to the Greek ‘novels’ written before Islam – far-fetched coincidences, animal transformations, monsters, fairies and jinn, spells and oracles, shipwrecks, malicious automata. Certain themes return, insistently: the wiles of women, the tyranny of princes, the agonies of love, the cunning of underdogs.

The characters’ ailments alone – from noses bitten off by mermaids to hearts kindled to raging fire by passion – would fill several hospital registers, while the language in which they give utterance to their afflictions forms a wild pre-verbal chorale, such as would make Julia Kristeva smile in affirmation. Here sighs and cries fall thick and fast, mingling with groans and moans, howling, wailing and mewling and, in several of the intense love stories (‘The Story of Sul and Shumul’ or of ‘Mahliya and Mauhub’), torrential lyrics that endlessly swirl around the same images (pearls, gazelles, the new moon, the full moon), driving language to the limits of intelligibility, where semantic meaning vanishes into a kind of corporeal music, the lovers’ arousal crystallising in sounds on the page. These crazy excesses of emotion are designed to make us feel wowed and woeful, too, and go ooh-aah, and oh no oh no oh no along with the action.

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[*] Marina Warner wrote about this in the LRB of 18 December 2008.

[†] Everyman, 892 pp., £15, March 2014, 978 1 8415 9361 6.