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This book is a find, originally made by a German Orientalist, Hellmut Ritter, in the library of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul in 1933.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.

The manuscript of Tales of the Marvellous may date from the 14th century, which would make it older than what is thought to be the earliest existing manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights. It’s missing its title page, and the table of contents shows that only 18 stories out of the original 42 have survived. A typical phrase from the tales gives the book its title; rather like Dave Eggers’s A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, it promises the earth while conceding, with a sly smile, that it might not quite deliver. It was first published in Arabic in 1956 and since then several scholars, including Ulrich Marzolph, the veteran expert on The Arabian Nights, have worked on translations. But this is the first time all the stories have been edited and published in English. Ritter himself seems to have been chiefly interested in Fariduddin Attar, the Sufi mystic and author of The Conference of the Birds – a very different literary creature from the anonymous author/compiler of Tales of the Marvellous.

The translator, Malcolm Lyons, has rendered these stories with brio, but has kept close to the text – he hasn’t tried to patch up non sequiturs, repetition, mistakes of continuity, and he keeps the stiffness of the opening formulae (‘They say – and God knows better and is more glorious and nobler’) and the closing blessings (‘This is the complete story – and we take refuge with God from any additions and subtractions’). Every now and then the reader comes across a cryptic [lac.], indicating that something is missing. As Wen-chin Ouyang’s new selection of The Arabian Nights richly reveals, earlier translators never bothered with such scruples: they embroidered as they pleased.[†]

To astonish was the principal aim of the stories, as Irwin emphasises in his introduction, and the narrators find, invent and inventory for us ‘aja’ib – ‘astonishing things’ – so that several of these tales recall the images on ancient maps: sea serpents swallowing ships whole, ravenous monsters the size of islands, men with eyes in the middle of their chests, trees bearing fruit in the shape of human heads that speak, and the magnetic mountain which draws every nail from an approaching vessel so that it falls all to flinders. The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes, now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, composed after 1050 (only fifty or so years after the putative date of Tales of the Marvellous), includes remarkable maps of real places (Sicily, the Nile, the Oxus and the Tigris) alongside accounts of monstrous animals and wonderful plants.

Geography, rather than history, offers the more immediate site of the marvellous, and the protagonists set out to seek after wisdom; they are travellers across oceans as well as down to the bottom of the sea. The quest for astonishment is bound up with the desire for knowledge: ‘We only want to look at marvels and to see what we have never seen before,’ say one lot of questers. The fantastical here provides possible replies to the ‘Why?’ questions wondering children ask, before lessons have dulled their hunger to understand how the world works and what it means. When Susan Isaacs opened her experimental school in Cambridge in 1924, she and her husband collected questions of that sort. They included: ‘Why don’t we see two things with our two eyes?’ ‘Why do ladies not have beards?’ ‘Why do the angels never fall down to earth when there is no floor in heaven?’ Such primal wonderment spurs on fancy and the invention of stories. It also drives on a kind of omnivorousness: the stories don’t want to leave anything out. More is never enough.

Fantastical nonsense, reaching out to grasp the astonishing unknown, does make a kind of sense for contemporary readers. As Angela Carter writes of her magus hero in ‘The Curious Room’, ‘He truly believed that nothing was unknowable. That is what makes him modern.’ Some of the tales are also concerned with falsehood, their author taking the part of a wise fool. Several of the sadder and wiser and funnier stories in Tales of the Marvellous – ‘The Story of Abu Disa, Nicknamed the Bird, and the Marvels of His Strange and Comical Story’ is one example – show great glee in exposing the sham of court astrologers. Abu Disa, a poor weaver, strikes gold when he sets himself up in the street as ‘a magical stranger’ and succeeds, again and again, in confounding all the learned scholars’ attempts to see into deep secrets – mostly through a series of misunderstandings involving puns. Lyons manages to double these in English, though with some of the strain that so often makes Shakespeare’s buffoons and their foolery hard to follow. This tale incidentally demonstrates how a certain kind of Oriental story, with cartoonish exaggerations and a sense of fun and irreverence for the great, would inspire Voltaire with ways of writing his contes philosophiques.

Reading these stories we get glimpses of familiar faces in a crowd, as the Esperanto of fairytale motifs is jumbled up and reshuffled (The Arabian Nights also tell stories about fabulous journeys, such as ‘The Adventures of Sindbad’, and even offer practical advice about how to breathe underwater when you are staying with mermen and their families under the sea). But Tales of the Marvellous differ from The Arabian Nights in many crucial respects; they are less surprising and less intense, either as new stories (new to me, new to us), or as predecessors of later variations in the Nights. Irwin concludes his introduction with the suggestion that Tales of the Marvellous is ‘an early form of pulp fiction’, and should be considered as literature not folklore, if the latter is taken to be transcribed oral tradition. The stories were originally set down, he says, in a coarse Arabic, and you can feel the writer rushing ahead, now saying to himself, ‘I’ll just turn X into a crocodile here,’ or ‘What about Y blasting away everyone now with her magic powder?’

To me, these tales read less like a written work than like a professional storyteller’s script – the book he would draw on when summoned to perform for a sleepless tyrant. It’s a miscellany pure and simple, and the effect is closer to one of the Greek mythological handbooks, which recorded stories rather than, as in Ovid or Apuleius, shaping them into structured, complex narrative cycles. In more recent times, Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books come to mind as equivalents, and Penguin’s gilded and engraved, peacock blue, Islamicate blockboard cover increases this affinity (though the volume is not otherwise illustrated).

The plotting in these tales lacks shape and purpose: the stories meander and often feel as if they’re going nowhere – or as if, like a parent trying to keep going at bedtime with an anxious and restless child, the author is trying to think up something more for the protagonists to endure. ‘Then suddenly …’ connects many scenes. Above all, there is no framing narrator to give direction and purpose, in contrast to other members of the family of concatenated tales. In the 17th-century Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile, for example, the stories are brilliantly organised so that a wronged bride can be rescued and, in the final scene, her usurper unmasked; and, as we know, Shahrazad’s ‘ransom tales’ aim at saving her own life and the lives of all other women under threat from the sultan’s edict.

In some tales in this new collection, a character wants to hear a story to calm his nerves, as we have seen, or help him to overcome his sorrow. In ‘The Story of ‘Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, as Well as the Wonders of the Seas and Islands’, a king’s beloved young daughter has died, and a blind sheikh, consulted about consoling the distraught father, promises to ‘tell him a story that is both fine and strange that will make him hate women and girls and make him glad that his daughter died’. This motive gives a perverse point to the farrago he then embarks on, a picaresque tale of the ultimate femme fatale, whose name, ‘Arus al ‘Ara’is, means ‘bride of brides’.

The sheikh doesn’t pass on the tale of her deeds of darkness in his own voice; instead, he in turn introduces a narrator; this wretch, scraped up from the lower depths, is a one-eyed repeat offender whose last crime was the attempted rape of his own mother. He tries to explain away his crimes to a police officer, protesting that they were all the fault of his passion for ‘Arus. ‘She will be wily and deceitful and more evil than any other of Adam’s children,’ the astrologer had prophesied at her birth. After she loses her virginity with a lover, ‘Arus arranges for her friends to be a gang raped at her wedding so that she will not be alone in her dishonour. She is clever with ointments, powders and spells, and poisons her own (loyal) mother without a moment’s remorse. Entirely possessed by motiveless malignancy, even posthumously, she contrives to burn down by her dark arts the council chamber where the case against her was heard.

We are not told whether the story had the desired effect and cheered up the king – this is one of many loose threads. In spite of this lack of focus, ‘Arus al ‘Ara’is’ is the most spirited, cleverly told and amusing story in the book.

Scenes from several tales in The Arabian Nights appear here, but they are like reflections glimpsed in a mirror: ‘Arus’s sadism very closely resembles the cruel treatment the sorceress metes out to her young husband in the ‘Prince of the Black Islands’, and her revenge on her judges strikes echoes with the magnificent fable ‘The Greek King and the Physician Douban’, in which the doctor’s severed head brings death on his unjust executioner. And yet, the story of Douban hangs together and the revenge is thrilling because it supports Shahrazad’s overarching project, to warn despots that they will not triumph.

‘Arus’s fate has no such moral scaffolding: her misdeeds are flamboyant and inventive, but the reader is left with little to think about – except the misogyny itself. This reaches such extremes that it feels burlesqued. The chief storyteller-within-the-story is an unreliable narrator who blames ‘Arus for his own lurid crimes; she is a painted-by-numbers femme fatale, a medieval Arabic precursor of Manon Lescaut or of the irresistible Jeanne Moreau character in Jules et Jim.

The Arabian Nights directly confronts the popular Eastern motif of the ‘deceits of women’: Shahrazad’s secret plan involves cunning and seduction; she is herself clearly a daughter of ‘Arus, carrying her damned designs into the marriage bed. But the whole pattern of the tales leads the sultan – and the reader – to see how mistaken he is and we are in assuming that women like her are up to no good. Shahrazad is a deliverer, an Esther who saves her people. Casting Shahrazad in the role of the sultan’s preceptor, The Arabian Nights transforms one vigorous tradition of Oriental stories – warnings against women – into another: a mirror for princes, or moral education in justice and magnanimity. It understands and uses the craft of storytelling, setting up a counterargument about women in dialogue with the beliefs and fantasies embedded in popular imagination by such collections as Tales of the Marvellous.

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

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