The Arabian Nights (Norton Critical Editions)
The Arabian Nights (Norton Critical Editions)

W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
544 pp.,

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Michael Robbins


The Thousand and One Nights.

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Lyons's version of The Arabian Nights is the first complete translation of the authoritative Arabic text known as Calcutta II since Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night in 1885. It joins Husain Haddawy's The Arabian Nights (1992), which offers only 35 stories, as the go-to Nights of choice for the contemporary English reader. Haddawy's translation has recently been reissued in a marvelous Norton Critical Edition that includes, along with much else, al-Mas'udi's and Ibn Nadim's discussions of the text; Edgar Allan Poe's "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade"; and essays by Hofmannsthal, Borges, and Todorov. It's a one-volume concordance to the human imagination's debt to Shahrazad.

There's not much reason to prefer either Lyons or Haddawy over the other—both translators write serviceable, occasionally plodding prose—except their different treatments of the Nights' frequent outbursts of verse. I don't know how this stuff sounds in Arabic, but, as is the case with Eliot's chapter headings in Middlemarch, I wouldn't miss it if it were cut. That's particularly true of Haddawy's Englishings, which are abominable:

You left me burdened with the weight of love,
Being too weak even a shirt to wear.
I marvel not that my soul wastes away
But that my body can your absence bear.

But that my body can your absence bear! I know not but that I'm too weak even a joke to make. I'm a poet, of course, but anyone—Haddawy's editor, for instance—should be able to hear how wretched this is. Haddawy has as much business translating poetry into English as I have starting for the Yankees.

Lyons translates the same lines as:
You loaded me with passion's heavy weight,
Although even one shirt is too much for my strength.
I am not surprised that my life should be lost;
My wonder is how, after your loss, my body can be recognized.

This is not good poetry. It is, in fact, awful—it puts me in mind of Guy Davenport on Richmond Lattimore's Odyssey: "Tone be damned, rhythm and pace be damned, idiom … be damned; this version is going to be punctiliously lexicographic." But Lyons's version has the virtue of employing recognizable English syntax.

Since Lyons also translates the complete text, he has the edge over Haddawy; but that Norton edition is splendid. Anyone interested in the Nights will want both.

Irwin observes that the Nights "should be understood as the collective dreaming of commercial folk in the great cities of the medieval Arab world." The tales teem with shopkeepers, merchants, butchers, grocers, tradesmen, and other representatives of the class from which their readership was composed ("Sindbad was not a sailor but a merchant," Irwin reminds us). The fantastic and romantic elements of the stories—princes, jinn, talking donkeys, lots and lots of sex—encode a kind of class longing, as perhaps the Avengers do in our day. Think of Walter Benjamin's remark that "The world of offices and registries, of musty, shabby, dark rooms, is Kafka's world."

Indeed, the Jewish joke that Benjamin recounts in his essay on Kafka could, with minimal tweaking, have appeared in The Thousand and One Nights. In a Hasidic village, some folks are gathered in "a shabby inn." They are all local people, except for "one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room." As the night wears on, someone suggests that "everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him." The usual things are mentioned—money, a bride for a favored son, a new workbench, and so on—until only the beggar hasn't responded. Reluctantly, he answers:

"I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn't even have time to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish."

The others are perplexed. "And what good would this wish have done you?" someone asks. "I'd have a shirt," the man replies.

So much of what we treasure in the Nights is here: the mysterious stranger; the violent reversal of fortune; the beggar-king; the grandiose deployed for the mundane; the enigmatic, parable-like lesson. And, most of all, the story told by someone in a story. Shahrazad's characters are constantly breaking into her narrative to begin stories of their own, which contain storytellers who tell stories about people who tell stories; and so on, like a Russian doll, a stack of turtles all the way down.

The funniest recurring bit in the Nights is the character who exclaims, "This is no time for a story!" For if the Nights teach us anything, it is that it's always time for a story: our appetite for stories is insatiable, and life is an affair of listening to stories told. Stories end; even Shahrazad's. The jeweler marries the vizier's sister, and they live happily together for many years, until they are "visited by the destroyer of delights and the parter of companions." While we are here, like King Shahriyar on his very first night with Shahrazad, we must be "glad at the thought of listening to a story."

Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin).

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