Saturday, July 20, 2013

Prelude to Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy

I am just over 50% done with reading Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy.  It's been a bit of a monkey on my back for a while, and I am excited to have finally delved into it.  I think I'll hold off from too much in the way of exposition or deep thoughts on the novel until a later post.  I have slightly conflicted feelings about the trilogy, so I want to read a bit more to see which way I break.  Interestingly, the novels actually get shorter as they go on.  Unlike some multi-generational novels, Mahfouz doesn't really pick up and follow after the grandchildren.  He's content to stick with the 7 characters in the original nuclear family, and thus there is less to write about as they start shuffling off this mortal coil...

In the meantime, one thing I found out from the individual volumes (which wasn't mentioned in the massive one-volume book from Everyman's Library) is that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was the primary editor of the translations.  It hadn't crossed my mind at all that she was an editor, particularly not of these particular books.  It turns out that as soon as Aristotle Onassis died,* she decided to re-enter the workforce and called some friends to get her into publishing.  It took a few years, but she became quite a serious book editor and did this for nearly 20 years.  This is recounted in two dueling books (Jackie as Editor by Greg Lawrence and Reading Jackie by William Kuhn).  I am not quite intrigued enough to actually read either of these books, but maybe I will browse through to see if they list her work in an appendix to see if she did any other "serious" books aside from Mahfouz (and if she was involved with translations of his work beyond The Cairo Trilogy).

Everyone quoted in the reviews of these books say she was a conscientious editor and someone who just loved books (and filled her apartment with them).  That was never really part of my enduring image of her, but I think that is pretty cool.

Another interesting fact is that the Cairo Trilogy wasn't translated until 1991.  That's really quite a gap between the original (published in serial form in the late 50s) and when English-speakers could read Mahfouz's master work.  Certainly it is a shame it took so long.**  In many ways, it probably is just as well that I waited such a long time to really get deep into Mahfouz, as quite a few of his novels have only recently made it into translation.  The American University in Cairo Press has really poured a lot of resources into this project, and now virtually all of Mahfouz's major works have now been translated (far more than when I first became aware of Mahfouz from an old QPB club edition of Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs and Miramar -- I probably snagged this in the early 90s).  Sometimes being that "late adopter" does pay off, since I can pretty much read all his work straight through in sequence, though I probably will need to reread Midaq Alley, since that one I read back in the 90s and don't recall it well at all.

* It certainly sounds as if Aristotle had a lot of personal issues in common with the father in The Cairo Trilogy, which makes her involvement that much more intriguing.  (I'll go into this in more detail in a follow-up post.)

** I was actually going to say it was a bit of a scandal in that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, largely for the Cairo Trilogy, and no one could find decent translations of his work.  But in fact, he won the Nobel quite late in life (1988), and that is almost certainly what led to his being translated in the first place (the QPB volume rounded up a few novels that had been translated already and then a few other novels were translated and then the Cairo Trilogy translation was undertaken).  Perhaps of all the Nobel winners, he might actually have gotten the biggest boost.  Usually poets who win get a bit more respect (and maybe a selected poems in translation) but this fame is transient.  Most of the other novelists (not writing in English) were already fairly well-known and had much of their work in translation.  With Mahfouz, however, the Nobel worked the way it perhaps was always intended to, to spark the interest of the rest of the world and to get a few critical works in translation, then this translated into a sustained readership (and legacy) outside his (or her) home country.

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