Arabic literature boasted a number of luminaries in the mid-80s, as Denys Johnson-Davies recounts in his Memories in Translation and the introduction to The Essential Naguib Mahfouz. In those years, the Arabic-writing world had at least five Nobel worthies.
Near the end of the 80s, Johnson-Davies was called up for a meeting with a representative of the Swedish committee. He and the unnamed Swede discussed four of these writers: the Syrian poet Adonis, Egyptian short-story writer and playwright Yusuf Idris, Sudanese novelist Tayib Salih, and the eventual winner, Naguib Mahfouz. Johnson-Davies adds in his introduction to The Essential Naguib Mahfouz that Tawfiq al-Hakim was not included in the Nobel discussion only “because he had already passed away” in 1987.
Recently, four of these five authors have had their works distilled into career-spanning English-language volumes.
The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim came out in 2008, followed by The Essential Yusuf Idris (2009), both edited by pioneer translator Johnson-Davies. In 2010, Adonis: Selected Poems appeared, translated and edited by poet Khaled Mattawa. In the spring of 2011—Mahfouz’s centenary year—The Essential Naguib Mahfouz was published.
None of these authors is easy to boil down to 300-odd pages. But the “essential” Naguib Mahfouz is perhaps the most mind-boggling project. The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim and Yusuf Idris are successful and enjoyable collections, if not definitive. And Adonis: Selected Poems is a dazzling survey of the poet’s work, from his early years to his later esoteric experiments.
But the oeuvre of Naguib Mahfouz is far more unwieldy than any of these three. Mahfouz did write short stories, flash fictions, and one-act plays. But it is impossible to understand his significance without the big novels, such as his 1,300-page Trilogy. And the joy of reading the Trilogy in translation doesn’t happen sentence by sentence. It is a joy of familiarity with the Abd al-Jawad family, of spending generations (and 1,300 pages) with them, and watching how time and power deal with each in turn.
The structure Johnson-Davies uses in The Essential Naguib Mahfouz is similar to the one Mattawa employs in Adonis: Selected Poems. Both aim to tell the story of a writer’s work through excerpts placed in chronological order. Johnson-Davies begins with a few pages from one of Mahfouz’s early pharaonic novels, Thebes at War, and leaps along until we arrive at Mahfouz’s final Dreams of Departure.
Mattawa’s collection succeeds so spectacularly in part because he is the sole translator. In The Essential Naguib Mahfouz, there are instead more than a dozen practitioners at work. It’s also much easier to see most of Adonis’s innovations in this small space, as he generally worked on a smaller canvas. Mahfouz’s linguistic achievements are often invisible in translation. And his structural and formal experiments are nearly impossible to grasp in a 10 or 20-page excerpt.
Morning and Evening Talk (1987), for instance, was one of Mahfouz’s “most innovative contributions to the Arabic novel,” Johnson-Davies writes in his one-paragraph introduction to the book. The novel is made up of sixty-seven short pieces that span two centuries. But the core of the experiment is that the book is arranged alphabetically, not chronologically, a sort of family dictionary. In The Essential Naguib Mahfouz, we have just one single entry-fragment.
For a reader already familiar with many of Mahfouz’s novels, the Essential Naguib Mahfouz is like looking through an old friend’s photo album: Oh, here is the moment when Amina breaks her arm! And yes, this is where Ragab hits a pedestrian out on the Pyramids Road! And now, here, the confrontation with “Abd al-Wahab Ismail,” who is clearly the Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb!
The closer you are to a family, the more pleasurable their photo albums tend to be. For a reader who knows Mahfouz, this collection can be a happy, if bouncy, journey through his works. But if Mahfouz is a stranger, then the de-contextualized portraits might be a little mind-numbing.
This book is thus not for the Mahfouz novice. But to someone familiar with his work, who wants a glimpse of the master’s larger canvas, Johnson-Davies uses his long experience to give a hand up.