Tag Archives: Naguib Mahfouz

My Book Year 2019

The year 2019 is almost over and it is time to look back at my reading and blogging experiences.

After a hiatus, I started again to blog more or less regularly and I hope this will be also the case for 2020.

As for my reading, I didn’t keep a diary to track down the books I read this year, but the number is approximately 130, so roughly two and a half books per week, of which around 60% were fiction, 40% non-fiction. Almost all books I read were “real” printed books, only one book was read electronically. I read books in four languages (German, English, French, Bulgarian).

Every book year brings interesting discoveries, pleasant surprises, some re-reads of books I enjoyed in the past, and a few disappointments. Here are my highlights of the last year:

The most beautiful book I read in 2019: Arnulf Conradi, Zen und die Kunst der Vogelbeobachtung (Zen and the Art of Birdwatching)

Best re-reads in 2019: Michel de Montaigne, Essais; Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser; Salomon Maimon, Lebensgeschichte (Autobiography)

Best novels I read in 2019: Marlen Haushofer, Die Wand (The Wall); Uwe Johnson, Jahrestage (Anniversaries); Jean Rhys, Sargasso Sea

Best poetry books I read in 2019: Thomas Brasch: Die nennen das Schrei (Collected Poems); Johannes Bobrowski, Gesammelte Gedichte (Collected Poems), Franz Hodjak, Siebenbürgische Sprechübung (Transylvanian Speaking Exercise); Yehuda Amichai, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai; Anise Koltz, Sich der Stille hingeben (Surrender to the Silence); Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately It Was Paradise; Vladimir Sabourin, Останките на Троцки (Trotzky’s Remains); Rainer René Mueller, geschriebes, selbst mit stein

Best Graphic Novel I read in 2019: Art Spiegelman, Maus

Best SF novel I read in 2019: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Doomed City

Best crime novel I read in 2019: Ingrid Noll, Halali

Best philosophy book I read in 2019: Ibn Tufail, The Improvement of Human Reason

Best non-fiction books I read in 2019: Charles King, The Moldovans; Charles King, Midnight at the Pera Palace; Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom; Adriano Sofri, Kafkas elektrische Straßenbahn (Kafkas Electric Streetcar); Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Lucy Inglis, Milk of Paradise; Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash; Sasha Abramsky, The House of Twenty Thousand Books

Best art book I read in 2019: Hans Belting, Der Blick hinter Duchamps Tür (The View behind Duchamp’s Door)

Best travel book I read in 2019: Johann Gottfried Seume, Spaziergang nach Syrakus (Walk to Syracuse)

Biggest book disappointment in 2019: Elena Ferrante, Neapolitan Novels

Favourite book cover in 2019: Ivo Rafailov’s cover for the Bulgarian edition of Marjana Gaponenko’s Who Is Martha? (this edition is upcoming in January 2020)

Most impressive translator’s work: Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk; Vladimir Sabourin’s translations in his Bulgarian poetry anthology Радост на Началото (The Joy of the Beginning)

Most embarrassing authors in 2019: Peter Handke; Christoph Hein; Zachary Karabashliev

Good as always: Vladimir Sorokin, The Blizzard; Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart; Ismail Kadare, The Traitor’s Niche; Jabbour Douaihy, Printed in Beirut; Georg Klein, Die Zukunft des Mars (The Future of the Mars); Phillipe Claudel, Le rapport de Brodeck (Brodeck), Kapka Kassabova, Border; Naguib Mahfouz, The Midaq Alley

Interesting Authors I discovered in 2019: Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds; Olga Tokarczuk, Flights; Isabel Fargo Cole, Die Grüne Grenze (The Green Border); Hartmut Lange, Das Haus in der Dorotheenstraße (The House in the Dorotheenstraße); Erich Hackl, Abschied von Sidonie (Farewell to Sidonia)

And which were your most remarkable books in 2019?

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reading/Reviewing Plans

The end of the year is approaching with fast steps. This year I haven’t been so active as a blogger as last year until recently – German Lit Month brought me back to the usual pace – and I have done more blog posts on poetry and translations than the year before; also I did more posts in German and one in Bulgarian too. Book blogging is a dynamic process and the focus of such places will always be subject to small unplanned changes, but I will keep also in the next year my habit to publish reviews of books that were interesting to me. As you already know when you follow this blog on a regular basis, my taste in books is rather eclectic. I am definitely not a person who is permanently scanning bestseller lists or is jumping in on discussions about books that were – usually for marketing reasons – the “talk of the town”. Therefore I avoided so far reviewing books by Houellebecq or Knausgård; it is difficult to not be influenced by the public discussion that focuses frequently on aspects that have very little to do with the literary quality of the books by such authors but a lot with their public persona and their sometimes very controversial opinions about certain topics. Not that the books by these authors are necessarily bad, but I prefer to read without too much background noise. So I will come also to these authors, but most probably not in the near future. My blog tries to be diverse, but without quota. But of course my choice is subjective and I am aware of the fact that probably most readers will find many authors/books on this list that are completely unknown to them. If you look for just another blog that is reviewing again and again the same exclusively Anglo-saxon authors, then this might not be the best place for you. If you are eager to discover something new, then you are most welcome.  There are no ads on this blog and this will also not change in the future. There is zero financial interest from my side to keep this blog alive, I do it just for fun. Please don’t send unsolicitated review copies if you are an author or a publisher. In rare cases I might accept a review copy when contacted first but only when I have already an interest in the book. All blog posts contain of course my own – sometimes idiosyncratic – opinion for what it is worth. In general I tend to write reviews on the positive side. When a book disappoints me, I tend to not write a review unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise. These are the books presently on my “To-be-read” pile; which means they are the one’s that i will most probably read and review within the coming months. But as always with such lists, they are permanently subject to changes, additions, removals. Therefore I (and also the readers of this blog) will take this list as an orientation and not as a strict task on which I have to work one by one.  Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart Jim al-Khalili: The House of Wisdom Ryunosunke Akutagawa: Kappa Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati Sinan Antoon: The Corpse Washer Toufic Youssef Aouad: Le Pain Abhijit Banerjee / Esther Duflo: Poor Economics Hoda Barakat: Le Royaume de cette terre Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts Nicolas Born: The Deception Thomas Brasch: Vor den Vätern sterben die Söhne Joseph Brodsky: On Grief and Reason Alina Bronsky: Just Call Me Superhero Alina Bronsky: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe Leila S. Chudori: Pulang Beqe Cufaj: projekt@party  Mahmoud Darwish: Memory of Forgetfulness Oei Hong Djien: Art & Collecting Art Dimitre Dinev: Engelszungen (Angel’s Tongues) Anton Donchev: Time of Parting Jabbour Douaihy: June Rain Michael R. Dove: The Banana Tree at the Gate Jennifer DuBois: A Partial History of Lost Causes Isabelle Eberhardt: Works Tristan Egolf: Lord of the Barnyard Deyan Enev: Circus Bulgaria Jenny Erpenbeck: The End of Days Patrick Leigh Fermor: Mani Milena Michiko Flašar: I called him Necktie David Fromkin: A Peace to End All Peace Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra Amitav Ghosh: In an Antique Land Georg K. Glaser: Geheimnis und Gewalt (Secret and Violence) Georgi Gospodinov: Natural Novel Georgi Gospodinov: The Physics of Sorrow Elizabeth Gowing: Edith and I David Graeber: The Utopia of Rules Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You Knut Hamsun: Hunger Ludwig Harig: Die Hortensien der Frau von Roselius Johann Peter Hebel: Calendar Stories Christoph Hein: Settlement Wolfgang Hilbig: The Sleep of the Righteous Albert Hofmann / Ernst Jünger: LSD Hans Henny Jahnn: Fluss ohne Ufer (River without Banks) (Part II) Franz Jung: Der Weg nach unten Ismail Kadare: Broken April Ismail Kadare: The Palace of Dreams Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor (Editors): The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia: 1965-1968 Rosen Karamfilov: Kolene (Knees) Orhan Kemal: The Prisoners Irmgard Keun: Nach Mitternacht Georg Klein: Libidissi Friedrich August Klingemann: Bonaventura’s Nightwatches Fatos Kongoli: The Loser Theodor Kramer: Poems Friedo Lampe: Septembergewitter (Thunderstorm in September) Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy Curzio Malaparte: Kaputt Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers Sandor Marai: Embers Sean McMeekin: The Berlin-Baghdad Express Multatuli: Max Havelaar Alice Munro: Open Secrets Marie NDiaye: Three Strong Women Irene Nemirovsky: Suite française  Ben Okri: The Famished Road Laksmi Pamuntjak: The Question of Red Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra Georges Perec: Life. A User’s Manual Leo Perutz: By Night Under the Stone Bridge Boris Pilnyak: Mahogany Alek Popov: Black Box Milen Ruskov: Thrown Into Nature Boris Savinkov: Memoirs of a Terrorist Eric Schneider: Zurück nach Java Daniel Paul Schreber: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness Carl Seelig: Wandering with Robert Walser Victor Serge: The Case of Comrade Tulayev Anthony Shadid: House of Stones Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales Raja Shehadeh: A Rift in Time Alexander Shpatov: #LiveFromSofia Werner Sonne: Staatsräson? Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Way to Babadag Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute Pramoedya Ananta Toer: A Mute’s Soliloquy Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The Buru Quartet (4 vol.) Lionel Trilling: The Middle of the Journey Iliya Trojanov: The Collector of Worlds Bernward Vesper: Die Reise (The Journey) Robert Walser: Jakob von Gunten Peter Weiss: The Aesthetics of Resistance Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence Marguerite Yourcenar: Coup de Grace Galina Zlatareva: The Medallion Arnold Zweig: The Case of Sergeant Grisha Stay tuned – and feel free to comment any of my blog posts. Your contributions are very much appreciated. You are also invited to subscribe to this blog if you like.
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Utopia, resurrected

Alexandria, the second biggest Egyptian city, has been for most of its history a truly cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. From the time of its foundation by Alexander the Great until the Suez crisis Alexandria housed not only a big Greek community, but also people from all possible different ethnic, national and religious background. When you would walk on the streets of Alexandria one hundred years ago, you would probably hear people on the streets talking to each other in about a dozen different languages.

Alexandria was not paradise, but it was a place where during most of its history, its inhabitants – no matter what their origin was – had learned to get along with each other. (For those who are interested in the history of Alexandria and the other multi-ethnic cities of the Mediterranean Beirut, Smyrna and Saloniki, I would like to recommend a book by the British historian Philip Mansel: Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, London 2010)

It is therefore easy to understand that Alexandria was and still is a place that inspired the imagination of many writers. The Greek poet Constantin Cavafy spent most of his rather uneventful life in this city and created his poetry here. E.M. Forster devoted two of his works to the city (Alexandria: A History and a Guide and Pharos and Pharillon). His friend Lawrence Durrell used Alexandria as a backdrop of his Alexandria Quartet, a series of four novels. Also several Egyptian (Arabic) authors have made Alexandria the location of some of their most important works, e.g. Naguib Mahfouz’ novel Miramar.

And there is of course a rich autobiographic literature and memoirs of people who have lived in Alexandria, such as the beautiful Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman, or George Moustaki’s Les Filles de la mémoire (Moustaki’s father owned an antiquarian bookstore in Alexandria).

The collection of short stories Farewell to Alexandria, by Harry E. Tzalas fits into this context. Tzalas, born and educated in Alexandria, emigrated to Brazil in 1956 before settling in Greece where he became the founder and president of the Hellenic Institute for Ancient and Medieval Alexandrian Studies in Athens, a position that brought him frequently back to the city of his youth.

The eleven short stories, written between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, explore the Alexandria of the late 1930s, through WWII, the 1952 revolution and the Suez crisis that ended with the almost complete dispersal of the non-Arabic population of Alexandria.

The characters in Tzala’s stories are taken mainly from his childhood and youth. They come from different social milieus and different religions and are described with great warmth, sensitivity and perception.

There is for example Antoun, a poor Lebanese shoemaker, a simple but good man. One day, a relative of Antoun dies in Beirut, and the hero of the story inherits a modest amount of money. Now the quiet life of work and weekend fishing excursions of Antoun comes to a halt for some time. Should he start his own business now that he has the opportunity and the funds to do so? Should he invest the money somewhere else? What to do with this sudden modest wealth? Antoun doesn’t sleep well for a while until he comes to the probably wise decision to spend the money for the fulfillment of a long existing secret wish: he always wanted a watch! Once he makes up his mind, he goes ahead without further hesitation – he buys watches for all family members and a little radio. And leads his life from that moment on just as if nothing has happened. Not a very exciting or wealthy life, but probably a quite happy one. At least he rose to the status of a watch owner, and that’s probably as far as the ambition of Antoun would lead him. The story ends with a short afterword:

The years passed. I left Alexandria. Osta Antoun died. I got the news when I met an old acquaintance who used to go fishing with us on Sundays. “Antoun passed on,” he said. “May God have mercy on his soul. He was a good man. It was his heart, you know. He was buried holding his watch tightly in his hands.”

Many of the characters in Tzalas’ stories are waiting for something to happen, like the Armenian family in The little Armenian girl that is waiting for the ship to bring them home. But frequently, the expected is not happening, or when it comes finally, something important has changed in the meantime. Life is taking its own course and we are usually not the masters of our destinies.

Some of the stories are particularly moving because they show the fate of families that are stranded in a hostile surrounding during WWII. The front line was not very far away from Alexandria, and the authorities (and some neighbors) were not particularly friendly to the number of Italian or German families that resided in Alexandria. That some of them showed open support and sympathy with the enemy didn’t exactly help to make their lives easier. Frau Grete and Sidi Bishr, October 1942 deals with this aspect, but the stories are never dry history lessons. They always put the spot light on some very interesting and credible characters.

Tzalas’ book breathes a certain melancholy. Because it describes a lost Utopia. But it is thanks to stories like the one’s that Tzalas is telling us, that this Utopia is kept alive at least in our memories:

Alexandria is resurrected for all those who called her Utopia, who have loved her and lost her; the Alexandria of children and poets. (from: Alexandria ad Aegyptum)

The book is illustrated by Anna Boghiguian, an Armenian-Egyptian artist. The illustrations are very evocative and add to the charm of this beautiful collection of stories.

Tzalas

Harry E. Tzalas: Farewell to Alexandria, transl. Susan E. Mantouvalou, illustrated by Anna Boghiguian, The American University of Cairo Press, Cairo, 2004

Philip Mansel: Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (London, John Murray, 2010) 

E.M. Forster: Alexandria: A History and Guide / Pharos and Pharillon, Andre Deutsch, 2004

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet, Faber and Faber 2012

C P Cavafy: Complete Poems, transl. Daniel Mendelsohn, Harper Press, 2013

Georges Moustaki: Les Filles de la mémoire, Editions Calmann-Levy, 1989

Andre Aciman: Out of Egypt: a memoir, I B Tauris, 2006 

Naguib Mahfouz: Miramar, transl. Fatma Moussa Mahmoud, The American University of Cairo Press, Cairo, 1998

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature

Tresilian

The Middle East is one of the most important geo-strategic regions in the world. This is due to its geographical position, its richness in oil and gas but also due the nature of the conflicts that are taking place in this region and that have a deep impact on a very big number of people even outside this region. It is therefore reasonable and even important to have an understanding of what is going on in this region that is again very much in the media focus after the Arab Spring and several armed internal conflicts.

What surprised me most when I started to live in the Middle East for several years was that the reality I was facing there is so much more complex and interesting than what an average informed citizen of a western country would expect if he would only follow the media reports in his or her home country. There is a comparatively small number of journalists or political analysts in the West that have the knowledge, the access to media and the ability to explain the complexities of life and politics in the Middle East to the public in their countries in a way that is free of a patronizing attitude and also unbiased regarding the “official” narrative that is always dividing the world neatly into the “good” and the “bad” one’s, i.e. those that are considered worthy to be supplied with the most modern military technology and those who are on the receiving end of this annihilation machinery. The reality is unfortunately more complicated than this Manichean world view suggests: there are no “good” one’s – it’s frequently just about which of the groups involved in a conflict is serving our interests better. Nothing personal, it’s all just about oil, gas and political influence.

In order not to leave the field exclusively to those “experts” who still perpetuate the Orientalist perspective about which Edward Said was writing long and controversial books, it would help already a lot if we would perceive the Middle East as a region where people live that are not really different from us. And what would be easier than to perceive them in the way they are expressing themselves, for example by art, literature, cinema and all other kind of cultural activities. There is a thriving cultural industry in all these countries and since I am dealing here in this blog mainly with literature, I just want to point at the fact that there is an extremely interesting contemporary Arabic literature that is to a growing part available in other languages (some of it is even written in English or French).

In my last blog I wrote up on an interesting novel by Ibrahim al-Koni. I am absolutely convinced that reading his books or the excellent books of Hisham Matar (he writes in English) can give a reader a much better understanding of what’s going on in Libya nowadays. The same is true for the writings of Algerian writers like Boualem Sansal or Yasmina Khadra. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is presented in western media usually in a very partial and biased way. Those who read Ghassan Khanafani’s stories or the poetic books of Mahmoud Darwish, one of the greatest poets of our times will understand that there is also another side of the story. Readers of Alaa al-Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building” or Edwar al-Kharrat’s novels will have a deeper understanding of the problems of the Egyptian society.

And these are just a few examples. I am not saying that reading novels, stories and poems can replace the serious study of history, political science and other relevant subjects. But great literature can give you an insight in a culture that goes indeed very deep and sometimes much beyond rather dry textbooks. And beside from that it is just sheer pleasure to discover great works like the “Cairo Trilogy” by Naguib Mahfouz, the “Diary of a Country Prosecutor” by Tawfik al-Hakim, the autobiography of Taha Hussein, or the dark masterpieces of Abdurrahman Munif, especially his “Cities of Salt”.

Those who want to have a short overview about Arabic literature have now an excellent opportunity to discover this interesting literary continent. David Tresilian’s “A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature” gives on less than 200 pages a very reader-friendly overview on the history of Arabic literature. In several chronological chapters we learn about the main epochs in modern Arabic literature and are presented the main writers with a very short presentation of their major works.

Tresilian also pays special attention to poetry, the problems of the diaspora, and the development of a publishing industry in a surrounding where authors and publishers are always threatened by censorship or even worse (many Arab authors have been in prison at least once or have been threatened in one way or another for expressing themselves in their books). Book distribution is also a challenge that is hampering the outreach of contemporary Arabic literature in the Middle East, especially outside the capitals. On the other hand, publishing houses in Beirut (the main publishing place in the Middle East) and Cairo seem to thrive and there are a growing number of book fairs and bookstores that attract a growing number of readers. After the Nobel prize was awarded to Naguib Mahfouz, there has been also a (modest) translation boom in the English and German speaking countries at least.

Unfortunately the book is not covering the Maghreb region, although some of the most important Arabic authors origin from there. Literature that is written in other languages than Arabic is equally not considered, even when the authors come from the region. (That excludes for example the excellent novel “Beer in the Snooker Club”, by Waguih Ghali) These limitations were obviously necessary in order not to exceed the size of a “Brief Introduction”. Within these limitations the book is highly recommended to those who wish to discover one of the most interesting literary “continents”.

David Tresilian: A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature, Saqi, London San Francisco Beirut 2008

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.