Palace of Desire – Naguib Mahfouz

You imply there’s a difference between prestige and learning! There’s no true knowledge without prestige and wealth. and why are you talking about learning as though it’s one thing?..Some kinds of knowledge are appropriate for tramps and others belong to the pashas of the world.

How can you describe a spirit using corporeal expressions

Long live the revolution!

The second book in Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, picks up seven years after the events of Palace Walk. Our protagonists have aged in the intervening years and have just now seemed to recover from the tragedy that struck the family at the conclusion of the last book, but the most notable development is that al-Sayyid Ahmad has loosened his authoritarian grip over his family–not always for the better. Palace of Desire is perhaps most characterized by how the characters begin to strip away the layers of formality and constructed roles, seeing who their family members are for the first time.

The bulk of Palace of Desire is dedicated to the stories of the three remaining men of the family, al-Sayyid Ahmad and his sons Yasin and Kamal. al-Sayyid has only recent resumed his attending the raucous parties thrown by his friends and is utterly infatuated with the lute-player Zanuba, who dreams of being a wife. The older son, Yasin, is one of the villains of Palace Walk and continues in his philandering ways through a second and, in quick succession, third marriage. Both marriages are scandalous and cause his father no end of grief, particularly when their amorous affairs come into contact. Yet, where Yasin is indulgent with women and drink to the point to the point that he fails in his societal responsibilities, al-Sayyid is ever diligent in protecting his children.

The affairs of al-Sayyid Ahmad and Yasin are trapped in the past and it is therefore appropriate that the women they pursue are familiar to the reader from Palace Walk. In contrast, Kamal gets a coming of age story in three parts that all revolve around the same central issue: ought the family be looking to tradition or to the west. Now sixteen, he has grown into an intelligent and likable young man, traditional in his dress and disproportionate in his features, but, above all, firmly committed to the cause of Egyptian nationalism. Although his upbringing is old-fashioned and his background modest, al-Sayyid’s success as a merchant and good reputation won his son a position in a good school where Kamal made friends with the children of wealthy and influential families. However, where his friends are destined for lives of luxury or careers in the diplomatic corps, Kamal is determined to go to teacher’s school and pursue a career in writing, much to his father’s dismay.After all, al-Sayyid Ahmad believes the purpose of educating his sons is so that they can gain prestige in modern Egyptian society. At the same time, Kamal falls in love with Aida, the sister of his dear friend Husayn, but, while his heart longs for this elegant, westernized woman who has spent time in Paris, there remains the question of whether she is using him in order to manipulate someone else. Finally, in his despair, Kamal begins to dabble with things he sees as being outside the form of Islam he was raised with, including prostitutes, alcohol, and western science.

Palace of Desire is a specific location in the book (of Yasin’s new house), a metaphorical one for all of the male characters, and could be regarded as one of the overriding themes. However, I believe the dominant theme is how the characters gradually come to understand who their family members are rather. Frequently, this unveiling takes the form of coming to recognize what people actually do when their family is not watching, such as al-Sayyid’s sons seeing him drink and sing, Yasin and Kamal bumping into each other drunk at a prostitute’s door, or al-Sayyid reading an article on Darwin that Kamal published in a literary journal. Every character in the family, as well as those they interact with, project different version of themselves depending on the context and Mahfouz juxtaposes these externalizations with internal dialogue. Much of Palace of Desire, then, is dedicated to the gradual reconciling of the differences between the two.

My biggest problem with Palace of Desire, and why I think it is a modest step back from Palace Walk, is that the stories of the women felt incomplete. For instance, it is stated that Amina received additional freedoms in the intervening years, but as the story of the men takes them further and further from her walls, she is given proportionally less space. Her actions and words are well-conceived and I liked her moments, but she is no longer the rock of the family. Likewise, there is an episode in the middle of the story about domestic strife at Khadija and Aisha’s new home, particularly strife between Khadija and her mother-in-law, that requires al-Sayyid Ahmad to be drawn in as mediator. It is a marvelous scene, both because Khadija launches a devious propaganda campaign against her sister and mother-in-law and because it prompts al-Sayyid Ahmad to have a revelation regarding gender: that Khadija, despite being a woman, is his child who inherited most of his best qualities. But this arc mostly appears and then vanishes without reference to it elsewhere. As with Amina’s story, the result is that the the writing and characterization is excellent and the themes of these passages mesh with the rest of the story, but the tightly-knit family drama that explored issues of gender in such interesting ways in Palace Walk feels just a bit incomplete in Palace of Desire.

I started reading Palace of Desire shortly after President Trump tried to ban Muslims from entering the United States. I have owned the book for some time now, but chose it because I didn’t have literature by authors from the countries targeted by the ban and Mahfouz wrote in Arabic, so I figured it could serve as a stand-in. Mahfouz presents an Egypt in the throes of a nationalist movement, but trapped between the West and tradition (not necessarily Islam, but it plays a role), between indulging personal choice and fulfilling responsibility, and between the different responses one can have to the inevitability of change.

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I am currently reading two books, Ann Leckie’s Hugo-winning novel Ancillary Justice, which I found a bit difficult to get into but am now enjoying it, I think, and G.R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire, which I am enjoying the heck out of and have thoughts on both as a fan in terms of the actual material and as a historian in terms of the form.

My #content, or where to find me

One of my goals for this year once I am done with my degree is to try to put myself out there, writing more widely, on more topics, and for more outlets. Right now, however, my #content is primarily reserved for offline consumption (i.e. written to achieve my degree or for conferences), submitted to academic publishers, or hosted on my own platforms such as this blog or Twitter. It has been a little while since I have taken stock of where I can be found online, so here is a rundown:

Twitter jpnudell

Twitter is my primary vehicle for social media and has been for a number of years. I use the platform for collecting news, jokes, baby animal pictures, and scholarship, roughly in that order. After spiking briefly last spring when I was one of a small group of people tweeting from an academic conference, my usage rate has dropped back down again. Naturally, my most-seen tweet from January encapsulates my current opinion about the site:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I go through periodic crises about my usage on the site, anxieties that have only been heightened in the new year of protests and impending joblessness and lack of departmental affiliation. I want to tweet more and to tweet thoughts about books and refugees and scholarship, but, at the same time, I am racing against several different countdown clocks in terms of writing deadlines and the need for a job and the perpetual outrage online makes it impossible for me to complete those projects to my satisfaction. I have things I want to say, but one of the things I am struggling with is what I want my Twitter account to be for. I have some ideas, but most of them require more time, something I don’t have for at least the next few months.

Instagram jpnudell

The most recent addition to my social media presence, I have started using this account more frequently since getting a smartphone. Mostly, I document my baking projects, books I’m reading, and cats, along with assorted photos of trips and the like. I don’t have much of an agenda or plan for this account, but have been using it as an excuse to take more pictures and work on better use of hashtags.

G+ Joshua Nudell – Status: inactive

Since I use Google extensively, it should not be a surprise that I have a G+ account. If I recall correctly, I once tried to use G+ as a Facebook replacement, but didn’t find the service either as useful or as addictive as Facebook, so I have left the page fallow.

Facebook Status: 404 Error Page not Found.

I deleted my Facebook account in 2012, announcing it in a post where I declared that Facebook failed. I should amend this statement. I was commenting on Zuckerberg’s stated purpose of bringing the world together by getting people to live in a fishbowl, but, ultimately, that isn’t Facebook’s goal. Facebook has been unbelievably successful in getting people to turn to it as a standard place to write, communicate, organize events, and post information and pictures. It is an addictive ecosystem that makes it particularly easy for other people in the system to use while being annoying for those on the outside. For all of that, I also believe that my life is significantly better for not having an account.

Ello jpnu

I do this thing where I try out almost every social media site when it comes out, at least for a little while. Most of these I let fall dormant if I don’t find something compelling to keep me coming back to them. Ello has an eclectic group of people posting things, but I tend to be more literary and less visual in my posts and without feeling like I had an audience at least somewhat built in, I never really used this site. Writing this post was the first time in about a year that I have even logged into my account.

Academia.edu Joshua Nudell

The calls for academics dropping their academia.edu accounts have been growing louder in recent months, most notably in an essay penned by Sarah Bond. I haven’t followed suit just yet, but neither do I really use this site. (In fact, my main interaction with it lately was for an editor to tell me that I had to delete information from it in order to have my work considered because it interfered with anonymous peer review.) I have found this site useful for finding some information in the past, but mostly in terms of stalking people rather than genuine interaction and I am wholly opposed to the site’s catering to analytics and then playing gatekeeper for who gets to have the greatest impact. It is an extortionate practice and while I am going to keep my presence on Academia.edu for the time being, I think it is a matter of when, not if, I delete this account.

Humanities Commons jpnudell

Humanities Commons is a site started as an open-access alternative for Academia.edu, hosted by the MLA. I registered for an account as soon as I found out about it, but have only recently begun migrating my information and documents over and thus have not spent much time on it. My impression thus far is that it has a much smaller footprint than Academia.edu, at least in the field of history, but that I prefer its interface and ideology.

Silent House – Orhan Pamuk

In the small coastal town of Cennethisar several hours from Istanbul there is an old house, one of the oldest in town. In this house there lives Fatma, a bedridden old Turkish woman who was forced to leave Istanbul years ago because of her husband’s actions, and with her lives Recep, a dwarf, one of her husband’s illegitimate children born to their maid some five decades earlier. For a week every summer the quiet tension of the house is broken by the arrival of her three grandchildren, the divorced historian Faruk, the leftist sister Nílgün, and Metín, a high school student obsessed with the exciting consumer luxuries of modernity. Rounding out this family drama is Hasan, a right-wing nationalist and Recep’s nephew.

The story unfolds over the course of a week as Faruk busies himself in the archives, Nílgün sunbathes and reads leftist publications, and Metín parties with his nouveaux ríche friends. Meanwhile Fatma and Recep are burdened with the memories of Selahattin, with the former being particularly concerned that Recep might be twisting her grandchildren against her. Despite how Fatma treats him, Recep is not threatening her legacy and the children are lost in their own little worlds. There is, however, imminent danger in the obsessions of young men.

Orhan Pamuk’s second novel, Silent House was published in Turkish in 1983 but only translated into English in 2012.  The core plot in Silent House is a variation on a family or dynastic epic, complete with each character representing a different group within the country and three children of different proclivities. At the same time, it differs from the classic examples of such a device (e.g. Hundred Years of Solitude and The Radetzky March), the conflict is compressed into the space of a week instead of dragging out over the course of years.

The style of Silent House is recognizably Pamuk. Each chapter switches between narrators, but interlocks to present a complete story. Silent House also broaches familiar themes, including that Turkey is torn between looking backward and envying countries they believe look forward, but his characters almost too bluntly embody the issues Pamuk wants to address. This is not to say that the characters don’t work for the story, but all of the younger people do not come across as particularly rounded outside what they stand for. The exception to this, and unsurprisingly the part of the part of the book I thought was the most successful, was the relationship between Fatma and Recep, both of whom exist in the present, but who also have the years of memories in which to round out and explain their characters. The younger people had lives outside of the week in the narration, but those lives are hardly explored with the result that their motivations fall back on their types.

All the hallmarks of a great Orhan Pamuk novel are already present in Silent House. The interlocking chapters, the insights about Turkey, and the interweaving of past and present are all there, but the execution is not as successfully realized as in his later novels such as My Name is Red, The Black Book, and Snow. If I had not already been a Pamuk fan I might have struggled with this book. Silent House is still worth reading, but fairly far down my list of favorite Pamuk novels and is certainly not one to start with.

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I am currently reading the second book in Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire. This is a book that has been on my shelf for some time, but I picked it up in light of recent events because it was originally written in Arabic.

Remembering Laughter – Wallace Stegner

Set in rural Iowa, Remembering Laughter opens at the funeral for Margaret Stuart’s husband and features a short scene between Margaret and her sister Elspeth MacLeod. The story immediately flashes back eighteen years to a summer day when Elspeth arrived in Iowa by train to join Margaret and her wealthy husband Alec. The happy couple, composed of the lively and outgoing husband and his puritanical wife, welcomes Elspeth, but Margaret soon begins to worry that her sister is taking an interest in the married and less-than-reputable farmhands and sets about trying to make sure that her sister is taken care of. Little does Margaret realize that attraction elsewhere…and then a child comes into the picture.

I have enormous blind spots in terms of American literature, much preferring to read stories set abroad. Remembering Laughter is both the first piece by Wallace Stegner I have read and my first set in Iowa. Based on a simple description it is not a book I would have picked up, but I had it more than recommended (it was literally handed) to me and I was looking for something short. I was surprised at Stegner’s light touch that made the book incredibly readable and, simultaneously, made the story all the more emotionally powerful.
According to Mary Stegner’s afterword, Remembering Laughter, Wallace’s first book, was based on a story she told him about her two aunts in Western Iowa. What struck me about the story is that even though it takes place over the course of nearly two decades there is barely a hint of the passage of time. The child grows up and the technology changes a bit, but the frigidity between the two women seems to be eternal, at least until the source of their conflict is addressed. Laughter, as the title suggests, looms large in the relationship between the two sisters, but largely because Alec is the touchstone of laughter for both of them.

I cannot say that I will eagerly seek out Stegner’s other books, but I was also pleasantly surprised to the point that I would not resist reading anything else by him.

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I have also recently finished Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House and will write up some thoughts on that book soon. I am now reading Naguib Mahfouz’ Palace of Desire because it is the only book on my to-read shelf originally written in Arabic. It is not a book to be read quickly, but I am enjoying it thus far.