In last Friday’s TLS, Geert Jan van Gelder discusses the torturous history of the 1001 Nights:
It is part of Arabic and European literature, it contains stories and motifs that may be traced to Sanskrit, Persian and Greek literature. […] The great majority of the stories are set in Iraq, Egypt, or Persia rather than the Arabian peninsula. Galland [its first European translator] did more than merely translate: he shaped the text into what became a more or less canonical form.
This most famous of story cycles is, then, a mishmash of influences, a sort of discourse between a panoply of contributors. Van Gelder goes on to discuss the myths of ‘popular’ and ‘highbrow’ literature, the ambivalence amongst Arab scholars for the work, and the problems of transliteration. His point is ultimately simple: that there is no such thing as “an ‘original’ text of the Nights”. This sensuous, boisterous and hugely influential work is essentially a layer cake of interpretation.
This has never stopped other writers plundering it for inspiration – indeed, it may well have encouraged them. If nothing else, its arresting frame story of the young wife Shahrazad telling stories to save her life, each night ending on a cliffhanger to ensure one day more of continued existence, is enough to lend each story an added power. But of course story cycles are in and of themselves captivating things, as Chaucer and Boccaccio both understood long before the Nights was known to Europe. In their pages lie a tumult of perspectives, and a confusion of lives; what they offer to the reader is something close to a cross-section of life as it is lived. To writers of fiction, this lure is irresistible.
Salman Rusdie is a writer particularly alive to the potential of the multi-strand narrative. Midnight’s Children in particular is consistently praised for its awareness of the slippery qualities of the storied life. “To understand me,” its narrator advises, “you’ll have to swallow a world.” In his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie consciously evokes the form and premise of 1001 Nights to make this point anew: the visiting European Mogor dell’Amore, our principle storyteller (though everyone in this fiction has one to tell), sits in the court of the Grand Mughal, perpetually balanced between acceptance and condemnation, and weaves his worldly tales. (And as van Gelder points out in his TLS piece, the frame story of the Nights from which Rushdie takes his cue may well have originated in India.) His stories are alternately bawdy and reverent, epic and domestic. As is his wont, Rushdie straddles East and West, with a foot in both India and the Tuscan city of Florence (birthplace, of course, of that other great story cycle, The Decameron).
In this book, stories have power. As the Mogor tells his tale, it seeps out of the palace and into the streets, and the denizens of the city begin to dream of it. “When the sword of the tongue is drawn,” the Emperor Akbar muses, “it inflicts deeper cuts than the sharpest blade.” In part, this efficacy is due to the Mogor’s undoubted charisma – people fall in love with him in an instant, listen to him for hours, think of him for the rest of their lives. He is characterized a magician, and his sorcery is verbal – his charm is his wand.
Yet the book feels somehow without charm, even without bustle, despite its wealth of incident. It is dreamily told, which is of course deliberate, emphasising as it does the hazy mysteries of the Mogor’s tales, yet this languid tone lends the narratives more torpor than tension. Rushdie has never been the most ingratiating of writers, but here he sells so much on the basis of his principle character’s dynamic personality that the lack of zest in the writing undersells its premise. There are many appropriately sensual episodes in the book, and much of the rest of the material is fitting to Rushdie’s influences: his Florentine sections fizz with incident, and his cast of Indian characters seems to cut through society and personality with a familiarly leveling determination; but still there feels something too contrived, something a little cold even, about Rushdie’s treatment.
Rushdie wrote in Shame that “realism can break a writer’s heart,” and this is a fitting admission from a writer who began with full-blown fantasy (Grimus, 1975). Certainly The Enchantress of Florence does not shoot for mimesis: it is an impressionistic, fabulating work which goes some way towards the miraculous. But it is not straight fantasy, since it applies a layer of the magical to historical settings. In her The Orphan’s Tales duology, on the other hand, Catherynne M Valente paid similar homage to the Nights (here a young woman trapped at the court of a Sultan tells tales to a mercurial prince), but created a fairytale world of fiercely contemporary concerns to do so. I reviewed the two volumes in the series for Strange Horizons (In The Night Garden and In The Cities of Coin and Spice), and found them to be fizzing, vital pieces of work by a writer fully engaged in the act of seducing the reader.
In no small part, Valente’s success over Rushdie is down to the beauty of her prose. Though Rushdie is a master stylist whose sentences never seem unwieldy or unplanned, the less disciplined Valente nevertheless conjures up such startling similes, such penetrating metaphors, that her tales become precisely what we are told they are: visual, vital, enchanting. In creating her own individualised world, Valente in a sense made this untethering from the prosaic easier on herself; but simultaneously no worldbuilding is ever easy – it is the root cause of many a science fiction novel’s failure – and her world is so perfectly balanced, so beautifully poised, that it is not fair to accuse Valente of shortcuts. The Orphan’s Tales in fact represent a mammoth undertaking, an internally consistent universe in which all stories may happen in their own worlds, and yet may interlink.
The richness of Valente’s work rests very much on a melange of folk traditions; like Rushdie (but perhaps more so), she begins at 1001 Nights but fans out towards European and then North and South American story traditions, forcing the parts to cohere through sheer strength of talent. Rushdie’s work is in comparison a very literary confection, a thing interested more in texts than the oral tradition of the stories it seeks to mine. And this, it seems to me, is what hobbles it: whilst resting itself upon the strength of the stories we tell each other, it neglects almost entirely the way in which we tell them. Most often, this is not through text, but through the bob and wheel of voice. Any replication of oral delivery on a page will lack something of the performance; but it is possible to capture it in motion rather than in amber.
In his defense, Rushdie is crafting a novel, whilst Valente is far more obviously composing a story cycle – its frame story is lost in a Russian doll formation of ever-increasing depth, stories nesting within stories told within stories about stories. But this only adds further value to this richly rewarding excursion into the power and potential of the tale – Rushdie, in comparison, feels as inert as ink on a page. Necessarily Rushdie’s is a constructed world; but it is too obvious in its artifice.
Fantasy and science fiction readers often talk about the ‘sense of wonder’, the feeling they ascribe often exclusively to their chosen genre and which constitutes a sort of dizzied amazement at the multiplicity and breadth of a universe when considered from a level other than the quotidian. It’s not quite fair to hive off this feeling from other fictions which do the same thing differently; but in Valente they have found a master of its evocation. Rushdie, in comparison, writes a nice sentence. This mastery is the fundamental building block of his project to reconst Eastern and Western texts into a sort of hybrid mode, and his work is a clever and deeply allusive novel, effusively praised as such in all corners … but it doesn’t make him much of a successor to Shahrazad. Van Gelder calls the wily vizier’s daughter “resourceful and eloquent”; for that level of narrative suppleness, we should perhaps turn to a fantasist, a builder of whole storied worlds, over a mere fabulator of texts.