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Wednesday, February 10, 2010
5. Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz
I wondered how long it would take for this issue to arise with regard to this project: what do you do when you just can’t get into a book? Solider on, or toss it aside for something else?
My mother reads every book she ever starts doggedly to the end as a point of principle, but I just can’t do that. I’m all too aware that there is only a finite number of books left that I have time to read before I die, and I can’t bear to waste a slot on something I don’t love.
However, if I hadn’t taken advice to push on after the first three dodgy chapters I would have missed the great reading pleasures that were Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Shipping News. Some books repay persistence.
But in this case, I think there’s another issue to consider: I’m just not in the mood for this style of book at the moment.
I first heard of Naguib Mahfouz last year, when the words ‘Egyptian Tolstoy’ rang out of the radio at me, followed by ‘winner of the Nobel Prize for literature’.
A comparison to Tolstoy is about as high a recommendation as it gets for me (along with ‘redolent of early Jilly Cooper’…), so I got right onto Google, sussed out that the Cairo Trilogy is considered his masterpiece, and immediately bought Palace Walk, the first book of the three.
I absolutely loved it. It’s a family saga, set in Cairo in the early 20th century, towards the end of the British occupation. As big geopolitical events unfold, you are treated to a minute insight into the family’s life, as tiny as the mother’s view of the world through the lattice work window she is permitted to look through.
The varied personalities within the family are conveyed with needlepoint detail, while the book as a whole gives a vivid flavour of life in that city, in that era. He deserves his rep.
I have been gagging to read the next two volumes ever since I finished it, but got side-tracked by the Twilight experience, which oddly dominated my reading last year. I have finally come to it, but find I just can’t engage with the writing.
It’s slower than the first book and comparisons between Mahfouz and Proust make more sense with this one. There are pages and pages of internal monologue about how a teenage boy feels about a girl he has seen. I can’t be doing with that right now. A little less conversation…
I am also put off by the translation. It’s the same American translators who did the first book, but I am finding them culturally intrusive in a way I didn’t with that one.
The dreadful word ‘gotten’ has cropped up several times and they use the term ‘casserole’ to describe a variety of Egyptian savoury dish. I don’t know what the Egyptian version of a ‘tagine’ is, but there must be something more evocative than casserole they could have used. It made me picture terrible 1970s earthenware dishes, hessian wallpaper and pot luck suppers.
I suspect all I need to do with this book is to push on until the story gears up, but right now I just don’t feel like it. I will come back to it – I particularly want to read the gorgeously named, Sugar Street, the last volume in the series – but for now I am putting it aside in favour of something else.
It's been a diverse career. Not many people have written for Allure and (the late-lamented...) Gourmet mag.
I've been a magazine editor, an op ed columnist on a broadsheet newspaper, and for years covered the fashion shows in Paris, Milan etc.
But while I shifted between the worlds of food, fashion and current affairs, there was one overriding passion: books.
Now I write them - five novels published, with another due out this year, and several books of journalism.
Here I write about them.