You can now have my Style Notes column delivered direct to your inbox every Saturday morning, by subscribing to my new blog Maggie Alderson Style Notes.

Click on the rather faint grey link above.

Follow me on marvellous Twitter @MaggieA

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.


  1. I used to soldier on until the bitter end...but then I joined a book club.

    I always had the best intentions. I'd buy the book weeks in advance, then two days before we met I'd try to read the entire thing. Not hard to do if you actually like the book, or feel like reading that genre. But for the most part I felt resentful, pressured and entirely out of sorts.

    Now, for books I choose to read, there are times I make a start and just don't feel the love so I put it down. Step away from the book!

    In a way there is something nice about having a stash of unread books, ready for that rainy day.

  2. I am also incapable of soldiering on with a book that isn't floating my boat. Sometimes I put it aside and try again later, but the truth is that I probably make more unsuccessful attempts than successful ones.

    Having said that, nothing beats the satisfaction you feel after breaking through a barrier which you thought was impenetrable and really enjoying something you didn't think you would. I recently experienced this with American Pastoral by Philip Roth, and I'm glad I stuck with it!

  3. I generally soldier on but recently I've been getting better and stepping away. In fact two of this week's haul from the library were cast aside after the first chapter. I am soldiering on with your recommendation of The Little Stranger - not loving it but I'm nearly finished. I've found it very hard to warm to any of the characters and the end will be something of a relief.

  4. I'm so hoping I can get to the point where I too can walk away but as you say, some books I've wanted to walk away from have turned out to be amongst my faves - "A Prayer for Owen Meany" comes to mind. I think you're giving me strength to give myself permission to put down and come back to it at another time. I'm keen to read the first book now...sheesh, so many on my, "To Read" list. Still loving your blogging Maggie.

  5. I tend to agree with you about Mahfouz (and I especially liked Cpt...Mandolin) and the sometimes grating American translators. Which reminds me; in your GW articles you often mention 'closet',what's wrong with the correct English word of Wardrobe? Will you be reading The Lion The Witch and The Closet?!

  6. Hi Omar504
    I don't have a wardrobe - I have a walk-in closet. I think of a wardrobe as a piece of standing furniture, mine is a small room. But fair point...

    I hadn't planned to read any CS Lewis this year. More likely to return to those golden shores when my daughter reads them... if she ever does. She can read perfectly well, but just doesn't on her own, which is something i WILL be writing about.

    Thank you all so much for comments. It is so fascinating to read different views.

    Maggie x