Friday, April 20, 2007

Night time storytelling

As part of the research for the book I'm thinking about fixing to get ready to write, I borrowed a wonderful book from my brother-in-law who's an artist and a bit of a pack rat--he has a home crammed with many wonderful beautiful things, many of which he's created. The book is the Arabian Nights, published in 1928 and illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett (1901-1931).

We all, sort of, know the Arabian Nights or The Thousand And One Nights. The stories include the tale of Aladdin and other familiar characters, and are told by the intrepid Scheherezade who had the misfortune to marry a king who, after his first wife was unfaithful, beheaded all subsequent brides after the wedding night. He'd gone through three thousand until he married Scheherezade, who had the smarts to tell him a cliffhanger story, and so he kept her alive, night after night, to see what happened next. For a thousand nights she enthralled him and managed to have three sons in between (we suppose) storytelling. By then the king had fallen in love with her and made her his official queen, and she got to keep her head.

I love the image of the wily woman weaving and spinning words to survive. Although the tales are generally presented now as children's stories, I loved the Penguin edition I read, and of course lost, years ago--the unexpurgated, sexy version. The most famous translator was Sir Richard Burton, but I don't believe the stories were known in the Regency period, despite the fascination with the exotic.

What also thrilled me about them was the structure--the book starts with Scheherazade telling her first story and then story builds upon story; characters launch into their own tales, and so do their characters, and so on. That, I thought, was what narrative should be, and I stored that thought for, uh, several decades, until now. Complex, labyrinthine story telling fired by sex and death--well, what more could you ask for?

We've talked about early influences, but have you read anything where the formal structure fired you up as much as the words and stories themselves? Or have you read a good, adult translation of the Arabian Nights that you'd recommend?

10 comments:

Elizabeth Parker said...

Hmmm, my mind is a blank on books (I have a cold), but what immediately does spring to mind is the structure of Quentin Tarantino's movie PULP FICTION. It has always fascinated me.

Celia May Hart said...

The Iliad's structure really struck me, but I've no idea how to use it.

Colette Gale said...

I loooove the Arabian nights, and anything to do with harems and sex.

Blame it on Bertrice Small if you will, but that's it.

Great, gorgeous images, Jane. Thanks for posting. I think I'd love Sterrett's book. Wonder if I could find a copy on Abe Books.

Eva Gale said...

My favorite translation of The Arabian nights i husain Haddawy's, which is a more recent translation. His reason for translating was because he said the English interpretations misses many of the nuances in the stories.

I used to love the stories as a little kid, and after I read this translation I couldn't help but be struck by the misogyny in the stories. And then I thought, that if a nation is raised on such misogynistic fairy tales...?

I do love the illustrations of the book you have, they are lush.

Eva Gale said...

Ekk-is Husain Haddawy's The Arabian Nights, sorry.

Eva Gale said...

Dang, I messed up my plurals too. I need to learn to type better or my brain needs to slow down so my fingers can catch up.

Celia-I love The Iliad too, and am in the process of reading Homeric Moments, by Eva Brann, who is a MA in Classics and a PhD in Archeology from Yale. She is a Senior faculty member at St. Johns College in Annapolis (I hope and dream with all my heart that ONE of my kids goes there-and if not them, maybe I will if there's any money left after them! -Everything is taught in Socratic method *sigh*)

Anyhoo-this book is brilliant, really uncovering the gems of Homers writing for a rich understading. You know when someone knows SO MUCH about something that is as familiar as an old friend? That they can play with the subject and make it look effortless? That is the genius in this book. How I would love to be taught by her.

Kate Pearce said...

I might be a geek but reading the Iliad and the Odyssey in their natural verse struck me as beautiful and still does.
also the way Ian McEwan structures his novels is breathtaking.

Pam Rosenthal said...

I know that they knew about the Arabian Nights in pre-Revolutionary France - orientalism of all sorts was a big deal for the French in the 18th century.

And of course I thought a lot about Scheherazade when I was writing Carrie's Story. In fact, in the first edition, I even included a footnote about this, citing this text:

The scenography of Scheherazade derived directly from the eroticized and sadomasochistic vision of the imaginary Orient... . The dominant fantasy (in both Totem and Taboo and Scheherazade) is of a 'family'... outside or prior to the Oedipal Law (the Symbolic order). This fantasy is then projected onto the state, le grand serail, combining the myth of Oriental despotism with that of an untrammeled primal patriarchy, combining a political with a sexual monopoly of power.

It's from a book called Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth Century Culture, by Peter Wollen. My nerd heroine reads it in the UC Berkeley library, and that's it for studying for that day. But the publishers of the second version of Carrie decreed that erotica shouldn't have footnotes. Old spoilsports.

janegeorge said...

Interesting structure in a book, some sex, some death: Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

Interesting structure in a movie:
Sliding Doors. I like to watch that one when I'm called upon to re-invent myself in some fashion or another. Plus John Hannah's a cutie.

Second the Pulp Fiction mention. And I loved the Kill Bill films, having been a huge Kung Fu and David Carridine fan. I am a little leery about Grindhouse, though.

My younger sister, Fullbright scholar and cultural anthropologist, has been pushing The Thousand and One Nights on me for years. She even gave me a copy. *Moves book higher in TBR stack.*

Pam Rosenthal said...

I loved Kill Bill 2, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Mulholland Drive -- plots that mix up time rock, imo. And as it happens, I posted a link to the Kill Bill 2 Superman soliloquy in my most recent PamRosenthal.com blog entry.

As for novel structure, the two years I devoted to reading Proust did change my life, by teaching me how to use the past and present as a pair of lenses for viewing the world (there's a good critical book about this, called Proust's Binoculars).

These days, tho, I'm just trying to get back to the good old genre narrative arc -- go figure.