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Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

An Exhilarating Head Trip

June 25, 2014 | by

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P. H. Newby; date unknown. Photo via phnewby.net

The old girl kept writing and complaining about the police. It was enough to start Townrow on a sequence of dreams. Night after night he floated in the sunset-flushed, marine city. He could smell the salt and the jasmine. He dreamed that Mrs Khoury, Mr Khoury and he were all sailing out of the harbor in a boat that slowly filled with water. He dreamed he was in a hot, dark room with a lot of men who argued and shouted. It must have been in the Greek Sailing Club because when a door opened there were oars and polished skiffs; and opposite, high over Simon Artz’s, of the other side of the Canal, was Johnnie Walker with his cane and his top hat setting off for Suez. Or was it the Med.?

So begins P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, the 1969 novel that won the first-ever Booker Prize. “The Booker was not, as it is now, a high media event,” Anthony Thwaite wrote in an obituary for Newby in 1997. “I remember the then–sales director of Faber & Faber, the book’s publisher, telling me that the prize probably resulted in no more than about four hundred extra copies.”

That’s a shame, because Newby, who was born today in 1918, deserved, and deserves, more attention. Graham Greene called him “a fine writer who has never had the full recognition that he deserves,” and that’s as true now as it was in Newby’s lifetime. Very few of his twenty novels are still in print; in the whole of The Paris Review’s archive, his name comes up only once, in Truman Capote’s 1957 Art of Fiction interview: “Well, who are some of the younger writers who seem to know that style exists? P. H. Newby, Françoise Sagan, somewhat.”

In additional to his success as a novelist, Newby enjoyed a long career as a broadcast administrator—he rose through the ranks to become the managing director of BBC Radio. He lived in Cairo from 1942 until 1946: it was “like living in a human laboratory, in which there were no inhibitions,” Thwaite writes, and it informed a number of his novels, Something to Answer For among them. Read More »

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Shakedown: Cossery in Egypt

March 6, 2013 | by

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Egypt’s political efflorescence has inspired a surge in Western readership for its novelists, and few have benefitted more than Albert Cossery. An expatriate who lived in the same Saint-Germain-des-Prés hotel room for the last sixty years of his life, Cossery’s eight novels celebrate a highly attuned lethargy, the slow-burning ire of pranksters and misfits. But with countless Egyptian activists jailed, tortured, and killed since 2011 by the entrenched organs of the state they sought to overthrow, one might dismiss the renewed interest in his works as well-meaning, if solipsistic. It doesn’t help that the man, who died in 2008, seemed to have written off the revolutionary enterprise altogether: “There’s nothing worse than a reformer. They’re all careerists.” But this was before last week, when the Harlem shake fully arrived in Cairo, and four guys arrested in their underwear prompted the youthful vanguard’s latest tack: the formation of a “Satiric Revolutionary Struggle,” which, as its first action, shut down the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood with a four-hundred-strong throng of syncopated dancing.

The reaction to the Harlem-shaking of the Brotherhood’s headquarters was more than a convenient vindication of Cosserian thought—it reminded us of a truth he gently but persistently nudged along his whole life: in a world of unsmiling authority and unswerving ambition, the prank is the apotheosis of political action, the only point of escape. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: High Fashion, Arabian Nights, and Field Mice

July 20, 2012 | by

Image via Synchrodogs

The genre of the 1,002nd night is one few storytellers can resist. Poe wrote one, so did R. L. Stevenson, Jospeh Roth, and Naghuib Mahfouz. Some of these sequels are orientalist camp; the better ones concentrate on The Nights’ true drama: that of a woman talking to save her life. I’ve been reading an advanced copy of Tales of a Severed Head, a collection of poems by the Moroccan poet Rachida Madani. Her Scheherazade, a voice that Madina breaks into many different voices, angrily laments the history of modern Morocco and particularly the fate of its leftist intellectuals. It is as much a critique of the legend as a continuation of it. Madina’s poet is even willing, at times, to stop talking:

She is silent so she can breathe
in the empty cannons
lift and weigh the sacks of gunpowder
and take aim.

Marilyn Hacker’s translation from French is scrupulous and lively. —Robyn Creswell

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What We’re Loving: Bejeweled Ostriches, Robot Dancers

May 25, 2012 | by

I know it’s dumb to bet on which novels—which anything—will endure and which won’t. So why, reading Endless Love, Scott Spencer’s 1979 novel of romantic obsession, do I keep thinking, This will outlast us all? Maybe because it reminds me of other novels that have stayed fresh over the decades without the benefit of “classic”—or even cult classic—status: books like Victory, or Rebecca, or The Transit of Venus or The White Hotel or, in a funny way, Mating. You could make a much longer, even more random list, but there’s something they all have in common, something to do with technical sophistication, urgency, and shamelessness, as if the plot came welling up out of a nightmare. They are, you might say, too strong to be classics; they don’t need champions or explaining. People will just keep making each other read them. —Lorin Stein

After my most recent binge at Westsider Books, I found myself holding a copy of something titled The Minikins of Yam. Maybe it’s all these rainy afternoons, but lately I’ve missed the middle school era of my reading life, when “guilty pleasure” was the only category. I freely admit that I chose this paperback by Thomas Burnett Swann, an almost entirely forgotten 1970s author of “neo-romantic fantasy,” solely on account of its awesome cover art, in which a horned lady sallies forth atop a bejeweled ostrich. But Yam delivers exactly what George Barr’s cover art promises: basilisks, subterfuge, and beast-headed gods. If you, too, are an adult human still coping with the end of Harry Potter, look for one of these gorgeous DAW paperbacks to help fill the void. —Allison Bulger

Happy Memorial Day Weekend! If mysophobia (or better options) keep you from the opening of public pools this weekend, I suggest reading David Foster Wallace’s “Forever Overhead,” a story from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in which a pubescent boy celebrates his thirteenth birthday at a local public pool. You get splash fights, diving-board lines, too-tight suits, Marco Polo—the stuff of poolside dreams—and the fierce awkwardness and exposed, liquid thoughts that public pools and puberty bring forth. Wallace tells the story with manic detail and emotional exactitude, and, as always with dear DFW, it’s at once playful and meditative, unlikely and perfect. —Elizabeth Nelson

I’ve been home sick for the past two days and have found that Space Oddities: A Compilation of Rare European Library Grooves from 1977–1984 is the perfect sound track to a fever. Not a ringing endorsement? Well, you may just have to listen to this collection of carefully culled (by French DJs, naturally) clips from commercials, movies, and TV shows for yourself. I still have my ’08 CD, but good news: the whole album is on Spotify! Try “Robot Dancer.” —Sadie Stein

My experience with Egyptian art is limited mostly to the blockbuster stuff—I remember seeing traveling shows in Texas, where the heavy eye makeup and big jewelry of the statuettes and masks seemed to make a certain kind of sense—and it’s impressive, to say the least. But now I’m finding myself wowed by the smaller, less overtly extraordinary objects in the Met’s “Dawn of Egyptian Art” show (I’ve spent a lot of time with the catalogue as well). The flash of gold and scale is replaced here with the innate beauty of natural materials and form, like a frog carved from a black stone flecked with white; a basket filled with tiny fish, all incised into a single piece of powdery steatite; and the head of a bovid chiseled from clay-hued flint. I’m also unduly impressed with the various hippopotamus-shaped objects—not surprising, since I’ve long been the proud owner of a tubby blue “William.” —Nicole Rudick

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The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following

December 28, 2011 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

For generous donations in support of their preservation, the animal mummies wish to thank the Institute for Unforbidden Geology, the Society for Extreme Egyptology, the Secret Chambers of the Sanctuary of Thoth Club, and President Hosni Mubarak, who may seem to have been around a long time, though not from a mummy’s point of view. They wish to thank the visitors who make it to this often-skipped corner of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, which bears none of the treasure of King Tut’s tomb. And to the British colonial government, without whom the animal mummies might still be at rest, deep in granite tombs, cool and silent.

They would like to thank Hassan Massri of Cairo, Alistair Trembley of London, and Doris and Herbert Friedberg of Scarsdale, New York, for their support of climate-controlled cases to house the animal mummies for the rest of time. The animal mummies will admit they are somewhat surprised that this is what the afterlife has turned out to be: oak and glass cases, Windexed daily; a small room, tile floor, chipping paint; the smell of dust and old wood. Even for the permanently preserved, the future is full of surprises.

The animal mummies wish to thank their mothers—and their fathers, but mostly their mothers. Gauzy now, two thousand years later, they still remember being licked and suckled. The vole mummies remember the feel of their mothers' teeth grazing—painlessly, absentmindedly—across small, tufted cheeks. To be a vole like this, forever, unendingly as the vole mummies are, is to know humility. No one asks to be born a vole. No one dreams of millennia of voledom. The vole mummies would like to thank everyone who, through these drawn-out centuries, has not confused them with moles, muskrats, mice, or shrews. They would like it noted that they are proud to have been small enough to hide beneath the bed listening with their soft round ears to the pharaoh and the queen rattling toward a different kind of eternity. In their memories, they are a mighty brigade, moving soundlessly through the kingdom, pawing tubers on the banks of the Nile.

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The Younger Fiancée; Studying Abroad in Cairo

March 18, 2011 | by

What is the best poetry anthology to give my father’s new, and much younger, fiancée at her bridal shower? —Rachel

Dear Rachel,

What a lovely, tricky question. I suppose it depends on how you feel about your mother-in-law-to-be, or how you’d like her to feel about you. Gifts, especially when they are books, say so much about the giver. In my experience the best anthologies are unapologetically personal. The pleasure of reading André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor or Kingsley Amis’s The Amis Anthology is the pleasure of discovering the editor’s sensibility, refracted into a choice of readings. Great anthologies surprise us. They make connections we hadn’t noticed before. But these might not make ideal gifts for a bridal shower. Might I then suggest John Hollander’s Marriage Poems? Hollander is one of our finest anthologists—if the marriage results in any children, you might try finding The Wind and the Rain: An Anthology of Poems for Young Peopleand all his collections include pleasurable surprises.

Alongside the epithalamia there is James Dickey’s “Adultery” (“Although we come together,/ Nothing will come of us. But we would not give/ It up”) and Swift’s “The Progress of Marriage,” about an elder gentleman and his much younger bride. (Be warned: it’s vicious.) In the same Everyman series is Meena Alexander’s excellent Indian Love Poems, which is exactly what it claims to be. Both books are small, elegant, and inexpensive.

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