In Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, there is a scene where the protagonist — a translator, and a lover of books — asserts that she is the only person in Lebanon to have copies of well-known international fiction such as Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Lampedusa’s The Leopard. What?
Translator-poet Robyn Creswell, in his recent review of the novel on the NYRBlog, reproduces the whole passage. From the mouth of Aaliya:
Had I not ordered some of these books, they would never have landed on Lebanese soil. For crying out loud, do you think anyone else in Lebanon has a copy of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood? And I am picking just one book off the top of my head. Lampedusa’s The Leopard? I don’t think anyone else in this country has a book by Novalis.
There are things about Lebanon that a character like Aaliya could grant a good nose-waggling. But…a lack of books? Although I like a literary snob as much as the next person, the passage did make me bristle. It seemed — as Creswell notes — as though it were written for a non-Lebanese audience. I immediately pictured Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber’s home, which is portrayed, above, in a short film produced for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Not that Jaber is the only Lebanese out there with books. Creswell:
In the late Fifties and Sixties, when Aaliya would have been in her mid-twenties, Beirut was home to the best literary magazines in Arabic, which were full of translated fiction and verse. Perhaps the most influential of these journals was Shi‘r (Poetry), a modernist quarterly modeled on Harriet Monroe’s little magazine of the same name. Between 1957 and 1964, Shi‘r published translations of Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Paul Valéry, Saint-John Perse, Antonin Artaud, Henri Michaux, Yves Bonnefoy, Federico García Lorca, Octavio Paz, Salvatore Quasimodo, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many others.
As Creswell also notes, Aaliya is portrayed as exceptionally cloistered, so she may not have known much of what was going on in pre-civil-war Beirut. But she did work in a bookstore, so Shi’r, at least, should have been on her radar. And as she ordered books for the store, she must’ve had some notion that pre-civil-war Beirut was the publishing hub of the entire region.
Another Lebanese author who writes in English about the Lebanese emigrant experience, Rawi Hage, portrays the pre-civil-war nation as a haven for writers. In an interview from a few years back:
There was some kind of tent of experimentation, especially in Lebanon, in a certain period before the war.
I envy that era during the 1960s up to the civil war. There was some kind of revival and a very progressive community that formed in Lebanon, mostly around the AUB area around Ras Beirut. I hear from my uncles — one of them was a journalist and a novelist, and the other a novelist and a poet — and I hear their stories. And I think they attempt something. It was the end of the nahda (“renaissance”). They formed movements, actually. I think they did.
It was very political. But I would be tempted to go back, and maybe gather a few texts to translate, but that’s it.
AL: Any particular author?
RH: I think there’s Elias al-Diri, who attempts something. And Youssef Habchi El-Achkar. I’m more interested in the era [as a whole] — it’s a romantic notion of mine.
There are beautiful moments in Alameddine’s most recent novel — moments when insanity, war, and loneliness intersect. Creswell mentions one of the most vivid, a scene where Aaliya barters sex with a former employee for a gun, and he ends up popping the blackheads on her back, which she seems to quite enjoy. Twisted, touching, and funny.
But even these moments seem completely outside the “Lebanese civil war novel” canon. Indeed, this seems to be part of the book’s conscious looking-away from the rich tradition of Lebanese civil war novels: by Elias Khoury, Jabbour Douaihy, Rabee Jaber, Hoda Barakat, Hanan al-Shaykh, Najwa Barakat, others. This novel stakes its own comico-romantic space — which sometimes works, as in a scene with middle-aged women wielding automatic weapons that is hard not to like — and sometimes seems oddly placed. In the end, the novel seems to comment not on Lebanon, but on an international “literary space” that, for the most part, could be anywhere.