Should You Read Naguib Mahfouz’s Juvenalia?

Nearly all of Naguib Mahfouz’s work, in English translation, has been published through AUC Press. But this new collection — On Literature and Philosophy — comes out, trans. Aran Byrne, from Gingko Library.

From a review by ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey that appears in Qantara:

jacketNaguib Mahfouz didn′t want his early essays salvaged from out-of-print journals, dusted off and collected in an anthology. It′s easy to see why: Egypt′s Nobel laureate began publishing them in the fall of 1930, when he was a raw philosophy student of eighteen. Among the earliest essays are the plodding ″The Demise of Old Beliefs and the Emergence of New Ones″ and the somewhat shrugging ″Women and Public Office″.

Yet Mahfouz did eventually give in to those seeking to publish his earliest works. A collection of these early essays appeared in Arabic in 2003, when the author was ninety-two. They have now been translated into serviceable English by Aran Byrne and published by the new Gingko Library.

″On Literature and Philosophy″

The towering figure of twentieth-century Egyptian literature was right in his reluctance to publish his juvenilia: the essays do show a voracious hunger for knowledge, but they read, for the most part, like undergraduate papers. These are not his later personal essays, infused with the master′s dreams, passions and experiences. Save for the essays at the very end of ″On Literature and Philosophy″, the writing is a bit pedantic.

And yet, as scholar Rasheed El-Enany notes in his introduction, Mahfouz′s reluctance to publish was also wrong. These essays may not be interesting in their own right and they don′t particularly elevate the Nobel prize winner′s image. But they give fascinating context to a great novelist′s oeuvre, while also shedding light on the interests of literate Egyptians in the early 1930s.

The earliest essays are completely dispassionate. Like a lecturer in front of a crowded classroom at Fuad I University, Mahfouz takes what he′s learned, which is largely about Western philosophy and painstakingly shares it with the reader. Even when he adopts a position, such as in support of socialism, it is taken somewhat sheepishly.

The treatises on Plato, sex, perception, consciousness and animals are not worth publishing for their own sake, but they do illuminate Mahfouz the careful world-builder. He constructs the universe of Western philosophy one practitioner at a time. His details are occasionally off, but he does an excellent job, giving us a wide panorama – just as he would later in fictions like the Cairo Trilogy.

Mahfouz once said that he had to choose either or literature or philosophy – and that he chose literature. That was definitely his calling: there′s no evidence here that Mahfouz would have made a great philosopher. Yet the questions and the rational-scientific bent of philosophy certainly helped shape his narrative temper.

A focus on the West

Another interesting aspect of this collection is that Arab and Muslim philosophers are scarcely mentioned. Indeed, it isn′t until the 1943 essay ″I Have Read (Part 2)″ that Mahfouz mentions Abbas El-Akkad′s ″A Compilation of Islam′s Geniuses″ in passing. And then it′s only a touchstone for his argument about a writer′s freedom of choice: ″The writer is free to write what he likes and readers is [sic] free to read it or not. The freedom of the writer, as has been mentioned, makes its own rules.″

By this time, Mahfouz is nearly thirty-two and a far different writer from his eighteen-year-old self. He has gained both in fire and in certainty. He′s also shifted his interest to Arab and Egyptian artistic and scholarly figures.

In much later years, as in ″Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994-2001″, Mahfouz evinces a broad interest in Arabic and Islamic scholarship. But as a young man, his focus was firmly on Western philosophy, beginning with the Presocratics and continuing through Darwin, Spencer and Freud.

Keep reading on Qantara.