The Faint Odour of Sorrow in the Alleys, A History Boy, 06/08/2017

It's been a few years since I last did a pleasure-reading challenge that I’d been doing for myself since about 2006 or so. I call it my big ridiculous book challenge. Around winter, shortly after the New Year, I’d start a novel that had a reputation for being big, difficult, or a little bit insane.

When I read Mahfouz, I feel like he's always been
an old man. He didn't even start publishing his
fiction until he was well into middle age.
I’d been reading crazy difficult books since my teens. But I decided, mostly for self-indulgence really, to put some conscious effort into it. I only recently finished the book I’d started this winter. But here are some other examples to show you want I typically pick.

A couple of weeks before my 26th birthday in 2009, I bought myself all of In Search of Lost Time. It took me six months to read that thing, and I took breaks. Beautiful writing, dense with ideas. But that narrator was such a little prick that I had to get away from him for a while now and then.

I think I took breaks to read other literature after the second and third books. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and The Guermantes Way saw that narrator becoming truly insufferable. His snobbery, classism, and ego were unforgivably intense.

I mean, his behaviour was worse and way more immoral and malignant in The Captive. But at least it was shorter and was followed up by The Fugitive, the beginning of the narrator’s path of contrition that would last for the rest of the series. Marcel Proust was brilliant, but his amazing prose sometimes feels tortuous when it renders such a misogynist pig too faithfully for me to keep my lunch down.

A couple of years later, it was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. That was just plain fun. It didn’t even feel that hard. Two reasons. I’ve been reading parodic, over-the-top postmodern novels all my life already. This was just the model. The year before, it was Don Quixote, which I’m pretty sure is the model for all of them.

The other reason is that I’d already read Against The Day a few years ago after I got it in a campus bookstore for $6. 1100 pages for $6. And I laughed through most of it. Similar situation the year after Gravity’s Rainbow when I read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons. I’d read some of his other epic novels, and Demons was just the most intense.

The entire trilogy covers about 35 years in the life of this family, as they
live through the social and political transformations of Egypt's
independence from the British Empire, the violence of the Second
World War, and finally the first years of the nationalist government.
This winter, it was The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, which I got for one dollar each in a United Way book sale fundraiser at the liquor store. It’s one of those stories that isn’t really about anything other than ordinary life. It’s a detailed depiction of the men (and occasionally the women) of one family, the Jawads.

Patriarch Ahmad rules his family with iron authority, harshly disciplining all his children. He’s a strictly conservative religious household head – he doesn’t even allow his wife Amina or his daughters to leave the house beyond going to the roof. He’s one hell of a patriarch.

He’s also a huge hypocrite. When he’s out in the community running his general store, he’s a gregarious, charming businessman. Then when he’s out partying with his friends – and he parties almost every night – he gets drunk, sings, dances, plays music, bangs musicians. Luckily, he’s a charismatic hypocrite.

Even more luckily, he’s not the only point of view character. He’s a major one, but Mahfouz has a Dickensian touch in being able to draw a nuanced personality through detailed descriptions of the ongoing thoughts and actions of a character.

In fact, I’d say he’s better than Dickens, because Mahfouz relies on none of the cheap sentimentality the English writer would use to build sympathy with a character. As well, he had none of the transparent moralizing of purity and corruption in Dickens’ stories. He never got over that until his last book, Our Mutual Friend.

The Cairo Trilogy also shows the aspirations and hypocrisies of
Egyptian politics. One of Ahmad's teenage children spends the
first book Palace Walk as an activist with the Wafd Party,
demonstrating for Egyptian independence. By the end of Sugar
, two of Ahmad's grandsons are arrested for their own
dissident activity against an autocratic nationalist regime.
Mahfouz doesn’t seem to have that moralizing attitude at all. He lets the actions and personalities of his characters to speak on their own terms, and you understand their goodness and moralities on your own as a reader.

The nice thing about the huge canvas of this 1200 page trilogy – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, all named after streets in Cairo's Al Husayn district – is that we have the time for every major character to get some measure of comeuppance for their hypocrisy. Mostly just through the time it takes for age to make a mockery of our egos.

It happens to everyone if they live long enough. Sometimes, there’s justice to it. Like when Ahmad ends his last affair with the knowledge that he’s just too old to keep up with the energy and demands of younger courtesans.

Sometimes, there’s no justice at all. Like when Ahmad’s egotistical, knows-she’s-that-hot daughter Naima marries a wealthy heir for his money and eventually loses her husband and children to disease and medical conditions.

Time gives us what we deserve. It's a terrifying prospect. Beautiful books, though.

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