Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lyons review/press release? from WSJ

This is a strange and vague article (or press release?) about the Nights from the Wall Street Journal of all places. I'm not sure of the point of it but it does mention the recent English edition from Malcolm Lyons.

As a side note, the author says that Edward Said spends little time on the Nights in Orientalism which is quite a false claim, Said spends most of the first part of his book focusing on Galland, Lane and Burton.

This author also calls Burton's edition "practically unreadable"! (this is what I've heard about it from just about everyone who mentions the Nights and knows about Burton, I suspect that it's one of those tall tales that make their way around and also suspect that many of the people saying this about Burton's edition haven't actually tried to read it)...

He also says: ""The Arabian Nights" has long had a bad reputation among Arab intellectuals for its vulgarity, perceived shallowness and general lack of moral uplift." This is fairly false as well, though it seemed like a true statement in the 10th century, but scholars all over the Middle East are re-interested in the Nights:

entire article:

excerpts of the article:


It surprises us to learn that Charles Dickens made more allusions to "The Arabian Nights" than any other work of literature—but it shouldn't. Shahrazad, the narrator of "The Arabian Nights' Entertainment," or "Tales of 1001 Nights," has ­inspired great storytellers for centuries. As a treasure-house of characters and stories, the "Nights" is an essential point of reference for popular entertainments ranging from British pantomime to Romantic ballet and opera to Hollywood spectacle.

The key to its lasting popularity and influence is that it's all about the story. The anonymous bards whose tales are collected in the book's thousands of pages espoused no ideology and preached no religious message. Princes play the villain as often as they are praised. The book's pedigree is cosmopolitan, with tales drawn from India and Persia as well as Arabic sources; scholars believe the Aladdin story is actually ­European in ­origin.


Reading "The Arabian Nights" is like visiting a medieval lending library. Stories are embedded within stories like Russian dolls, encompassing ­every narrative genre from ­instructive fable to swashbuckling adventure to diaphanously veiled pornography. It wasn't translated into a modern European language until Antoine Galland's French version began to appear in 1704, and then took all Europe by storm. "Read Sinbad and you will be sick of Aeneas," wrote Horace Walpole, ­18th-century England's whimsical tale-spinner and author of the first Gothic novel. (Walpole coined the word "serendipity" from Serendib, the old name for Sri Lanka, to capture the aura of enchantment of the ­island—which he read about in the sixth voyage of Sinbad.)

Until recently, the standard English version was Sir Richard Burton's practically unreadable translation of 1885. Thus in the 20th century "The Arabian Nights" became best-known in simplified adventure stories for children. Adults imbibed Shahrazad's tales in a stream of popular adaptations in every conceivable medium and genre.

To restore this classic page-turner to the world's reading list, last year Penguin in London published a captivating new translation by Malcolm Lyons in a magnificent three-volume set. Penguin USA is planning to bring out a one-volume paperback abridgment of the Lyons ­translation.

For all its bizarre monsters and miraculous goings-on, the world of "The Arabian Nights" is instantly recognizable as our own. At the conclusion of each of his perilous voyages, Sinbad rejoices at his return to ­Baghdad, where he eats home cooking and drinks good wine with his boon companions. The perspective is populist and secular: The protagonists of most of the tales aren't great princes but wily merchants and clever young laborers. Religion plays a smaller role in "The Arabian Nights" than it does in medieval Christian epics; its characters rarely pray except when in a jam. Women ­frequently play the hero, rescuing their hapless aristocratic masters with cunning stratagems.

"The Arabian Nights" has long had a bad reputation among Arab intellectuals for its vulgarity, perceived shallowness and general lack of moral uplift. Yet the tales capture an essential quality of the Arab soul: passionate self-romancing. Edward Said's influential book "Orientalism" (1978) warns modern readers to be skeptical of falsely ­romantic views of the East propagated by Western writers and painters. He scarcely mentions "The Arabian Nights," possibly because it undermines his basic premise; but no Western view of the East, however fanciful, could possibly exceed it for perfumed glamour. The most seductive quality of the stories is Shahrazad's serene conviction that her audience will follow her anywhere. And we do.

—Mr. James is the author of "The Snake Charmer" ­(Hyperion 2008).


  1. Hi Michael,
    I had a quick look at the Wall Street article and I really hope that it is not a typical example of the quality of their writing. I is terrible. It reads like it was written by someone who never bothered to actually read a copy of the Nights, only others comments about the Nights. To start with, if the author had read the Nights they would have known that Shahrazad was actually telling her stories to her sister, Dunyazad.

    I've come across the comment about the Burton edition being "practically unreadable". Robert Irwin, in his The Arabian Nights A Companion, propagates that idea by saying "There have indeed been times (particularly when toiling through Burton's own distinctly unattractive translation of the Nights) when I thought that I might slit my throat rather than continue..." Irwin then goes on to use the Burton edition as a major source for his quotes.

    As the Burton edition was the first version I read, I couldn't disagree with him more. It continues to be a favourite of mine.

  2. Thanks for confirming my thoughts, JC.

    I think every single English version since Burton mentions him disparagingly in the introduction and then goes on to use his version to base their own on (except Haddawy who just mentions Burton disparagingly). I heard Robert Irwin present a paper and he called Burton's Nights "unreadable" as well!

  3. I wanted to thank you for your entire blog, I must say that it has been one of the best resources I've found on the internet that is solely about the "Nights" a lone. I am doing a research paper on the Nights right now for my senior year World Literature Class, as well as my Creative and Critical writing class. I can't thank you more for being willing to share your research with those of us who might not have access to it other wise.
    Back to the article. I am a senior in High School and from what research I've done on the "Arabian Nights" I could immeadiately tell that not only were some of the things Mr. James said completely off base, but unfounded as well. It makes me mad that here he is getting paid to write about this and he most likely never even pick the book, up much less read it.
    I know that this is probably the third time I've said this but really, Thank you very much!
    S Jungling - St Marks HS

  4. Thanks for the comment S Jungling! I'm glad my humble website could be of some academic use to you!

    I'd be interested to see your projects if you want to email them to me.

    - M