The Arabian Nights
Translated by Malcolm C Lyons (3 volumes)
Penguin Classics £125
FT Bookshop price: £100

Wordsworth, as a child, had “a little yellow canvas-covered book, a slender abstract of the Arabian Tales”, which fed his imagination. He describes the “promise, scarcely earthly” of discovering that there were four large volumes of the tales. Coleridge said that his mind had been “habituated to the vast” by his early reading of “Romances and Relations of Giants and Magicians & Genii”. Opening this wonderful, orderly new translation of the Arabic Calcutta II manuscript made me feel Wordsworth’s excitement over again. Malcolm C Lyons has put the stories into clear, readable English, and has not omitted the poems that decorate and deepen many of the texts. Each volume has an introduction by Robert Irwin, whose The Arabian Nights: A Companion is both wise, witty and informative. Two of the best-known tales, “Ali Baba” and “Aladdin” are known as orphan tales, since there is no extant Arabic version. These have been translated, by Ursula Lyons, from the 18th-century French of Antoine Galland.

Human beings are narrating animals. We construe our lives as stories, we recount other people’s lives to each other, in gossip, in history, in literature. One of the oddest literary enterprises was the modernist attempt to make novels that did not tell stories. It can’t really be done. Stories end with death, though we also tell stories about time after death, pious or horrific, heavenly pleasures or lurking vampires. The chief glory of the Nights is the form of its frame story. King Shahriyar is maddened by his wife’s adultery with black slaves. He kills her, and marries a new virgin daily. She is enjoyed and put to death in the morning so that she will betray no one. The Vizier has a daughter, Scheherazade, wise and beautiful, who begs her father to marry her to the king as she has a plan to put a stop to the destruction of young women. She asks for her young sister, Dunyazade, to be brought to the bedchamber, and after Scheherazade has been deflowered her sister asks for a story. It is unfinished at dawn, and the king desires to know the end, so spares the storyteller. But the next story, and a thousand and one stories, linked like chains, contained in each other like boxes in boxes, sprouting like twigs out of branches, continually defer death. Three children are born during the storytelling and, finally, the queen is allowed to live. Scheherazade is one of the great heroines who inhabit our imagination. Practical, dauntless, courteous, she saves her world again and again.

This is strange in some ways, as the world of the Nights is very male. The tales, as Robert Irwin tells us, were told by men to men, merchants in bazaars, shopkeepers, interested in trade, inhabiting narrow streets. They depict women as dangerous, treacherous and unscrupulous – one is entitled “The Craft and Malice of Women”. Their world is, as Irwin also points out, full of things – containers, jars, pots, gold and silver, things bought in markets. It is full of meetings between porters, disguised caliphs, veiled women, scholars, all of whom have a tale to tell, which contains another tale, or provokes its audience into telling their own.

Coleridge was very impressed by the tale of the merchant who casually threw away a date stone, and was immediately arrested by a furious ifrit (or genie) who said that the stone had killed his invisible son. The merchant’s execution is delayed so that he may put his affairs in order. When he returns to keep his appointment with his executioner his life is saved by a series of storytelling passers-by. Coleridge saw the date stone as an example of pure chance, operating in a world where chance was the same as destiny, and said it gave him the idea for the ineluctable world of the tale-telling Ancient Mariner. Things happen at random, and are simultaneously fated and unavoidable. The man who fled death by going to Samarra, only to find that death was waiting for him there, is only one example. Irwin has written about the way in which characters in these tales don’t have what we should think of as “character” – they are their fate or their story – Sindbad is the things that happen to him. When the tale is finished they drop back into dailiness and disappear.

The tales are sweet, sad, obscene and marvellous. Things shift shapes – men and women are changed to dogs, to cows, to gazelles, or turned to stone from the waist down. The jinn, creatures made of fire and smoke, appear and disappear. Some are godfearing. Some are satanic. Some haunt lavatory doors. In the splendid tale of Quamar al-Zaman two of these beings, one female, one male, get into a dispute over whether the young prince or the princess of the Chinese Islands is the more beautiful, and transport the sleeping girl across oceans to the prince’s bed, calling up a third hideous ifrit to help adjudicate. They can be sealed into jars or bottles from which they can rise like smoke to tower in the sky. The tales, like the jinn, both tease and satisfy the imagination.

AS Byatt is the author of ‘A Whistling Woman’ (Vintage) and co-editor of ‘Memory: An Anthology’ (Chatto & Windus)

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