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Ahdaf Soueif

Would Austen have read this book? she would have seen it as an improbable Radcliffe fantasy (especially the trunk and manuscripts) and gobbled it up, all the while writing harsh abrasive remarks about it to Cassandra who would at least listen ….

Friends and readers,

I first read Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love some six years ago. I immediately recognized it as written in the Booker Prize mode: it has narratives within narratives, especially the past ones embedded into present day memories; deep subjectivity and reveries as the POV for long stretches; rich prose style. It seemed a cross between Ruth Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1984) and A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Brontesque in its passionate outpourings, a George Eliot kind of heroine (Anna is called a Dorothea Brooke by her great-great grandaughter, Isabel Parkman), neo-Victorian, self-consciously Orientalist. Unlike many a more politics Booker Prize winner (in the event it was merely short-listed) Soueif is more than anti- or post-colonialist: she is avidly pro-Palestinian, rightly searingly critical of British, then US, then Israel behavior towards Egypt. She provides an alternative and accurate history of Egypt within this book, teaching the reader to understand events she (most readers I’ve met have been women) has been mislead, miseducated or silenced about. I had a hard time with it because the first heroine we meet, the older new reclusive Egyptian journalist Amal al-Ghamrawi, tells her story now in the third person, now in the first person, and reads and tells Anna’s story in a similar woven way. But if you keep at it, you will find yourself enjoying a passionate historical romance masterpiece.

I reread it for a paper I wrote on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake as they seemed uncannily similar, with both having epistolary situations (epistolarity — characters reading letters and journals where we are aware of the other reader) and story-telling first person story-telling set in side-by-side time frames. Smith’s Ethelinde and Soueif’s Map of Love are deeply recessive novels. The stories and characters that matter most are suspended, remain latent until we are well into the novel. Characters who blend into one another so it’s hard to keep them distinct. Prevailing moods are melancholic, ironic and nostalgic despite considerable alienation, deeply erotic, paradoxically all the more when the main character, a woman or feminized hero, has chosen celibacy. Events occur in widely disparate geographical places, leading to estrangements between characters, whom memory nonetheless connects and who act based the connection. Books will straddle languages. Contain some form of influential armed war (whether or not off-stage). Ending in a periphery, where the characters accept severely diminished hopes, tragic deaths and loss. A retreat into a refuge, internal exile. And above all migrancy.  The trunk motif is first found in Godwin’s Caleb Williams. Intense love stories.

These past three weeks I’ve reread and skimmed and dreamt over it — for the love scenes between Anna and her Egyptian lover evoke in my mind or are very like those of Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser in Outlander. At Politics and Prose Bookstore a 2 hour single session class was held on it this past Thursday. The room was full, and we had even a male reader. The teachers, Susan Willens and Virginia Newmyer, worked thoroughly to present historical and thematical and allusion background, then went over the story line section by section, and then we discussed characters themes POV politics settings moods. So here I am to share at least that part of that original paper concerning just Map of Love and offer a brief account of the politics of Soueif’s other novel, In the Eye of the Sun (set during the 1967 Israeli-Egyptian war), and at least mention her journalistic autobiographical account of the Arab Spring (2012), Cairo and her book of good essays, Mezzaterra (Fragments from the Common Ground) whose themes, attitudes and use of fragments as a way to speak remind me of Elena Ferrante’s La Frantumaglia.

Soueif’s core story is of Anna Winterbourne, found in a trunk filled with writing. Anna is a fin de siècle English widow of a minor English colonialist whose early death is attributed to his experience of colonial war with Kitchener’s forces on the Sudan. Anna travels to Egypt and marries a middle-aged Egyptian nationalist bachelor, Sharif Basha al Baroudi, who like by this marriage defies and cuts himself off from people. Anna’s trangressive history is held off, and surfaces as correspondence told by bits and pieces. Soueif’s Map of Love was for me a page-turner as I worked my way through parallel contemporary stories of Soueif’s direct surrogates, the older now reclusive Egyptian journalist, Amal al-Ghamrawi, who reads and tells Anna’s story, of Amal’s much younger American cousin, Isabel Parkman, who has an affair Omar, Amal’s middle-aged brother (Palestinian, modeled on Edward Said, but made directly active in the Arab-Israeli wars),to reach Anna’s “translational” texts (Hassan). The Map of Love ends when Shariff is assassinated and in the novel’s penultimate passage a paragraph remembering the ambiguous close of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette: Omar is thought to have been assassinated. Like Smith’s pro-active young woman-daughter Medora (from her last novel, The Young Philosopher), Isabel will not give up hope (516). Anna’s story is one of failure at the close: when Sharif is assassinated, she must return to England and bring up their daughter — shades of Outlander, but unlike Claire — Anna has not been to create some new social identity as a result of geographic and ethnic and marital dislocation.

The power of The Map of Love resides in its stretches of intense interiority. The reticence Soueif felt appropriate for Anna, with a sophisticated understanding of political relationships provide neo-Victorian texts (Tolstoy like), which enable Soueif to weave the colonialist and nationalist politics of Eygpt in naturally Anna’s main correspondent is Sir Charles Winterbourne, her dead husband’s now retired father. Soueif also (anticipating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) has Amal interweaves a distilled opulent neo-Victorian novel which Amal simply tells and moves between the third and first person. The Map of Love has been called a “translational novel,” with Sharif and Anna supposed talking to one another in French (though the words are English); when it finally drives down to fleeting naturalistic exchanges between the two. I was deeply moved, especially at a long scene of his dying, and her relief to have as an option a final choice of retreat for herself back to England, to educate her daughter by Shariff, paint, garden, and care for Sir Charles in his decline (505). The real mark of the post-colonial novel is migrancy, a kind of ricochet.


John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Harem — the painter who inspired Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Egypt after her husband’s return from there and death

Soueif’s novel achieves its political goal for an English novel simply weaving in nuanced accurate history of the earlier phases of the British take-over because much is unknown and rarely told from the perspective of the colonised subjects. We learn of the important Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer (1841-1917), a feminist Qasim Amin (1863-1908); the novel (like her In the Eye of the Sun on the Israeli-Eygpt wars) is meant to educate English-reading readers. Movement is temporal, back to Sharif’s father, still alive after decades of solitary confinement (political exclusion presented as religious), forward to 1900, when Anna’s eleven years in Eygpt begins, to her readers’ stories of Suez, 1952, Amal’s prime, in the 1960s, and Isabel’s now in New York, London, Cairo 1997. Soueif pokes fun at Booker Prize self-reflexive and cultural conventions, at the same time as she is open to “orientalist” texts. Shortly after her first husband’s death, Anna is drawn to return to Egypt when she is mesmerized (Map 45-46) by the Orientalist opulently colorful depictions of Egyptian street life, Islamic culture in schools, harems by Frederick Lewis (1779-1856) in her frequent trips to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert). Emily Weeks, an art historian has written an immense book on his work as cross-cultural. Map of Love is (Wylie Sypher like) is a kind of verbal equivalent of Lewis (Sypher). Like Smith, despite the repeated failure of group efforts, Soueif hopes for an internationalism, though it has to be said that the kind of cosmopolitanism found in this novel, has lately come under scrutiny as a disguised mask for neo-liberal western-style colonialism.

Surely she was also hoping someone would make a film and she could make money that way. Increase her visibility &c

In the class we spoke of the importance of the women’s friendships and relationships within the novel, for me this was especially true for Sharif’s sister, Layla, and Anna. As is common for me, I discovered a common view of the book by the women there was critical of some of the more unusual sexual couplings while I had no trouble. Anna’s granddaughter, Isabel’s older lover, Omar, has had an affair with her mother, Anna’s daughter, Jasmine. Some objected to the modern stories as thin, or unbelievable — no more so I felt than the Victorian one.

See this excellent review in the New York Times when the book first came out: Annette Kobak’s “Out of the Trunk.”. Also Emily Davis’s wonderful, “Romance as Political Aesthetic in Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, ” Genders 45 (28 July 2007).
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Soueif’s earlier and equally long novel, In the Eye of the Sun, reveals how self-consciously she has imitated the Booker Prize model — for this is not at all pastiche, but very contemporary in language and feel. Soueif mentions Tolstoy as her master, and here she is retelling what she suggests is the crucial war of the century, and how the betrayal of Egypt (its defeat) was engineered with Britain’s help, and fostered by some of the elite of Egypt too. While I can see that Map of Love is far more polished, more somehow artful, In the eye is the more living book. It is also like Tolstoy meaning to be accurate and meaning to inform her reader — as if she were a journalist

What Soueif shows is the Egyptian authorities deliberately allowed Israel to strike first in that war and so gave it the opportunity to destroy the Egyptian air force. Having wiped that out, it was relatively easy for Israel to win the war. Soueif indicts the incompetence, rivalries between different Egyptian people in power but what is striking to this reader is how she is careful to include someone saying to someone else, the Israeli planes are on their way a day before June 6th; that is June 5th. I remember how nervous the other character became, fearful that if Egypt hits first, Egypt will be the aggressor, blamed, and then the US will outright attack Egypt. Now I recall how the US has not been in the habit of attacking other countries along side Israel whom Israel wants to destroy in some way. We give them billions, and share spying information but we don’t overtly attack. Now we are doing the same for Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Back to In the Eye of the Sun, this idea that Egypt dare not defend itself from Israel’s surprise attack because of fear of US retaliation emerges as false since what happens is the surprise attack not only pulverizes Egypt but allows the rest of Egypt’s army to suffer horrendous casualties. Whole units wiped out. It is really implied this is collusion of some sort — could it be that those in authority were thought to want a capitalist order to replace Nassar’s open socialism — remember he nationalized or wanted to nationalize the Suez canal. He was replaced by Sadat a pro-US person (pro-capitalist).

The book has a good subjective heroine’s plot. One heroine’s half-ass husband who can do no real harm gets involved in quiet revolutionary activities and is imprisoned, tortured, psychologically and economically destroyed for life: Deena’s husband, Nur-ed-Din. Several of the women die of too many childbirths; they are shown to be very much bullied by their husbands, they dare not refuse sex and sex means children. Although brief, very good:  Marilyn Booth on In the Eye of the Sun, in World Literature Today 68:1 (1994):204-5.

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To conclude, I admit I was chuffed when I found the two teachers and I were agreed in some deep ways: they loved the account of the long imprisoned father of Sharif, his melancholy despair and his (religious) attitude towards existence that enabled him to hang on in solitary for so long and endure a life-in-death. I liked some similar characters and melancholy piquant details in her Eye of the Sun, e.g., Aysa’s father loses his library; it has to be sold. It is in 1979 that Deena writes letter detailing what was done to her husband (terrible things); that was the last year that Jim and I were together in NYC and found we must move to Virginia.

Other of her novels I’d like to read: The Sandpiper; other of her essays, This is not a Border. I loved this essay: “The Politics of Desire in the Writings of Ahdaf Soueif” by Joseph Massad in Journal of Palestine Studies, 28:4 (Summer, 1999): 74-90

Ellen

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Ford Madox Brown’s famous The Last of England (1864-65)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been working away on my paper for the coming ASECS conference in Denver, Colorado, on Winston Graham’s historical fiction; its now 19 minutes long and all ready, the title: “‘After the Jump:’ Winston Graham’s uses of documented fact and silences,” and I’ve been reading Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River, the second historical novel by this Afro-Carribean man brought up in Leeds, England, and listening to Diana Gabaldon’s fourth Outlander book, Drums of Autumn, which is about Jamie and Claire Fraser’s settlement of themselves, & family in North Carolina. I was riveted by Phillips’s equally immensely sad and political Cambridge before this and mean soon to read his European Tribe. I find Davina Porter’s reading aloud of Gabaldon irresistibly entertaining and at heart a woman’s romance. This and other reading, and contextualizing Graham’s achievement and tracing the changes over the course of six decades of writing, and how these mirror both the era he was writing in as well as the changes in historical fiction during each era — all prompted me to come up with a CFP for the next EC/ASECS:

Crossroads in Historical Fiction

The evolution of historical fiction as a capacious creative genre in the last half-century is astounding (especially when you consider how far it had sunk as a genre in the early part of the 20th). Prestigious prize-winning, breaking with all sorts of conventions of verisimilitude (time-traveling anyone?), its politicization encompasses post-colonialism, identity politics, overturning previous historical consensus from seemingly crucial central events and agents to analyses of peripheries; life-writing, gothic and spirituality trajectories, fictionalized biographies; post-texts (sequels, prequels, rewrites), while carrying on delivering the usual traditional art, fictional & learning history pleasures. Authors themselves nowadays stand at cross-roads so it’s no possible to call a book say Afro-Carribean if the author grew up in Leeds, and now lives in the US and writes for an international market (Caryl Phillips); or even pronounce its text as securely in one or another language different, say from English if it’s mostly known in English translation or originally written in English by someone from a non-English speaking culture. I invite papers on authors who stand at such crossroads in an 18th century imaginary in books or films

It has (to say nothing more) become increasingly difficult to know where to catalogue or place in a library recent transformations in historical fiction and romance. What do you do with fictionalized biography? Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy has influenced directly all biographies of Cromwell since Wolf Hall. What about post-texts which are historical novels in their own right: Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly out of R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I had joined the Historical Novels Review site some weeks ago and have now received my first paper issue: it is fascinating, its theme theme Australian HF: indigenous origins, colonialism, and diaspora. The novels are organized by country or period set in – and within that the central world-historical figure. And I am now at long last receiving one a month paper copies of History Today. It was a difficult subscription to achieve because negotiating the online website was beyond me. I am just getting paper copies the way I just get paper copies of Times Literary Supplement. Well the new (it is much changed since I last got it) periodical is much improved with its reviews addressing modern concerns more. One of the columnists is still Mary Beard. Last month had Suzannah Lipscomb’s review of the movie Mary Queen of Scots where she compares what the movie showed to what is factually agreed upon. This month an intelligent an intelligent article by Lauren Johnson on the mental illnesses of Henry VI as the result of his traumatizing experiences.


Sam Heughan as James Fraser (he resembles both Aidan Turner and Kyle Soller as Ross and Francis Poldark – same posture)

Last I’ve been keeping up with historical films and adaptations of historical novels, and got myself (at a ridiculous price) an anthologies of essays on the way protagonists are recently presented in popular film TV serial dramas (BBC, Netflix, Amazon Prime): Conflicting Masculinities, edd Katherine Byrn James Leggott, Julie Anne Taddeo.

Among the central TV texts (films) they discuss are a group I’ve watched obsessively: The Crown, Victoria, Downton Abbey, Poldark, Outlander. Banished (except for this last where I had the stomach to watch but once). The interesting central thesis of the volume is that recent TV dramas mirroring the undermining of men’s roles in the neo-liberal order as men and placing a new emphasis on “self-making and self-management” for men and women has resulted in a very different portrayal of lead male characters. You could call this a feminization (they are soft emotionally), but that’s not true if you look at what they do: they are endlessly at work, they are themselves a work in progress; those who don’t behave this way are stigmatized as drone, inferior, useless. They are themselves violated (downright raped sometimes). At the same time in the new colonial order it’s their job to resist, not comply with, the economic and social order they find themselves in. What the females do is support, adapt and show resourcefulness in helping them

Physicality is intensely valued, so nakedness; an ability at warfare or being a good breaker of law and rescuing people; they are haunted by the demons of war, often scarred – nakedness is curious though because they are not completely naked (only the chest)) and the males whose penis is shown are those who are suspect, inferior, not masculine enough (like Francis Poldark). The worlds these men live in are uncivilized or inhospitable to women or they are centrally hostile to them in some fundamental way. They are partnered with an active, desiring and strong pro-active females. All round the different programs swirl issues of power, identity, territory – the man is seeking a place to be powerful from, whether criminally or not.

Online I found this essay on why academics supposedly are paying attention to nakedness in male icons of Poldark and Outlander:

There is a problem of complicity in enjoying the spectacle of the ruined, raped, frightening body — the colonialist power through some individual has left its mark on the person. I think of all the cruel marks through burning irons placed on enslaved black people. I saw backs in the African-American museum — of women – just as terrifying as Jamie Fraser’s back (a point of deep shame).

All these shows are associated with colonization but also specific landscapes we long to be in — I remember when in The Crown Philip (Matt Smith) went round the world and asserted his masculinity, it was always in colonized non-white places. When he and Elizabeth (Claire Foy) honeymoon it is in the very British Malta where the dominant culture has become white, Anglo. Philip goes to the Olympics which are taking place in Australia, and this becomes the raison d’etre for a long journey round the world with all males on deck and him in charge; we see a much freer and more comfortably and probably sexually promiscuous Philip. Elizabeth is confined to places like Malta, where her activity in hunting is more in the taking photos vein, including at least taking photos of an elephant. But we do not see evidence or memories of the centuries of harm that produced the control over the native peoples these royal British have in either case.


On Safari

I’ll end on this: my feeling is that Andrew Davies’ film adaptations (one of the best film-makers, script writers, adapters of our era) have not moved to this kind of conflicted masculinity at all — nor nostalgia over landscape.  The characters may be sad in a landscape and the landscape used symbolically.  And sure, Davies in say The Way We Live Now makes sure that the very ambiguous hero, Paul Montague, works and is seen to work hard, but it’s not central to what makes him a sufficiently exemplary male; he is not a rebel against the going regime necessarily. It is more he’s a man of integrity and truth — which all these other heroes are not necessarily. OTOH, he can be sexually unfaithful to the heroine, nay love another woman over a weekend at the seaside and still find himself accepted, covered-up for. This is not held against him as it is say Philip in The Crown.


Maxwell as Henry VII (“The Power in the Land”)

I will be putting my paper on Graham on line later this month and will be blogging a review of an astonishingly superb older BBC serial drama, The Shadow of the King, featuring James Maxwell as a man whose strength is in his intellect and wily amorality. It deserves to be much better known and watched again avidly for it speaks to us again today in an more adult complicated, dare I say Shakespearean way.


Philip Glenister as a subordinate male who rescues Mary Boleyn (2003 Other Boleyn Girl)


Claire Foy again, this time as Anne Boleyn, as aggressive as any male (Wolf Hall)

It is fair to say that emigration, colonialism, and refugees are not at all or only marginally the subject matter of Davies’s chosen books or this older BBC serial drama. The same holds true for the other brilliant and serious Tudor film adaptations, say Wolf Hall and both The Other Boleyn Girl films: masculinity is undermined but from a locally powerful corrupt point of view (all is for sale, including women, one’s head, whatever). See my Overturning Gender Stereotypes. This global political slant is new in its omnipresence, everywhere in the new historical fiction at the crossroads with male and female roles transforming themselves. Whence my opening image.

Ellen

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