Posted by: Corri van de Stege | March 8, 2009

The Sunday Salon and Weekend blues

tssbadge41On Sundays, or Saturdays, whenever the mood takes me, I like to go over the book reviews, the book blogs and the snippets on publishing and writing, including the gossip.  Well, you probably know that if you’ve at all followed some of my blogs on Sundays.  Whiling the time away, it’s blustery outside – I love this English expression: blustery showers, which means that there are sudden and frequent changes from hard chasing clouds that leave space for a peeping and watery sun, to sudden all-over greyness that opens up with gallons of water and rain, to change again into a cold and bleak landscape, shaking off the drops – and so it is, blustery, after a promising start to the day.  My mood is very similar: cold and frosty and then agitated and miserable, skipping from paper to paper and from book to  ipod and music, restless and questioning.  It’s probably the outcome of a couple of weeks of non-stop deadlines and work which is now leaving me uneasy and at a loss with myself. The merry go round that somehow cannot come to a stop. 

I am going over the reviews but there is not much there that catches my eye; I change my attention to the Guardian’s books blog and while clicking here and there I come across this review of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.  I have only just recommended this book to Lisa (who does some great book reviews herself, by the way) as perhaps one of the first books to read by IM if you haven’t read any yet.  However, the book does have a bit of a mixed review here,  doesn’t it?  It is so long ago that I read the Murdoch books that I am now wondering whether I would still like them as I did at the time or whether they have truly and utterly dated as one or two of the comments suggest.   I look forward to Lisa’s comments; moreover I have also just bought (again) a copy of her first novel The Net, to try and find out whether I am as taken by these novels as I used to be at one time.  I know, these books are all a bit crazy and weird, but that was part of the attraction.

mahfouz-palace-walkI have now finished Mahfouz’s first book in the Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk.  I have to admit that even though I was absorbed by the story I was at the same time irritated by it.  I felt a mixture of admiration and impatience with the style of writing, the authorial voice coming through at times, telling me as a reader what one of the characters was like, always hovering over and above the action.  Mahfouz has been compared with Tolstoy and I can see why, in that we are given a very grand and tapestry like overview of a society in a state of flux, in this case Egypt, and the way a certain class of that society behaved and lived.  I cannot, somehow, conceive the absolute and total obedience of the women as they are described, as if they are fixtures, emotionally dead, accepting their place and making sure that they keep each other in place as well.  But then, perhaps I can now and it is the mastery of Mahfouz that he is able to make me feel angry and almost upset at the way this family lives and keeps the women suppressed.  He definitely has a masterly way of evoking scenery, for example when Amina the long suffering wife and mother creates a bit of space for herself on the roof (she is not allowed ever to leave the house or meet with people outside of her immediate family!) and keeps hens in wooden chicken coops:

     How much joy she got from scattering grain for them or putting the water container on the ground as the hens raced for it, preceded by their rooster.  Their beaks fell on the grain quickly and regularly, like sewing machine needles, leaving little indentations in the dust like pockmarks from a drizzle.

I dislike Amina’s subservience, her giving in to a tyranical and miserable husband, who bullies his family at home but once outside is able to square his home-based god-fearing behaviour with the drinking and womanising with friends in cafes and clubs, only to come back slightly intoxicated every night again to a wife, Amina, who holds up the lamp for him and takes his clothes and makes sure that he is obeyed in his every wish. 

The youngest son, Kamal, cannot quite believe it when his father allows his sister Aisha to leave the house and to marry:

     He had asked repeatedly how his father could allow it, since he would not allow even the shadow of aone of his woemn to be seen through the crack of a window.  The only answer he reeived was loud laughter.  He had asked his mothe critically hows she could do something so extreme as giving Aisha away.  She had told him he would grow up one day and take a girl like her from her father’s house, and that she would be escorted to his house with cries of joy.

The book gives a real insight into the family but also into a country that is slowly waking up from a sleepy acceptance of the impositions by the English and Australians.  This book is set against the background of the end of the first world war ending in the 1920s when Egypt struggles for its independence.  However, the main focus is the way this family lives just prior to the move for independence and then gets caught up in it.  I need to let it sink in a bit more and although I thought, when finishing this, that I would leave well alone for a while before reading part 2, if ever, now that I have been able to take a step away from it I think I will pick up part 2 sooner rather than later. 

One needs to accept the authorial comments, and once you have turned the last page all that seems less important: it has become part of the story, almost as if he is trying to make sure that you quite understand what his characters go through, for example when he relates the conversation between the two brothers Yasin and Fahmy on marriage.  Yasin, the elder brother has married, and is becoming very bored and distanced from his wife, after only a short time:

     ‘I never imagined that marriage would be so dreary.  In fact, it’s nothing more than a false dream. It’s a cruel and evil swindler.’

In the next paragraph, Mahfouz explains Fahmy’s reaction:

     These words seemed difficult for Fahmy to stomach and aroused his suspicion.  That was only to be expected from a young man whose emotional life was centrered on a single goal which could be pictured only in the form of a wife and under the rubric “marriage”.  Fahmy was disturbed to have his irresponsible brother attach this revered category with such bitter sarcasm.

This is the full omni-scient voice of Mahfouz, giving us his verdict on his character, explaining him to us, and he does this throughout the book.  However, he does so consistently, guiding us through some of the mores of his characters in a setting that, for most of us, will be quite alien. 

Do I recommend the book?  Yes, because of the topic, because this is writing that reveals a completely unknown world in a way that, even if you are unsympathetic to a lot of the characters or don’t quite understand why they act the way you do, you feel that at the end of the book a curtain has been lifted, you’ve actually been part of a family’s life, you really have gained some insight into a culture that is nearly incomprehensible in its laid-back acceptance of the way things are and will never change.  But of course, you realise that they will change, that times are changing and that this family will be affected. So, we must read the next part in order to find out how it will change the lives of the women living in this very oppressive society.



  1. I can relate to your restlessness – I think it is the time of year…it is not winter anymore, but neither is it spring.

    I have Mahfouz’s trilogy on my TBR stack – I bought it over a year ago and have not yet read it. But your thoughts reminded me I should get to it.

    Have a great Sunday!

  2. I finished Yacoubian Building last week and I wasn’t thrilled with it either. I like reading about other worlds and this world felt just like America, though it was set in Egypt. I have Palace Walk in my TBR. I hope it does not disappoint.

  3. That sort of going from book to music to computer and back again to find something…I feel your frustration!

    That trilogy you’re reading sounds fascinating.

  4. i haven’t read ANY Iris Murdoch yet, although after reading the Iris trilogy I bought Under the net. I’ll be interested to hear what you make of it.

    Palace Walk is another book still in the TBR pile, I confess what I’ve read about its depiction of women has put me off.

  5. Thank you for an interesting review. I love how someone else picks out completely different things from a book to talk about.

    I can see your problem with the omni-present author, but I guess it didn’t bother me as much as it bothered you.

    Also, the situation with the women in the family annoyed me as well, but I kept reminding myself that I was looking at them with my 21st century eyes, that the story is set in a different time and place. It does get better in the second and third parts, though.

  6. Wendy: thank you! The Sunday was not bad after all – and do read Mahfouz, even if I sounded perhaps a bit cautious. He opens up a completely different world.
    Debbie Nance – see above, yes, you must read it because this IS about Egypt and about quite a different culture
    Priscilla – well, these are the winter/spring blues aren’t they? Somehow or other I seem to be suffering from it every year again – how annoying!
    Sarah: don’t be put off: it actually means that Mahfouz is probably doing something that every writer should do: get you involved and make you realise what your own thoughts are.
    Myrthe: Your reviews actually got me started on the book and I thank you for it. The book is one of those books that you keep mulling over in your head and to me at least that’s a sign of an impressive writer!

  7. Myrthe – and in addition (I just left a note on your review of part 2) I will definitely read part 2, somehow or other this family has got under my skin!

  8. Well that did it. I just ordered the book! The Guardian actually made me want to read the book even more. Thanks for sharing it.

    I’m very restless too and was just visiting another friend’s blog and she said the same. Judging by many of the other comments here, there’s something making lots of people feel that way. Perhaps we’re just ready to be done with winter…

  9. Seachanges, I think you are not the only one who has moved the Cairo Trilogy way up the TBR-pile after I started blogging about it. I have seen at least three if not more bloggers noting they want to read Palace Walk or continue with the next book. It makes me smile, because I know the reverse has happened many times, when I would read about a book on one or more blogs, which would make me take up the book sooner rather than later. 🙂

    Looking forward to your thoughts on the next one.

  10. I have never thought of comparing Mahfouz to Tolstoy, although they both go into details in family life. Women are suppressed in Mahfouz’s hand, often bearing the grief of the family. One of the saddest book I’ve ever read is The Beginning and the End, written by Mahfouz.

  11. Hello Seachanges! I’ve left a little something for you at my blog. Drop by and take a peek:

  12. Lisa – and I’m still restless, but then so many things are up in the air… I do hope you enjoy the Murdoch!
    Myrthe: the next two are on order… it is nice to be able to share likes and dislikes and then suddenly want to read something because someone has written about it. I love it.
    Matthew: Yes, I think that this is what was the reason for comparing the two: the family descriptions and environment and the details on how a family lives, what the house looks like, etc. I think Mahfouz actually paints a quite true picture of what it was like to be a woman at that time in Egypt, at least a particular class of woman.
    Priscilla – I’m on my way!

  13. I just finished Palace Walk, and had many of the same feelings you did. There were a few times when I was so bothered by the treatment of women in the novel that I was tempted to throw the book at the wall! And I happen to know a woman married to an Egyptian man who is treated in much the same way, even today. But I stuck it out to the end, because I did get caught up in the story and was interested in what would happen to the family.

    Do you plan to read the other two books in the trilogy? I think I will…

  14. […] feelings about this book with the feelings I had when reading Mahfouz’s Paradise Walk, which I recently talked about. Both books evoked a kind of anger and annoyance in me, both books are very well written, but […]

  15. Becca: yes, I do want to read at least the next part and then I’ll decide again… I’ve ordered it, only the postman is not delivering!

  16. […] have already reviewed the first book in this series – and you may remember that I was very much in two minds about it.  On the one […]

  17. […] Stories recently read and reviewed the Cairo Trilogy as well. Her blogposts are here and […]

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