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Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo
Other World Literatures
Menahem Milson. Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. xvi + 304pp.
The pleasure of reading Menahem Milson's book is in finding a long-time, enthusiastic reader and teacher of Najib Mahfuz's work who illustrates Mahfuz's narrative power, realistic descriptions, and humane spirit in dealing with the bitter religious and political conflicts in Egypt and the Middle East. Readers of Milson's book will find new works they want to read and teach, although rather too much attention is given to early work not representative of Mahfuz's best or of his startling variety as a writer.
Milson makes claims for the book that seem to be only partly realized, including the use of classical Arabic and medieval Islamic texts to understand the cultural roots of Cairo and Mahfuz's work, and the use of linguistic and literary sources to shed light on the novels. The literary sources that Milson uses, however, are primarily other works by Mahfuz (with the notable exception of the Qur'an), while linguistics is almost entirely limited to the study of names.
The designation "Novelist-Philosopher" may fit Mahfuz, but it doesn't exactly fit Milson's emphasis. Although he claims that the novels are not read as symptoms of the novelist's psychology, Milson devotes more attention to the unified psychology behind Mahfuz's works than he does to the author's use of philosophy or his philosophical stance. Mahfuz seems to distrust philosophy except as a poser of questions. Rasheed El-Enany's book Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning offers a clearer estimate of Mahfuz's position in this regard. [End Page 549]
Readers new to Mahfuz's novels will find in Milson's book much helpful information, especially plot summaries (not really critical analyses, as he claims); biographical, historical, and political contexts for the novels and stories; and a succinct treatment of Mahfuz's life and career. Experienced readers of Mahfuz will find little that is new, but will appreciate Milson's clarity in recapitulating the usual information on Mahfuz's life, career, and works. For those who don't read Arabic, the major new contribution Milson makes to Mahfuz scholarship in English is his discussion of the significance of Mahfuz's choice of names in the contexts of Arabic personal names. Milson also takes time to explain the traditions of naming in Arabic, extremely helpful information for the novice in reading Arabic fiction. At times Milson claims an allegorical or symbolic significance for names, while at other times an ironic use of names. The author presents his interpretive argument but gives readers enough information to form their own judgments.
Milson, as professor of Arabic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has access to Arabic language reviews and interviews that are not easily accessible in the West, and he has used them advantageously, quoting copiously, to give a more nuanced reading of Mahfuz's life and career. This is especially the case in his reading of the interaction between Mahfuz's work in the popular and government realms (the journalist, government censor, film script writer) and his work as a novelist writing literary Arabic. In the growing list of critical works available on Mahfuz since his Nobel Prize award, we can welcome Milson's book, but also wish for more attention to Mahfuz's popular work and especially to his work in film in relation to his novels, short stories, and dramas. Film versions (there are over 30) of Mahfuz's novels and stories are often mentioned in English language studies, but the only available treatment seems to be in Arabic. Milson might have provided much more attention to that aspect of Mahfuz's career, but he has given a clearly written and well-documented account of Mahfuz's work that provides easier access to Mahfuz scholarship than older, standard works.