- Literary Modernity between Arabic and Persian Prose:Jurji Zaydan's Riwayat in Persian Translation
I Literarymodernity and Failed Novels
Our understanding of nineteenth-century literary practice is often mediated by the national literature model of study that continues to govern discussions of modern literature. Put differently, contemporary evaluations of literary texts of the nineteenth century are often arrived at by using the national literature models that remain ascendant. This results in particular from the interplay of two concepts, 'nationalism' and 'novelism', and the role that these ideological agendas play in establishing the frameworks for literary study that predominate in today's academy. Novelism is defined by Clifford Siskin as 'the habitual subordination of writing to the novel' —it is the prevalent tendency to approach prose writing in general using a framework of value derived from criticism of the novel.1 Rather than evaluating texts of the period in question by using criteria that can be validly ascribed to the sites of their production, we often tend to employ instead criteria derived from the novel as a currently-ascendant form of writing. Together with the tendency to read literature as defined exclusively by the trajectories offered in national-literature frameworks, this dual agenda has come to represent the most widespread tendency in literary historical scholarship, that of the nationalist-novelist paradigm, which presumes national literatures to be its subject matter, and which evaluates (non-European) prose writing largely through the critical tools developed for assessing the European novel.
These issues take us back to the debates that continue to be aired by literary historians of Arabic and other West Asian literatures, seeking answers to questions such as: Which was the first novel written in [End Page 359] Arabic? What was the inspiration for the earliest of Turkish novels? Is it appropriate to term certain late nineteenth-century Persian long prose narrative works as novels even though they do not conform to the criteria for the genre set by scholars of the modern English or French novel? These and other similar questions largely concern the difficulty scholars face in agreeing upon the value of novelistic writing within non-European societies. This problem finds its roots, perhaps, in the differential economies for literary production in colonial and in colonized societies. By the late nineteenth century there is no doubt that French and English novels were produced within a largely autonomous cultural economy, deriving legitimacy from a complex interrelation of factors such as the cultural legitimacy accorded to works by the critical elites, the prestige of popular regard, and the emergence of the myth of the author as an individual creator, a figure seemingly located outside of the logic of this economy. For example, when looking at the writers of the Arab world or Iran, we find that innovative trends in narrative writing also emerged through an increasingly autonomous sphere for literary production, but that the terms for these spheres not only varied in different social settings but also comprised different kinds of actors in each of these specific settings.
It also bears noting that this constellation of criteria for the evaluation of Arabic novelistic writing along terms set by 'its Western counterpart' is not entirely limited to non-Arab scholars. The fixation of many critics upon the terms developed by Western literary imaginations has led to a kind of ressentiment among students of non-Western literatures, who may hang their heads in shame or frustration concerning the 'failures' of their novelists and other prose writers. This sentiment illuminates one important point: as a matter of course, where the study of literatures of the formerly colonized world are concerned, scholarly assessments have largely followed the thread of 'East-West' or 'North-South' comparisons —presumptively assessing the influence of colonial societies upon the modern cultures of the formerly colonized world. Thus, it may be no more of a surprise that the prose narrative writing of the postcolonial world is littered with so many 'failed novels' than is the discovery that European and American poets have yet to truly master composing ghazal poems along the line of those written by Hafiz or Iqbal.
For comparatists, the prevalence of a framework for the evaluation of...