- Contes de la mille et deuxième nuit: Théophile Gautier, Edgar Allan Poe, Nicolae Davidescu, Richard Lesclide, et André Gill ed. by Evanghélia Stead
And then? And what happened next? What happened after the 1,001st night? Readers of all ages are familiar with this sense of emptiness, almost of betrayal. Once such a long book is finished, one would like to continue the story, find out what happened to the characters.
The beautiful new book by Evanghélia Stead focuses on a particular aspect of the long history of the Western reception of the Arabian Nights: the texts that pick up where Scheherazade left off and tell the story of the 1,002nd night. Stead is the author of an earlier study, Seconde Odyssée: Ulysse de Tennyson à Borges (2009), published in the same series and devoted to modern variations on the ancient practice of continuing Homer’s epic by deriving additional stories from this or that character or episode. In Contes de la mille et deuxième nuit, she focuses on the question of the continuation of the Nights in Théophile Gautier’s “Conte de la 1002e nuit” (1842), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The 1002nd Tale of Sheherazade” (1845), and Nicolae Davidescu’s “La 1002e nuit: histoire critique” (1937). The question is how to make new texts with secondhand characters, episodes, and data. Both Poe’s and Davidescu’s stories are in bilingual presentation. In addition to these three tales, Stead includes the first translation of Poe’s 1002nd night, freely adapted as La mille et deuxième nuit—in homage to Gautier—by Richard Lesclide (1868), who later published the famous “Corbeau” by Mallarmé and Manet. This version is reproduced in facsimile, along with the delightfully cartoonish illustrations by André Gill; the last one, Scheherazade strangled, is priceless. A critical essay and several pages of impeccably researched and informative notes accompany each text in the edition. In addition to the illustrated Lesclide-Gill “Mille deuxième nuit,” there are five full-page illustrations. The book also includes a concise bibliography.
The introduction contextualizes the basic plot of the Arabian Nights and raises the question of the ending. Most endings, as retold by Galland and others, show the sultan dissuaded from his murderous folly and the storyteller, now safe, honored as his queen and the mother of his sons. What is left to tell? Stead picks up on the potential anxiety of this essentially modern question. How can one continue when all the stories have been told? Is it still possible to tell a story? Under the ironic veneer of the two nineteenth-century stories by Gautier and Poe, Stead detects seriousness, even anguish. These two stories are read in light of the one by Davidescu, who also translated both Poe and Gautier into Romanian. This reflexivity is evident in Davidescu’s “critical story” (1937), whose title is borrowed from Gautier and in which Poe (as the author [End Page 147] of “The Raven”) features prominently, alongside the original trio (Schahrazade, Schahriar, Doniazade) who all narrate, discuss, analyze, and compare stories.
In Théophile Gautier’s story, “Conte de la 1002e nuit,” a distraught Scheherazade bursts into the narrator’s apartment one night, begging for a story to tell the sultan. Galland got it wrong, she complains: not only did she not get pardoned after 1,001 nights, but Schahriar is more insatiable than ever and she has run out of tales. The narrator tells her a story destined to become his Oriental ballet, La Péri (this inset story imitates the nesting narratives strategy of the original): unfortunately, it must not have been well received, for we learn that Scheherazade is beheaded. The stressful condition of a nineteenth-century Scheherazade working under the double threat of the loss of inspiration and the loss of her public’s favor is the most intriguing aspect of this irreverent, yet also profound...