I remember as a boy reading Frankenstein for the first time and marveling at the story within a story with, at some points, other stories told within that one. I have witnessed the stream and now I see the lake from which it flows. 1,001 Nights contains these great labyrinthine narratives within narratives. I almost wanted to say that I found it remarkably sophisticated for a book of its vintage, but on second thought, I'm at a loss as to why I persist in tending toward that point of view. If anything, the ancients, in my experience, at least matched if not exceeded our sophistication. I repent of my chronocentrism.
They are all extraordinarily well told stories. The experience is reminding me of the joy I had as a child reading Carl Barks comic books. They are ripping yarns and I haven't even hit any of the ones I had heard of before (save, of course, for Scheherazade herself). It is the sort of thing I imagine reading, devouring, and loving as a young man (in spite of, or perhaps more honestly because of the more prurient bits. The Harvard Classics translation is hilariously modest in those bits. "...and immediately a black slave came to her, and embraced her; she doing the like. So also did the other slaves and the women; and all of them continued revelling together until the close of the day." Sort of the translation equivalent of being invited to your first college party and bringing cake and paper hats. Which, if I understand the Lane translation correctly, is precisely what he had in mind. And so we are left to have fun filling in the blanks for ourselves... or getting a better translation I suppose, although the Harvard has specific pieces represented from the much larger work. And, frankly, I didn't feel up to finding a better translation and then recreating Dr. Eliot's selection in my own reading. I thought about going with the Lyons translation which comes highly recommended and the slipcased edition looks fabulous! I'm afraid I don't have that kind of disposable spondulicks).
Why is this book included in this series? Along with the aforementioned masterful story structures, it is a book that largely painted the West's image of the Middle East for the previous three centuries, which is not to mention the extreme cultural importance of this book in its own region of origin. Put simply, as far as books of cultural significance go, this is one of the top in world history.
In short, I am enjoying it a great deal. There is no chore in reading this piece whatsoever. I am also learning a great deal, partly in what it has contributed to the culture, and partly as an architect paying a visit to a great cathedral.
So far I have made it through The Merchant and the Jinni, The Fisherman, The Porter and The Ladies of Baghdad, and am in the story of the Humpback (which reads like a Tom Waits song.) I will deal more on the matter of the tales in my next post. For now, here is Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade: