Warning! Major rant!
I did not exactly finish this book. I read the introduction, the opening essay, the “framing” story of Shahrazad, all 1001 nights, the final essay, some appendices, and three more volumes of appendices, thirteen volumes in all, with all the footnotes (averaging 500 – 600 per volume), and that is about all I can take of this book. There are another three volumes worth of stuff I didn’t read, but I am pretty sure none of it would do much to change my opinion.
It’s not that there is nothing good about Sir Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights. This is obviously a book intended as a vehicle for scholarly research and not something intended to be a fun read. As a vehicle of scholarly research, it is astounding, especially considering the effort of translating and putting together all the notes that went with it. Probably if you are really interested in Middle Eastern Literature, it is even more astounding. I have to say that whatever interest I ever might have had in Middle Eastern Literature is now officially pretty well satisfied.
I read this book, specifically the Burton translation, because it was on my list, inherited from a list my father shared with me many years ago of 100 books every businessman should read. (I bet very few businessmen have actually read the Arabian Nights in this translation; it took me over three years to get as far as I got.) I was sort of dreading it after finding out how long it was but also looking forward to reading a lot of stories I had never heard before. And also to finding out the real stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, which are just about the only stories you ever hear from the Arabian Nights.
Quoth Shahrazad [FN1]:--It hath reached me, O auspicious King of intelligence penetrating, that there was, amongst the Kings of Bassorah[FN2], a King who loved the poor and needy and cherished his lieges, and gave of his wealth to all who believed in Mohammed (whom Allah bless and assain!),
Burton, Sir Richard F.; Sir Richard F. Burton. The Arabian Nights Complete and Unabridged (Unexpurgated Edition) (Halcyon Classics) (Kindle Locations 6429-6431). Halcyon Press Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
OK, wrong, wrong, wrong, all over. Apparently, Aladdin and Ali Baba are not in the Arabic original used by Sir Richard at all and thus are not in his translation. They show up in an earlier translation (as in something like 200 years earlier) by a Frenchman by the name of Antoine Galland who did not translate all 1001 nights, I presume because he didn’t find them, but only did 200 or 350 nights, or something like that. According to my French speaking friends who read this translation, it is a much more enjoyable read. I finally found Aladdin and Ali Baba among the appendices in volume 13, which is why I stopped reading after that one.
- There are nothing like 1001 different stories in here, even though there are 1001 nights. Even including the framing story of King Shahryar and Shahrazad, which is itself several stories and has stories within stories within it (there is a sort of storytelling contest between Shahrazad and her father, the Wazir, where she tries to persuade him why she should be allowed to marry the king and try to manage him, and he tries to persuade her that she will only be going to her death if she does), and counting for a couple of nights that have three or more stories in a single night, the fact that many of the other stories run for an average of 30 – 50 nights brings the average down considerably.
- The narrative is frequently interrupted by unnecessary “couplets” – snippets of verse that, Sir Richard assures us are a standard feature of Arabic storytelling and would be expected of a wandering storyteller performing for a village. I can sympathize with Shahrazad using such a device to stretch the story out so she won’t get to the end before the king falls asleep. But if I were the King Shahryar, I would have had her put to death, if not the first time she had a character recite these couplets, then at least by the third time.
- There are a lot of instances of garbled words as if the book were scanned to create the e-book, and some of the scanning didn’t go well. I have seen this in other books with a lot of Arabic references as well. Also, I think there are some instances of deliberate fake archaism on the part of the translator, as for example frequently, but not always, ‘shine’ for ‘thine.’ Also, he frequently uses ‘eyne’ for ‘eyes.' I presume this is done to give the work an ancient feel, but it would have made for easier reading if more modern variants had been used. Surely, even between about 1852 and 1885 when the translations were being done, nobody speaking English ever said ‘shine’ when they meant ‘thine.’ And there are other words that don’t appear as frequently, but that are also not as easy to figure out that are done the same way
- This edition would have benefitted from interactive footnotes. Many of the footnotes were in Latin, Greek, or French, and a lot of others went on at some length about how bad Sir Richard thought other previous translators of the Nights were. But a few might have been useful if one were able to access them at the point where the reference was made and then immediately return to the point in the story where the reference was. Several other editions are now available for purchase. Hopefully at least one of them is more interactive. With such an enormous work, an ability to easily access the beginning of a particular book or tale and to look forward or back without losing one’s place would be a major plus.
- The framing story of Shahryar and Shahrazad was never really finished. In derivative versions after the 1001 nights are ended, the King decides he loves her and agrees that he will not have her put to death after all (in some versions I have heard, they have one or two children by this time). But in this rendering, all you get is that this is the end of the 1001 Nights and goodbye.
Virtually every good-looking man or maiden is compared to the moon. Most of the lovers routinely fainted, either individually or together – the guys as well as the girls. Scarcely a merchant or ruler was able to leave his wealth to his son without said son running through the entire fortune partying with his friends. At least half of the stories concern how the profligate sons manage to get their act together after blowing everything. Only about twenty percent of the women, no matter how beautiful, are virtuous. The rest of the women are either foolish, wicked, unfaithful or cleverly devious. Almost all the older women are of the cleverly devious variety. But the impoverished young men wouldn’t get anywhere without them. And those who sincerely pray to Allah always come out on top in the end.
Lastly he lived with his wife in all joyance of life till there came to them the Destroyer of delights and the Separator of societies.--And Shahrazad ceased to say her pleasant[FN#63] say.
Burton, Sir Richard F.; Sir Richard F. Burton. The Arabian Nights Complete and Unabridged (Unexpurgated Edition) (Halcyon Classics) (Kindle Locations 69432-69433). Halcyon Press Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
That said, there were a lot of stories in this book. If some were kind of boring, especially where you have to wait so long on those couplets, or on one of the characters to show off their knowledge of the Koran, or whatever, there were also a few that were pretty interesting.
Cover image from Goodreads.
Title: The Arabian Nights
The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night
Translator: Sir Richard F. Burton
Publisher: Halcyon Classics
Format: Kindle edition
Genre: Literature & Fiction/ Anthologies & Literature Collections/ Classics