Friday, June 13, 2008

An orchard you can take on your lap

With all the furore over the Montana Book Awards (mostly around the fact of their being only four finalists in the Fiction category not five as usual) it might pay to remind ourselves what we're all talking about.

My friend Quentin sent me this quote which he found clearing out his study. It's written by the great ninth-century intellectual Al-Jahiz in praise of the book:

Have you ever seen [elsewhere] a garden that will go into a man's sleeve, an orchard you can take on your lap, a speaker who can speak of the dead and yet be the interpreter of the living? Where else will you find a companion who sleeps only when you are asleep, and speaks only when you wish him to?

According to Wikipedia, Al-Jahiz wrote 360 books in his long life. Islamic scholar H.A.R Gibb said, 'The most genial writer of the age, if not of Arabic literature, and the founder of the Arab prose style, was the grandson of a Negro slave, Amr ben Bahr, known as Al-Jahiz, 'The Goggle-Eyed.' ' His writings brought together the knowledge and wisdom of the time, one book being about 'the skills of language and eloquence, the art of silence and the art of poetry.'

I wonder which Montana category he would have fitted into?

More recent links (added Saturday June 14): more on beattie's , hear the radio nz discussion, read it in nz herald


Anonymous said...

I loved the Al Jahiz comment and am just reading the biography of the remarkable Gertrude Bell, famous for diplomacy in the Middle East around the time of WW1, desert traveller, archeologist, linguist etc - who loved Al Jahiz and could 'quote him to the desert sheikhs. much to their astonishment.'

Anonymous said...

Oh, then you have to read "Dreamers of the Day" by Mary Doria Russell - a fictional tale of a Cleveland Ohio spinster teacher who loses all her immediate family to the 1918 influenza and then travels to Egypt at the time of the Cairo Peace Conference and meets Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and is befriended by Lawrence of Arabia (the writer has a soft spot for Lawrence) as well as a charming romance with a German spy.

Meanwhile over dinner they carve up the Middle East. Quote from the book.. "He was also quite gloomy about Miss Bell's map. 'This Iraq of hers makes no sense - politically, tribally, religiously.'"

It is a fascinating blend of fiction and fact, carefully researched, beautifully rendered and for anyone who doesn't know the history of Iraq, Palestine or the Middle East... riveting.

And one of the central characters is a dachshund named Rosie. It is an absolute gem of a book and I am hooked on Mary Doria Russell and about to start reading more of her.

Mary McCallum said...

How fascinating Maggie. I'll swap you. Somewhere on the bookshelves I have Mary Doria Russell's 'The Sparrow' which I was stunned by when I read it about 12 (?) years ago.

Wikipedia says of the book: 'Combining elements of science fiction and spiritual philosophy, this novel is a tale of the devastating consequences of a scientific mission to make contact with an extraterrestrial culture.'

And I'm sure my Mum (the Norma who posted above) will be keen to get her hands on Dreamers of the Day at the local library. Unless she's already read it which is quite likely.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it was Gillian at the local library who handed me "Dreamers of the Day" as I handed her "Digging for Spain" and we both urged each other to read said books.

A swap is a grand idea although I also suspect I'm going to become an ardent Mary Doria Russell fan and will need to add her books to my growing collection.

And... hello Mary's Mum (you must be very proud)... possibly even signing an oratorio...

Anonymous said...

Oh whoops, singing... I blame Bill Gates, I'm sure my computer changes words all by itself.

And I must add, Gertrude Bell does not come off too well in 'Dreamers of the Day' but Lawrence of Arabia sure does, and I suspect Mary Doria Russell has a soft spot for him and she's done her research which is what makes the book seem effortless and also so fascinating.

Harvey Molloy said...

Mary, I haven't yet read your book. But I'm interested and once I've finished Atonement I'm going down to the bookshop to buy myself a copy. You have a lively, audacious blog.

Anonymous said...

Hello Maggie! That books sound interesting, I will order it from the library.

Mary Doria Russell may have been subverted to an admiration of TE Lawrence by his glamour and glitz -he was riding through the desert while Gertrude Bell, who knew the tribes better than he, was stuck behind a desk setting up Iraq.

Her biographer says: "Lawrence kickstarted the Arab revolt but it was Gertrude who gave the Arabs the route to nationhood. She cajoled, and intruded, guided and engineered and finally delivered the promised and so nearly betrayed prize of independence. While she remained dedicated to the mission through thick and thin, Lawrence agonized, faltered and finally abandoned the Arab issue and tried to escape his own tortured personality, to reappear in the nondescript persona of one Aircraftsman Shaw.'

Interestingly, Gertrude Bell also translated a volume of the poetry of Hafiz in 1897.