New Arabian Nights

Just in time for Christmas, Penguin recently came out with a new English edition of the Thousand and One Nights. It's a beautiful object, three big off-white books with blue metallic designs. Yet in her review in the London Review of Books (no more than the opening paragraph is available online), Marina Warner accuses the new edition of an unfortunate lack of decisiveness--it can't quite make up its mind whether to be a scholarly work or a literary entertainment, she argues, just as it can't quite make its mind up whether to revel in or discard alltogether the period language of its predecessors. Warner ranks the French Pleiade well above it.

Warner also reviews a new book of essays, "The Arabian Nights in Historical Context: Between East and West," which she argues engages (implicitly) with the legacy of Said's "Orientalism." I find this kind of a discussion--are the Thousands and One Nights the products of Orientalism? Can they be reclaimed by the East?--reductive and a little boring, but I admittedly haven't read the book (and won't, as long at it retails at 55 Pounds Sterling).

One big quibble I had with the review: at one point, discussing the Thousand and One Nights' repercussions on modern Arabic literature, Warner writes:
"The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany...continues the process: an enthralling piece of storytelling as well as a brave and straight-dealing account of Cairo, al-Aswany's novel adopts the urban labyrinth of The Arabian Nights while containing its cast of intricately connected characters within a single, many-chambered building."

I really struggle to see what in particular relates The Yacoubian Building to The Thousand and One Nights, other than the fact that they are both Arab works of literature. Other authors (Elias Khoury come to mind) have drawn much more explicit inspiration from the nestled, circular, divagatory narration of the Nights. To say that the Yacoubian Building "continues the process" is to say, really, nothing--it does so as much as any other work of Middle Eastern literature does, and just as any contemporary work of English literature "continues the process" of Shakespeare, or Dante. The automatic comparison of any work of Arabic literature to the 1001 Nights--just like the inevitable description of any Middle Eastern female narrator as a "Sheherazade"--is a bad habit that reviewers should lose. After all, as the rest of Warner's review makes clear, the Nights as we know them are in great part a European invention, and have influenced Western literature as much if not more than that of the East.