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An Unnecessary Woman

By Rabih Alameddine
Grove Press, New York, 2013

This is simply one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read. It breaks all the rules we students of writing have been taught. For example, never write a scene with a person alone in a room. A single childless, 72-year old woman in a room, to make the story even more unpalatable to modern tastes. In this book, much of the “action” occurs in the narrator’s head as she recalls her past and tries to justify her refusal to bring her aged mother into her home. That she has a home of her own at all is an achievement in Beirut, where Aaliya, the narrator, has lived all her life. In her society she is an “unnecessary woman” who has not procreated, who does not even have a job (she’s retired from working in a bookshop). She’s a woman with few friends and a terrible relationship with her birth family.

Not a promising set up, you might say.

The book is absolutely riveting.

Its imagery is amazing. Aaliya keeps an AK47 on her nightstand because Beirut has been at war through much of her adulthood. Beirut, she tells us “is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden.”

In her own way, isolated as she is, Aaliya shares these qualities.

In writing in the voice of the opposite gender, Alameddine set himself a considerable challenge, the more so because he tackles the subject of loneliness in older women. But in creating Aaliya, Alameddine succeeds brilliantly. Aaliya is intelligent, funny, perceptive, unsentimental, and self-deprecating. In inhabiting his fictional Aaliya, Alameddine shows us the ultimate gift of literature – insight into someone else’s mind.

The author plays on this is another way, too. Aaliya’s passion is the written word, and self-educated, she’s incredibly widely read, in English and French as well as her native Arabic. She’s set herself the task of translating the Western canon into Arabic. Sometimes, as in the case of Dostoyevsky, she takes two translations from the Russian, one in French and one in English, to produce a third translation in Arabic. This task symbolizes Aaliyah’s apartness from typical human relationships as she takes on the Other – that other way of thinking that learning a different language gives us. Translation can never be a perfect rendition of another’s thoughts, but a skilled translator can produce a work of art in its own right.

Aaliyah has never tried to publish these translations, and they sit in boxes in the maid’s bathroom in her musty apartment. “Why bother” she says. Aaliya leads us to believe that she thinks, therefore, that even her work is unnecessary. But it is not. It is the essential expression of ego. Not in the sense that she is egotistical. She is the opposite. But her creation is essential because it justifies her existence as a human being. She describes “the flow” this way: “During these moments I am no longer my usual self, yet I am wholeheartedly myself, body and spirit. During these moments I am healed of all wounds. I’ll be sitting at my desk and suddenly I don’t wish my life to be any different. I am where I need to be. My heart distends with delight. I feel sacred.”

In this paean to literature, Alameddine also alerts us to the danger of self-absorption. Aaliya has a family whom she could choose to embrace, and a group of three women who live in her apartment building, who are kind to her and who would, if she let them, be her friends. Toward the end of the novel we see Aaliya making a late start on actual human engagement. To the extent that she believes her choices in life were utterly constrained by her culture, this story could be a sad one. But Aaliya’s inner life is proof of the uncrushable human spirit.

Throughout the book are scattered poems, phrases, and philosophic quotes, which Aaliya uses to make a point. In the hands of some authors the constant allusions to works of other writers would be intimidating. But Aaliya just made me itch to read the books I hadn’t read, and to reread the ones I had.

The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things


By Paula Byrne

Harper Collins, 2013

Whenever I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I find myself turning to Jane Austen.

Often dismissed as a writer concerned only with domestic dramas, Austen’s work accurately depicts her times as well as universal human nature. That’s why she still fascinates after two hundred years. Over the Christmas holidays, I read The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Bryne. Taking an unusual approach, the biographer uses objects known to Jane Austen to create a rich picture of her life and the world she lived in.

That world was not quite as parochial as the fictional world she created.

After all, England was at war for Jane’s entire adult life. Two of her brothers were actively engaged in it as naval officers. Her family counted itself amongst the gentry, were related to minor nobility. Yet as Austen’s novels show, women, and to a lesser extent, men, were completely dependent upon a “good” i.e. financially comfortable, marriage for survival. The professional, who makes his or her way in the world through training, intelligence and experience, as opposed to birth, was a new type of person. Byrne points out that Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, my favorite Austen hero, and possibly Jane’s as well, was just such a person. For women to earn their own living was a rare, even dangerous thing. To be a novelist was more respectable than to be an actress, but still, to live publicly was daring. Jane Austen published her novels anonymously.

Each chapter in this book is headed by an image of an object or a painting which scholarship has unearthed as being familiar to Jane Austen. Through these objects, “The Ivory Miniature” or “The Topaz Crosses” we learn about Austen’s attitude to slavery and to religion. In “The Marriage Banns,”, “The Royalty Cheque”, and “The Laptop”, we learn of her attitude to marriage and her work.

By describing her society so deftly, and with such humor, showing the bind women were in, Jane Austen can be seen as a proto-feminist. She chose not to marry, despite its financial costs, and tried to support herself through her writing. It is not exactly true to say her writing came before her family, but she wrote all the time, using a “laptop”, or portable writing desk, wherever she went. In this chapter Ms. Byrne describes Jane Austen’s attempts to get published, a struggle so familiar to authors.

Because most of her correspondence was burned after her death, she left no notebooks and because her books are so full of irony, “Jane Austen remains the most elusive of all our great writers with the exception of Shakespeare…” says Byrne. This book is an ingenious way to get inside Jane Austen’s world.

Little Gods

By Andrew Levkoff
Peacock Angel Publishing, 2017

Readers of this blog know how fascinated I am with the ancient world. In his trilogy, The Bow of Heaven, Andrew Levkoff introduces us to Alexandros, the Greek-born slave to Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s richest man. Crassus, along with Pompey and Caesar, formed the first triumvirate. Naturally these three ambitious and competitive men were soon at odds. At the end of Levkoff’s trilogy Crassus undertakes a disastrous campaign against the Parthians and is killed. Levkoff ends the book by introducing us to a new character, Melyaket.

Little Gods is the story of the childhood and young adulthood of Melyaket and his rival, Scolotes. As children in the remote village of Sinjar in Parthia (modern day Iran) Scolotes and Melykalet play together. But Scolotes is always an outsider, regarded as being cursed because he was born with one gray and one brown eye. If the circumstances of Scolotes’ birth were unfortunate, Melykalet is blessed. He seems always to have the favor of the gods. How this plays out is the crux of this story. Because of Levkoff’s skilled writing, the reader feels empathy for both characters.

Today the Middle East is still mired in war. So the author does not miss the opportunity to bring the reader into the modern world too. In Little Gods, Andrew Levkoff harnesses his extraordinary story-telling powers to take the reader into the same place, two thousand years apart. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, helicopters circle the land inhabited by Kurds. Their aim seems to be to annihilate anything that moves. Two thousand years earlier, the same area was also a place of seemingly endless conflict.

The senselessness of war is an underlying theme of Levkoff’s work. Sadly, his book illuminates the fact that humans have not yet learned to live and let live, even two thousand years after the empires of Rome and Parthia fought for domination of this harsh desert.

This rather bleak view of human nature is mitigated by Levkoff’s compassion for human frailty. And by setting his story in a war-torn part of the world, he reminds us that our good fortune is just that -an accident of birth.

This is a fast-paced story you won’t put down.