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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

A Brief Introduction
to Modern Arabic Literature

David Tresilian

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To purchase A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature

Title: A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature
Author: David Tresilian
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 162 pages
Availability: A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature - US
A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature - UK
A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : solid overview and introduction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Al-Ahram Weekly . 29/10/2008 Denys Johnson-Davies

  From the Reviews:
  • "While several books have been written that seek to give the ordinary reader a background to the Arabic novels that are being made available today in English translation, none does the task better and more entertainingly than David Tresilian's A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature. The present book deals very adequately with all the main figures in modern Arabic literature (.....) The author also writes about the way in which a number of talented women writers have dealt with the problems peculiar to women in the Arab world (.....) Tresilian's book is not merely informative about the subject it deals with but also provides thought-provoking messages to the general reader." - Denys Johnson-Davies, Al-Ahram Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       David Tresilian notes the rather incredible statistics that between 1947 and 1967:

only sixteen modern literary titles were translated from Arabic into English, this picking up to a further eighty-four between 1967 and 1988
       He writes of an increase -- to a veritable 'flood' -- of translations since then, but that is merely relative; certainly, however, there has been both increased availability and interest in writing from the Arab countries, especially since the beginning of the prolonged Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.
       Tresilian focusses on modern Arabic literature, and especially fiction -- despite the fact that poetry has the longer and greater tradition in Arabic literature. But it is prose narratives, more or less modeled on the Western novel, that tend to get translated and attract the most attention among English-speaking readers, so the focus is not entirely misplaced.
       He also warns straight off that he won't discuss (in depth) all Arabic literature, avoiding, for the most part, the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) -- apparently because:
the relationship between the Arabic and French-language material produced in the countries of the Maghreb is controversial, having to do with large issues of culture and identity, and there is a risk of caricature in discussing it in too confined a space.
       Tresilian offers a solid introduction to the first major authors from the Arabic nations (predominantly Egyptian ones), above all the central figure of Naguib Mahfouz, covering his varied work in appropriate detail (and helpfully noting its variety). Other early Egyptian masters get their due as well (such as Yahya Hakki and his The Lamp of Umm Hashim), as do authors such as Tayib Salih and Abdelrahman Munif -- and he does quite well, despite the space limitations, of, for example, conveying a complex career such as Munif's.
       Poetry does get some due, notably Adonis, but for the most part Tresilian does not delve too deeply here; he is on much surer footing with the prose.
       Moving forward he touches on many of the significant more recent authors and works, including Sonallah Ibrahim (e.g. Zaat), Gamal al-Ghitani (e.g. Zayni Barakat), and Edwar al-Kharrat.
       While the contemporary scene now offers almost too much to choose from, Tresilian's discussion of works such as Miral al-Tahawy's Blue Aubergine and Ahmed Alaidy's Being Abbas el Abd, as well as Alaa Al Aswany (The Yacoubian Building, Chicago) brings things up to date fairly well.
       Some of the Arab-specific issues that affect the local literature are also discussed, beginning with the significant linguistic question that is generally lost in translation, the difference between spoken and written Arabic (and the variations in the vernacular from country to country). Local cultural and political issues are also addressed, but with his pan-Arabic ambit he only goes into detail regarding a few of them -- a bit about the Palestinian situation and its effect on Palestinian writers, Egyptian politics. But it is adequate for such a small book -- and that's what one can say about the book as a whole: it's adequate, covering (or at least noting) much of what needs to be and should be covered, and providing a useful survey-overview in a very manageably-sized (and readable) book.
       A minor note: Tresilian mentions and discusses Pascale Casanova's "marvellously inventive" The World Republic of Letters, but refers only to the French edition, apparently unaware that it was translated into English several years ago; he also refers to Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men as The Season of Men -- an odd slip, since the book (and title) are originally English.

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A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature:
  • Saqi publicity page
Reviews: David Tresilian: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       David Tresilian teaches at the American University of Paris.

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© 2008 the complete review

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