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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry / epic

Layli and Majnun

Nezami Ganjavi

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To purchase Layli and Majnun

Title: Layli and Majnun
Author: Nezami Ganjavi
Genre: Epic
Written: 1192 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 286 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: Layli and Majnun - US
Layli and Majnun - UK
Layli and Majnun - Canada
Layla et Majnûn - France
Leila und Madschnun - Deutschland
Leylā e Majnūn - Italia
Leyli y Majnún - España
  • Persian title: لیلی و مجنون
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Dick Davis
  • Previously translated as The Story of Layla and Majnun by Rudolf Gelpke (1966)

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Our Assessment:

B : an engaging if extreme love story, in a light-footed translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 12/7/2017 Mathias Enard
Publishers Weekly . 13/8/2020 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a highly engaging tale of impossible love." - Publishers 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:

       Layli and Majnun is a love story -- a paean to the ideal of love that ultimately goes so far in its celebration of the abstraction that there's barely any reality to it. As far as romance goes, that between Layli and Majnun is an almost entirely failed one; their almost unremittingly fever-pitch love is transcendent -- but remains essentially (and specifically physically) unrealized. Layli and Majnun drips with passion, but goes far beyond the usual frustrated-lovers storyline in its treatment of ideal versus the real; certainly, part of the fascination of Layli and Majnun is in how different the arc of the romance-story is from the more familiar variations.
       Majnun is the much-loved son of a wealthy Arab king. The name he is originally given is Qais, but already in his youth -- after he's fallen head over heels for Layli -- he's called Majnun, "A man who's mad"; it's the name that's then used throughout the poem when referring to him. Majnun and Layli meet as schoolchildren -- interestingly, there are a few girls in the school Majnun attends, taught alongside the boys (unusual though this would have been in Nezami's world, as translator Davis notes). They fall deeply in love -- but still keep up decorum:

Qais gave his soul up for her beauty's sake,
He stole her heart, his soul was hers to take;
She saw his face and gave her heart, but knew
She must still act as chaste girls have to do.
       Majnun quickly earns his new name, becoming completely obsessed with the object of his desire, thinking of practically nothing else. Unfortunately, his excessive behavior scares Layli's father off of accepting what might otherwise be a good match; Majnun's father comes to ask him for Layli's hand for his son, but Layli's father can't agree to the match:
He's mad, and shows it; it's ridiculous
To think a madman's suitable for us.
       Majnun's desperation, and madness, are only exacerbated by the shattering refusal. His father continues to try to be supportive, but single-minded Majnun can't be helped; even a pilgrimage to Mecca -- "Mecca resolves all men's predicaments", his father hopes -- can't shake his obsession. As his father notes after their trip: "all his hopes and prayers were that he'd be / Cursed with this passion for eternity" -- as he then indeed is.
       Layli, meanwhile, finds herself with a suitor, Ebn Salam, who is much more to her father's liking -- though they put off marriage plans for now because, as her parents explain:
Layli's unwell and weak; after a while
She'll be quite well again, and make us smile --
That's when the marriage plans can go ahead
       If Layli is not so demonstrative in her misery, it is nevertheless also deep-seated; she too is destined never to be 'quite well again' -- certainly not in the hands of anyone but her true love.
       A man named Nofal befriends the desperate Majnun and takes up his cause, going so far as to take up arms against Layli's tribe in order to see the young lovers united, but this effort too falls short, with Layli's father saying any fate was preferable to marrying off his beloved daughter: "To this Majnun, who's so deranged and wild".
       Layli is then married off to the worthy Ebn Salam, but Layli won't permit him to consummate the marriage; she makes very clear to him that her heart and soul belong to another. Majnun learns of the marriage but is reässured: "If she has wed another it's still you / She thinks and dreams of, and is faithful to" -- not that he takes much comfort in that, his hopes to be united with his great love certainly now facing yet another impossible hurdle.
       From early on, Majnun turns away from family and indeed civilization as a whole, unable to imagine any kind of normal life if Layli is not part of it. Soon, he practically goes feral, living in the wilderness, surrounded by wild animals. Essentially, he breaks all his ties, even with father and mother; his love for Layli overwhelms all (though he does properly mourn them when they die). There are those who do try to help his cause, even bringing him in touch with Layli, as the two exchange letters at one point, but for the most part his life is one of extreme isolation, the only thing on his mind his deep, deep love -- even when he has his doubts about her being true to him.
       The situation changes when Layli's husband dies. Suddenly, she is in every respect free, and nothing stands in the way of the two lovers finally being united. They do indeed come together -- amusingly, so overwhelmed that their first reaction is to keel over unconscious.
       They do finally find themselves together, with nothing else to distract them, but their passion remains on a higher plane:
Their love was true and real, untouched by lust,
By worldly perfection and mistrust,
       In a sense, they find what they have always sought -- realizing also that they have always had it, that always:
We are one cloth that makes two shifts, one soul
In two parts that together make a whole,
Or I've no being, and I'm your creation,
A shadow thrown by your imagination
       Indeed, for most of their lives the other has always simply been projection. So also here your usual romantic happy ending is not possible. It's almost as if the actual reality of it might be too much; separated again, Layli dies -- withering away from heartbreak -- and Majnun soon follows; as the penultimate chapter-heading announces unsurprisingly: 'Majnun Dies on Layli's Grave.
       As translator Davis notes, the poem is often seen as strongly Sufi-influenced, with its aspirations to a mystical separation from real-world concerns. Majnun goes far along this way here, his love-obsession driving him away from everyday life and concerns. Significantly, however, it is the abstract more than the reality of love that is presented as the ideal here -- the one Layli and Majnun reach. As Nezami sums up:
Love without chastity and abstinence
Is not love, it's licentious violence;
Love is the mirror of celestial light
And is untouched by sensual appetite,
Love that is sensual craving cannot last,
It's fleeting, in a moment it has passed.
To love is to be pure, forsaking lust
And resurrected from our earthly dust,
This is what true love is, this is the Way,
       Certainly, it's hard to imagine a story that hammers home the idea of an abstract, beyond-worldly (and certainly beyond physical) love more than that of Layli and Majnun -- fascinating as such, but certainly also distinctly odd in its sexual abnegation.
       Desperate Majnun's wallowing in the wild can be a bit much, but on the whole Layli and Majnun is an engaging, often touching story. Enough other figures come to Majnun and try, in different ways, to help him, to make for a variety of action that propels the story forward, and the two main figures are, however over the top, appealing in their absolute dedication to each other. If the message of the novel -- extolling love as abstract over the real(-life) thing -- is an odd one, Nezami has still crafted a gripping poem around it.
       Written in couplets which are bunched together here in longer sections, but maintaining the AABBCC etc. rhyme-scheme in Dick Davis' translation, the poem bounces along almost too freely. The rhyme-scheme makes for catchy reading, but almost distracts from the pathos of the poem; exceptionally light-footed, the verses comes across almost too light-hearted; a somewhat more distanced translation might have been more effective in conveying the poignancy Nezami seems to have been also going for. But Davis' translation certainly reads easily and well; one practically gallops through the poem.
       Fascinating as a different kind of love-story, and eminently readable, this rendering of Layli and Majnun is certainly of interest and considerable appeal.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 February 2021

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Layli and Majnun: Reviews: Other books by Nizami under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nizami (or Nizami Ganjavi; نظامی گنجوی‎) is the pen-name of Abu Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Zaki Mu'ayyad. He was born in Ganja (in what is now Azerbaijan) around 1141, and he lived there until his death, around 1209. He is author of a number of significant works, including five masnavis collected as the Khamsa ('Quintet') or the Panj Ganj ('Five Treasures').

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© 2021 the complete review

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