Sunday, November 23, 2014

“I read Leg over Leg and understood it all!” - what Arabic novels were like in 1855

This last book featured during Wuthering Expectations education week mostly educated me, and it mostly taught me that it exists.  The book the 1855 Arabic novel is Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq What Manner of Creature Might He Be, Vol. 1 (of four), by Fāris al-Shidyāq, a Lebanese Maronite of great learning and greater smartassery.  The novel is a digressive, parodic, smutty metafictional autobiography, some kind of relative of Tristram Shandy although with vocabulary lists and discussions of grammar, far more writing about words.

Thus, the sounds produced by an organ:

The tambour is to the organ as the branch is to the tree or the thigh to the body, for the only sound that it makes is a strumming, while the organ produces strumming and humming, mumbling and rumbling, jangling and jingling, squeaking and creaking, [skipping many more sounds], frogs ribbiting and ears tinky-tinkling, bulls bellowing and gaming-house reprobates roaring, reverberations and crepitations, pots gently bubbling and chilly dogs whimpering, [skip skip skip] not to mention caw-caw and hubble-bubble and wham-bam and slurp-slurp and baa-baa and tee-hee and keek-keek and buzz-buzz and schlup-flup – after all of which, what’s wrong, God guide you, with plinkety-plink?  (89-91)

One of those is obscene.  At least one.*  Plenty of the book, and I have only read a quarter of the entire novel, is obscene, or as obscene as a list of words can be,  with, for example, lists of names for organs of the generative kind.  See this excerpt from Volume 3 – search for “protruberance.”  It is the smuttiness of the lexicographer.   The translator, Humphrey Davies, deserves a prize, and a vacation.  Please see this fascinating interview.  “What to do when seventeen Arabic words in a list are all given an identical definition in the Arabic dictionaries?”  The unimprovable 2013 New York University Press edition includes facing-page Arabic – the original language! in a translation not of poetry but a novel! – allowing me to see, just by visual inspection even though I do not know a single character of Arabic, some of the effects Davies is trying to duplicate.

Leg over Leg cooks along a lot faster than Tristram Shandy, so that by the time the first quarter of the novel has ended the protagonist has not only been born but has been schooled and begun his career as a merchant, which I think is actually an allegory for religious conversion – his “goods” are actually ideas is the conceit, I think.

My favorite part of the chapters about education are the warnings of the horrible deaths suffered by everyone who studies grammar – “tetters,” goiter, ulcers, and “a headache (and what a headache!), caused by connective wāw, resumptive wāw, affirmative wāw, supplemental wāw, and negative wāw” (169), none of which exactly encourages the study of Arabic grammar, or any grammar at all. Perhaps I should have instead quoted the preceding paragraph about the categories of metaphors, including “the absquililferous, the vulgaritissimous, the exquipilifabulous,” and so on through the “anal-resonatory,” which may give a hint about the tone in which al-Shidyāq is writing.

Over all, the prologue should be as difficult as possible to understand; a prologue that isn’t serves notice that the book as a whole is poorly written and not worth the reading.  (169)

Well, the book is not that difficult, but I believe I have made its challenges clear enough (although for a more complete review please see Michael Orthofer’s Complete Review).  It is worth knowing the book exists.  This is an Arabic novel from 1855, this crazy thing.

I borrowed the title from p. 247.

*  “schlup-flup” (khāqibāqi)


  1. It's crazy. Orthofer calls the book " the most important literary publication of a translation into English, in terms of literary history and our understanding of it, in years" and that is a credible opinion.

  2. Isn't there some use of the "leg over leg" phrase in the Hebrew scriptures? I seem to remember but cannot be certain.

  3. I don't know. Maybe someone else who stops by will know.

  4. "The unimprovable 2013 New York University Press edition includes facing-page Arabic ... allowing me to see, just by visual inspection even though I do not know a single character of Arabic, some of the effects Davies is trying to duplicate."

    Richard Burton- the nineteenth century transator, of course- set out to learn to read Arabic by looking at translations and the original texts in the British Museum library. He had enormous difficulties until he realised that Arabic is written from right to left.

  5. Then I am already ahead of Burton at that point! Eh, Burton's gift for languages is astounding.

    But it was a pleasant surprise to discover that I could in fact make use of the facing-page text in several minor ways.

  6. Leg over Leg is coming out in two paperback volumes; now's the time to read it.

  7. The paperback edition slims things down by omitting the facing-page Arabic text, which I can probably live without.