The Arabian Nights : A companion
Nonfiction 342 pages
Tauris Parke Paperbacks. 2004
Henry Reeve discussed the translations of the Arabian Nights available during his time, saying, “Galland is for the nursery, Lane is for the library, Payne for the study and Burton for the sewers.” Burton’s version of the Arabian Nights is full of archaic language, gratuitous vulgarity, and racism. It is also the most readily available complete translation, and the one you may have to read if you want to become thoroughly acquainted with this story collection.
During the time Burton was translating it, a Middle Eastern superstition claimed that no one could read the entire Arabian Nights without dying. Author, Robert Irwin, writes that he read the entire Burton translation without dying, but not without pondering suicide as an alternative to slogging through it. Fortunately, if you wish to be better acquainted with the Arabian Nights, you can read Irwin’s Companion instead.
Irwin explores the Arabian Nights from a variety of perspectives as evident in his chapter titles, including, “Street Entertainments”, “Low Life”, and “Sexual Fictions”. Of particular interest is Irwin’s discussion of how stories mutate, merge, migrate, and reappear elsewhere. For example, a short story about partners plotting to kill each other is the plot of “The Pardoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. Later it’s a movie plot in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Other versions of a story from the Arabian Nights, “The Tale of the Woman who Wanted to Deceive her Husband” also appears in Sanskrit in the 11th century, Latin in the 12th, and in the 14th both Persian and Italian in Bocccaccio’s Decameron. In the 20th century, Thomas Mann reused the plot once again in his Dr. Faustus.
Besides Mann, other modern authors have found inspiration in the Arabian Nights, including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth and Salman Rushdie.
Irwin’s The Arabian Nights : A companion offers an expansive and thoroughgoing look at this great work. There is little that he doesn’t touch upon. If you don’t want to risk death by reading the entire Arabian Nights, then read Irwin instead.