Samah Selim, Popular Fiction, Translation and the Nahda in Egypt (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Samah Selim (SS): In my first book, The Novel and the Rural Imaginary in Egypt 1880-1985, I had worked on the ways in which national paradigms and various iterations of realism had come to define the novel in Arabic in the twentieth century. As I conducted my research for the first book, I became really interested in the popular or genre fiction at the margins of these paradigms and modes, what critics thought of as a kind of proto-novel—firstly because these nascent genres represented an experiment that was cut short by dominant critical attitudes about the “artistic novel” (as termed by the great mid-century Egyptian critic, Abd al-Mushin Taha Badr) could and should be, and secondly because, by all accounts, they belonged to a moment when fiction in Egypt was commercially successful and widely read by literate, middle-class audiences. The fact that much of this early fiction was understood as “translated” literature, and that this translation moment was often instantiated by critics as a dubious or disreputable origin story, was also fascinating to me. So, I wanted to explore what translation meant to both readers and writers in relation to the corpus of pre-national fiction, and how this dominant critical discourse about translation was part of a set of broader social anxieties about culture, sovereignty, and radical movements.

JJ: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SS: The corpus of published fiction in Arabic between roughly the last third of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth is huge, as scholars are increasingly discovering today. For this book, I decided to focus on what, by all accounts, was the longest lived and most commercially successful of the fiction periodicals of the early twentieth century, The People’s Entertainments (Musamarat al-sha’b 1904-1911). This was my primary focus as it offered a representative sample of the various types of genre fiction popular with early-century readers in Egypt: historical romance, crime fiction, and urban gothic (the genre known as “mysteries” or les mystères in nineteenth-century France), among others. Much of this corpus was adapted, or rather was claimed to have been adapted, from French and English.

The central questions that the book asks are organized around the three “keywords” of the title: the question of the popular in relation to fiction, which I propose as the interlacing of a residual genre formation and an emergent market economy; the question of translation and adaptation as the motors of radical literary and cultural experiments; and the question of the Nahda as the site of often conflicting social and discursive practices and projects.

Though ostensibly translated and adapted, many of these early novels deliberately occluded their source texts and itineraries. In the book, I explore these mystery adaptations within the context of the international market for fiction, and as a counterpoint to world literature accounts of the novel genre. My readings of individual novels published in the Entertainments explore the ways in which the fiction adaptation performs radical operations on genre systems and the institution of authorship, as well as on emergent, turn-of-the-century social and juridical discourses and practices surrounding personhood, women, liberal theories of  associationism, and finance capitalism, for example.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

SS: I think I might have partly answered this question above. I will add here that while both books are concerned with the novel as a site of social struggle, the first explored the trope of the countryside and the village, while the present one focuses on the city as the literary and social space through which colonial modernity is imagined and interrogated. Throughout my work, I have been fascinated by literary realism’s “others”—modes like romance and melodrama, for example—and how they disrupt and complicate the former’s ideological claims about representation, the real, and the ethical. I think in the Arab world, and as a result of the literary-critical history I explore in both books (more fully in the second), a wide spectrum of genre fiction has been infantilized and suppressed, relegated to the category of “youth” fiction or banished to the realm of the non- or sub-literary. (A similar—though not quite as radical—opposition is visible in the American division between the literary novel and “fiction”). Throughout my later work, I have been trying to think about realism as a historically contingent mode, as well as about the radical, political, and ethical potentialities of its others. The work of Northrop Frye and Peter Brooks has been very helpful for me in thinking through these questions.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SS: I hope that anyone interested in the novel’s literary histories, as well as colonial and postcolonial translation histories, might find this book useful. More specifically, I also hope it might contribute to the lively and ongoing discussions in Middle Eastern Studies about the Nadha as a kind of primal instantiating moment of modernity. At the same time, it is very important to me that the book solicits a wide audience in Arabic, where debates about nationalism and hegemony have become increasingly urgent in the wake of the 2011 uprisings—so I am hoping that it will be translated sooner, rather than later.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

SS: I am working on two projects at the moment. The first is an English translation of the late Jordanian author Ghalib Halasa’s final novel, Sultana (1987). The second is a literary biography of the Lebanese-Egyptian author Niqula Haddad (1878-1954), who also features in the present book. Haddad was a radical thinker and an extremely prolific writer; he published thirty-one novels and thirteen non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects. He is widely credited with being the progenitor of socialist thought in Egypt (he was a formative influence on the young Salama Musa who founded the Egyptian Socialist Party in 1921) and, along with his wife Rosa Antun, he advocated for a new Arab feminism. In this future book, I hope to explore Haddad’s novels through biography, which will include the narrower family triangle of his closest collaborators (Rose and Farah Antun), as well as the much broader literary and political scene in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.

J: What was your favorite part about writing this book? 

SS: Reading through the corpus itself was an endless delight. It is very idiosyncratic and enormously fascinating. The corpus in turn led to a fair amount of detective work on forgotten or half-remembered writers, translators, and contemporary literary and cultural debates. In the first phase of my research for the book, this feeling of discovery and constant surprise was always with me and gave me a strong dose of momentum. I imagine this is what historians regularly experience in their work. For this book, the “mysteries” of the archive and the mysteries genre that came to dominate the corpus in its later life dovetailed in ways that offered me much food for thought about the intersections between history and fiction. The comparative literary and historical aspects of the book were also enormous fun to research. I had to become something of an expert on the late-Victorian/Edwardian period in British fiction and nineteenth-century French feuilleton fiction. One of the high points of this parallel research trajectory was reading the entire 1300+ pages of Eugene Sue’s magnificent Les Mystères de Paris in French. I also had to delve into the fabulous world of nineteenth-century fictional heroes and villains, and amazing reference works like Jess Nevins’ Fantastic Victoriana were very much a part of that. Finally, I did long stints of really rewarding research on subjects I would never have attempted in the normal course of things: nineteenth-century French police regimes, and the colonial history of the British joint-stock company and the French société anonyme, for example.


Excerpt from the book

In the last two possibilities mentioned above, the line between adaptation and pseudotranslation can be so thin as to be meaningless. Though The Lovely Beggar-girl is saturated with the signifiers of the nineteenth century French novel, its narrative grammar belongs to another language and place: the Egypt –the Cairo- of 1909.  Rizqalla makes visible the labor of translation in the novel; in the ubiquity and precision of geographical detail (street and place names) and in the diegetic strategies he occasionally employs, when for example he pointedly describes the mystery author’s style in a particular passage or scene. At the same time, the text’s semiotic field –the social and moral conventions of the nineteenth century French novel – is strangely off-key in The Lovely Beggar-girl. The drama of class hierarchies and the minutiae of social protocols and moral codes that reflect the expectations of the Third Republic reader are stripped from the Arabic text. For example, illegitimacy –that crucial literary device and moral stigma of the French novel- is rendered in the Arabic text as a kind of casual mistake with no lasting consequences in either the social or the narrative sense. The novel opens with a most unlikely marriage between a modest provincial bourgeois and a fabulously wealthy marquis. Gilbert, the unwilling young bride, conducts an illicit affair with her original lover (a student of humble background) and secretly gives birth to his child, a daughter who eventually ends up in the hands of unscrupulous criminals. In the course of Gilbert’s discreet hunt to recover this child, her husband, the Marquis dies. Toward the end of the novel, the child is found and placed in the loving care of her natural father –now a respected scientist. Soon thereafter Gilbert (the Marquise de Samrouz) marries him, and this unorthodox little family is happily -and ‘legitimately’- reunited. The novel’s peculiar beginning and ending, and the total absence of moral judgment on, or social effects of Gilbert’s adultery forces us to question the boundary between invention and our seemingly clear-cut categories of translation.  The ‘translator’ removes (yanqul) a constantly shifting narrative assemblage (adaptations of adaptations) from one place to another, one language to another, one narrative grammar to another –The Lovely Beggar-girl replaces the French Third Republic grammar of adultery with the erotic narrative economy of medieval Arabic popular narrative. Gilbert is innocent, not because of some hidden virtue or eventual repentance, but because of ‘love’s dominion’ (sultan al-hawa); an exemplary motif that is frequently repeated in the novel. Rizqalla’s subtle challenge to an emergent bourgeois sexual morality in Egypt draws on the besieged and calumniated story heritage of the popular Arab imagination and creates a new experimental narrative grammar in the process.

We might think of The Lovely Beggar-girl as an adaptation in a deeper sense -one that is not normally included in critical definitions of the term. I would like to propose that adaptation in the nineteenth and early twentieth century Arabic context was as much an attitude towards authorship, both as an institution and as a set of discursive practices, as it was a practice of playing around with a source text. Abdelfattah Kilito identifies this attitude as a defining feature of the Arab classical tradition, and more generally of popular narrative forms where “authors are contingent and interchangeable, docile and transparent conduits for the mysterious force that animates them.” Authorship, he concludes, “is a flimsy notion, whereas genre is a highly specific and determined category, so much so that authors were perhaps nothing but products of their genres.” In “What is an Author” Michel Foucault describes the practice of naming an author as a lynchpin of “the theological affirmation of [writing’s] sacred origin or a critical belief in its creative nature.” “Author-function” is thus a kind of transcendental conceptual framework rooted in legal and institutional systems that serves a precise set of disciplinary purposes: description, classification and status-marking. “Discourse that possesses an author’s name is not to be immediately consumed and forgotten; neither is it accorded the momentary attention, given to ordinary, fleeting words. Rather, its status and its manner of reception are regulated by the culture in which it circulates.” As Foucault notes in discussing the European tradition, this “author-function” was stabilized and universalized with Romanticism and the fall from grace of the anonymous literary text, reducing this latter to a mere “puzzle to be solved.” And yet neither The Lovely Beggar-girl, nor the many other authorless adaptations of the Entertainments offer themselves as puzzles to be deciphered. On the contrary, the casual and entirely pragmatic attitude to author-function places the text front and center as a freely circulating and hence inevitably shifting discourse. Of course the adaptors of the Entertainments recognized the practical value of author-function as a generic category, where ‘the famous French author’ or a set of initials were deemed sufficient to trigger a certain set of expectations on the part of the reader. But ‘adapted from the English” was also a frank statement underlining the author’s ultimate irrelevance to narrative pleasure and purpose. K. K. Ruthven’s critique of the topos of forgery in British literary history arrives at a similar conclusion: “…agency should be ascribed to a spurious text rather than to its author.

This ‘endless disappearance’ of the postmodern writing subject was generally the norm in popular literature everywhere, from the medieval Arab epics and story-cycles to the chapbooks of early modern Europe and the detective novel adaptations of the twentieth century. Whatever the canonical literary histories might tell us, the novel in particular was especially amenable to this type of disappearing act. With the explosive commercialization of the genre in the nineteenth century and the emergence of new domestic and foreign mass markets, publishers struggled to fill a demand and writers hurried to make money. Established authors like Alexandre Dumas resorted to ghost-writing workshops, an open secret in the business. Young and struggling writers could launch their careers by writing under appropriately seductive pseudonyms. Marc Angenot relates an anecdote about a young Paul Féval and his 1844 bestseller, The Mysteries of London:

It was not Féval who chose to write The Mysteries of London, but Anténor Joly, editor-in-chief of the Courrier français, who commissioned the title from Féval, a young and impecunious writer. ‘You will call yourself Sir Francis Trolopp,’ he told the young author. ‘Success, you understand, depends entirely on the pseudonym. It’s a guarantee of local color. Come along, pen in hand, and be quick about it! We haven’t a minute to lose.’

In France, bestsellers of days gone by were adapted and reprinted for distribution to different markets well into the Third Republic, with writers and publishers “cutting [text], inverting episodes, amalgamating distinct texts and so forth.” This happy carnival of piracy seemed to have gone on without much notice of the heated debates on intellectual property of the Second Empire or the legislation that they culminated in towards the end of the century. As late as 1895, Eugène Chosson, in his detailed study of intellectual and artistic property, La Propriété littéraire, explained that “a writer only truly owns his ideas, when he does not publish them; the act of publication itself implies an inevitable passage out of the realm of ownership.” In the book Chosson established authors’ rights as a right of legal tenancy, or le droit de premier occupant. At a second remove, the text (pseudonymous, adapted) thus became, in line with this logic, “unclaimed space, ownerless property that anyone might come to occupy.” Rosemary Peters’ fascinating exploration of the precarious status of the author throughout these nineteenth century debates on literary property points to the way in which authorship functioned as a metaphor, or a set of interchangeable masks. Her metaphor of ‘the purloined text’ covers the range of practices (piracy, copying, adapting, pilfering) that together constituted a most fertile ground for the rise of the novel as a literary and commercial phenomenon in and across borders: the French ‘theft’ of the eighteenth century English gothic novel produced the mysteries, stolen in turn by the English, each strand shooting off in turn into a host of other trajectories and forms.