FOR THE WHOLEHEARTED bibliophile, there’s something especially satisfying in reading a book about the love of books, or a story that distills the longing to tell and be told stories. Lebanese author Rabih Alameddine’s latest novel, An Unnecessary Woman, is precisely this: a paean to the transformative power of reading, to the intellectual asylum from one’s circumstances found in the life of the mind. However, it’s also a shrewd reflection on the limitations of a retreat from the world of people into the rarified heights of ideas.
Aaliya, a 72-year-old woman living in Beirut, works at a local bookstore more well stocked than well shopped. She’s childless and divorced, double grounds for her ostracism from Lebanon’s patriarchal society, and for neglect from a family that considers her an “unnecessary appendage.” Though living a solitary life, it’s not one bereft of purpose: she describes herself as sustained by a “blind lust for the written word.” She obsessively collects books, consumes them like fuel, and reflects on the world through the paradigms of human experience proffered by them. Aaliya’s observations are spangled with erudite references to Stendhal, Pessoa, Faulkner, Saramago, Calvino, Dostoevksy, Nabokov, Conrad, and many others, a star-studded guest list to the gala affair of her private meditations.
Mostly, though, Aaliya translates great literature into Arabic, 37 books in total over the course of a half-century. Each one is a painstaking labor of belletristic love, taking anywhere from a year to a year and a half to complete. Once finished, each translated manuscript is boxed and stored in an unused bathroom, almost dismissively consigned to oblivion. As she puts it: “I create and crate!”
While there is never a doubt about Aaliya’s literary ardor, she unreliably denigrates her near-hermitical efforts. Sometimes, they are the poetical means to transcend the claustrophobic strictures of a marginalized life. In response to inhospitable environs, she cocoons herself in art.
Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, I build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books.
While to some the meticulous work of translation might seem more akin to forensic accounting than art, Aaliya depicts it rhapsodically.
I think that at times, not all times, when I’m translating, my head is like skylight. Through no effort of my own, I’m visited by bliss. It isn’t often, yet I can be happy when I commune with my translation, my master. Sometimes I think that’s enough, a few moments of ecstasy in a life of Beckett dullness.
For Aaliya, even though her devotion to reclusive scholarship is a “choice made with few other options available,” a gesture of deference to necessity, embedded within that choice is a liberation from necessity. She finds an inner freedom from Beirut’s parochial bondage. Even Aaliya’s name evokes the transcendent: it means the “high one, the above.”
Aaliya claims her vocation, though, is pursued without worldly ambition; she knows there is no readership for her translations and that they are, as a result, unpublishable. She once entertained loftier aspirations, hoping that at least one of her works would make it into print, that an author she translated would show up and express thanks for her deft artistry, that her apartment would double as a literary salon, the stage for “sparkling conversation about literature and art.” Now, though, she stoically accepts a much humbler reality. “But my dreams would shatter against my failures, if not my shabby furniture first.”
Sometimes, Aaliya’s renunciation of ambition turns so cynical that it contaminates even her view of art.
I bet you believe in the redemptive power of art.
I’m sure you do. I did. Such a romantic notion. Art will rescue the world, lift humanity above the horrible quagmire it’s stuck in. Art will save you.
I used to think that art would make me a better human being. […] Well, no, non vissi d’amore. I wasn’t that lucky.
The gloomier side of Aaliya’s artistic transcendence suggests that although art may point beyond our worldly tethers, it doesn’t point toward anything else in particular. Aaliya succinctly summarizes the case against the grand, human significance of art: “None of this art business is of any consequence. It is mere folly.” It provides a reprieve from the mundaneness of existence, helps alleviate what Camus called “the weight of days,” but is an analgesic, not a cure. It really isn’t an instrument of transcendence, not precisely understood: it numbs rather than elevates.
This cynical account of a life consumed with art, devoted to the “useless,” drained of promise, Aaliya sometimes speaks of as an elevation of her soul, and sometimes as a detachment from human affairs. She often depicts her sequestration from society as tranquility, but at other times laments her loneliness, her “abject isolation.” She coldly reports her singularity: “Please, no pity or insincere compassion. I’m not suggesting that I feel sorry for myself because no one calls me, or worse, that you should feel sorry. No one calls me. That’s a fact.[…] I am alone.” However, she also aches for Hannah, her “one intimate” in life, who committed suicide. Aaliya wants the reader to believe, and likely sometimes believes as well, that she chooses her monkish withdrawal out of affection for quietude. It’s just as true, though, that she suffers from a profound social anxiety among others, evidenced by the way the simplest interactions reduce her to an “incompetent, aphasic stutterer,” the mere presence of others inducing “vertiginous nausea.”
Aaliya is similarly inconsistent when contemptuously describing her family, whether the subject of her scorn is her vulgar brothers, her ex-husband — “small in stature and spirit” — or her callous mother. Nevertheless, despite the deep reserves of resentment she harbors for the mother she describes as a “modern day succubus,” she still manages to treat her to a moving display of loving tenderness.
Religion and politics are likewise denounced as unwelcome distractions from the self-quarantined pursuit of artistic elation, but, again, the reader is given cause to doubt Aaliya’s total manumission from them. Aaliya says she has “little time for a god who had little time for me,” and she belittles the Qur’an’s “childishly imperious content.” But Aaliya has her own brand of “faith,” as she even calls it, her own rituals, even though they revolve around her work as a translator. She also extols what she considers the incomparable beauty of the Qur’an’s poetry, its matchless style. Even more importantly, her entire life abides by a distinction between the sacred and the profane, if peculiarly informed by an artist’s sensibility.
And for someone who pointedly neglects politics (she claims she “can’t tell you the difference between Nasserites and Baathists”), Aaliya furnishes remarkably astute historical commentary on Lebanon’s troubled lineage as a nation. Of course, one couldn’t deeply read Sebald, Rousseau, Coetzee, et cetera, and maintain any real semblance of political naïveté — this is a woman who claims Spinoza as a fellow traveler! Also, she is capable of hurling deprecations at her homeland, but can affectingly serenade what she refers to intimately as “my Beirut.”
Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, lucky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.
Aaliya’s rules for selecting what to translate next actually seem premised upon the needs of her countrymen; she will only translate works into Arabic she surmises will not be otherwise available to the Lebanese reading public. Lying beneath a thin topsoil of feigned political neutrality is a deep sense of civic responsibility. Not once does Aaliya ever mention the possibility of leaving her native city; it never seems to occur to her.
Defensively pantomiming indifference to the inhospitality of her circumstances, Aaliya even claims to be unattached to her translations. She casually disavows their significance: “I created a system to pass the time. This is all a whim.” When her storehouse of completed manuscripts is threatened by a flood, she affects an obviously counterfeited aloofness: “I’m not sure they’re worth salvaging.”
More often than not, though, Aaliya’s account of her work is as poetically stirring as the books she translates. She has devoted her life to reading and translating, and shares a deeply ruminative appraisal of both as spiritual exercises. Reading fiction involves losing oneself within the author’s creation, dismantling the fence between the reader’s incredulous sense of the real and the artist’s imagination. “When I read a book I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book.”
One problem with reading, and also a problem generally in life, according to Aaliya, is the “incessant need for causation,” the overarching “desire to live in a rational world.” She derides the petty, albeit understandable, inclination to plumb characters for some decisive motivation, to reduce them to an easily expressible psychic economy. She loathes the facile happy ending, the grand writerly resolution, the final epiphany. She loves books that capture the inherent chaos and mystery of human affairs, and endorses reading as a means to participate in their artful expression.
The art of translation, for Aaliya, is less about the exact rendering of one language into another, an impossible undertaking, than the imperfectly faithful representation of a work’s inner essence, its sustaining spirit. To illustrate the point, she quotes Walter Benjamin: “No translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife — which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living — the original undergoes a change.”
Aaliya’s translations are themselves works of art, so passionately conceived, she is no more able to view them objectively than a mother can her children. “I can’t tell you how good my translations are since I can’t look at them dispassionately. I am intimately involved.” She sometimes elevates the status of poetry’s erotic dynamism even above love. “I’m not sure the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry, or more sensuous for that matter.” The raw power of carnal desire to jostle one out of a slumbering complacency has a kinship with literature’s power to accomplish the same. “Sex, like art, can unsettle a soul, can grind a heart in a mortar. Sex, like literature, can sneak the other within one’s walls, even if for only a moment, a moment before one immures oneself again.”
The steep wages of artistic beatitude, for Aaliya, are the disfiguring effects of her lonely exile from human company, no less painful if somewhat self-imposed. One can see the burden of her isolation manifest itself in her bitterness: she can hardly mention her husband, and his “rancid soul,” without remarking upon his impotency, for example. Also, her pronouncements of resignation often bear a tincture of complaint, and what she describes as independence also doubles as fearful vulnerability. Aaliya exists on the tattered fringes of an ailing society, but she needn’t be friendless, as the reader learns when the neighbors she often describes as “witches” come to her aid when she’s in need.
Aaliya says, “There is none more conformist than one who flaunts his individuality.” Well, one vivid mark of forlorn lonesomeness is the garrulous advertisement of self-sufficiency. In response to her social confinement, both real and imagined, Aaliya recoils into her mind, into the minds of others, into the work of translating the minds of others into the language of her own. Her retreat is a majestic one, into a lush wilderness of literary beauty, but it is a retreat nevertheless, and so, at least in part, a surrender as well. Alameddine relates the sublimeness of the devotion to art — its alchemical power to redeem trauma by dint of its poetical description of it — with rare mastery. He also adroitly captures the limitations of the life of the mind for beings who necessarily dwell in the world of other beings.