Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Rabih Alameddine's An unnecessary woman

For our first meeting of the year, we read a book that was probably a little different to our usual fare, Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine's novel, An unnecessary woman, which is told first person in the voice of a 72-year-old woman, Aaliyah Saleh, who spends her life reading and translating books. Set in Beirut in the 2000s, the novel has a minimal plot, focusing more on the thoughts and ideas of this reclusive woman.

Following usual practice, we started by asking all present for initial impressions. Most loved it, one didn't and a couple had mixed feelings. The member who didn't like it felt it didn't go anywhere, that not enough happened, and that it was too erudite. Those with mixed feelings liked much of it - especially the ending - but found it a bit tedious in places, particularly in the middle. They didn't like the name-dropping of authors or the overuse of quotes. However, there were mainly positives, which were:

  • it's a beautifully written, though sad book about loss and feelings of guilt
  • it's a fascinating exploration of what it means to be unnecessary (as Alameddine says on a YouTube video)
  • the language is beautiful, which surprised this member who usually likes more spare writing. She learnt some new words! She also enjoyed the exploration of the narrator's relationship with her mother
  • the beginning was interesting, and the ending was great, despite being a little tedious in the middle. One member who felt this never thought she'd be reading a book about someone living in Beirut and translating translations into Arabic. Put that way, it it does sound odd! Another who felt this disagreed with the idea that the narrator felt guilty. She felt that the narrator had built a life for herself that suited her.
  • it is somewhat erudite, but the name dropping, the ideas, made it fun to read.
  • it's a funny, engaging, but also sad exploration of a woman's rich inner life, and is great for keen readers because it shares a joy in literature. It is multi-layered, exploring such ideas as ageing, culture, living under siege, being reclusive. This member felt these ideas were handled well, never becoming laboured. She admitted, though, that she started out being prepared not to like it, that she was on her feminist high-horse because the book is by a man writing in an older woman's voice. However, she was won over by Alameddine's writing
  • it explores the woman's life very well
  • it is a fun, clever fiction about fiction. This member loved the humour of the book, such as the narrator's statement that "Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany. I call these memoirs and confessional novels happy tragedies. We shall overcome and all that. I find them sentimental and boring" because, in fact, this is what the narrator herself has written. 
  • it's a beautiful tribute to Beirut, but this member did have a little "sex identity" crisis in the middle of the book when she suddenly realised the author was a man. However, she got over this and loved the book.
We shared some favourite scenes. We all liked the ending in which the three women helped the narrator and praised her translations, and the scene in which the narrator washes her mother's feet (in a Christ-like action.) We also liked the grand-niece in this feet-washing scene.

Why unnecessary?

We discussed this question in some depth, particularly regarding the gender implications. What does unnecessary mean? Is Aaliyah unnecessary because she's a woman with no role (she has no husband or children, and is occupying an apartment which her family felt she has no right to.) We discussed the fact that older women are often invisible to others, and that men and young people can have a sense of entitlement they don't accord to older women. (Early in the novel, in fact, Aaliyah comments that "My half brothers, like so many men and boys, have the impatience of the entitled")

It was also suggested that she could be seen as unnecessary because her existence didn't seem to matter to anyone. However, we agreed that she was strong, determined to retain her apartment and to not be forced to care for her mother (who had never, it appeared, cared for her.)

A member mentioned Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh's biography of her mother, The locust and the bird: My mother's story, which also exposes the vulnerability of women in the same era that An unnecessary woman is set.

We noted the story Aaliyah shares in the novel about a Nazi officer trying to protect a Jewish artist, because he's "a necessary Jew". Necessary, here, meant "useful" to the Nazi. In other words, are you only "necessary" if you perform some valuable role in society?

In some ways, Aaliyah had made herself "unnecessary" by withdrawing, by isolating herself, from others.

What does reading do for us?

At one point in the novel, Aaliyah says:
Nothing is working. Nothing in my life is working. Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life?
We discussed what reading does for us, why we read. And our reasons were many - for fun, escape, time-out; to widen our horizons and explore times and places unknown to us; for the beauty of how things are said, how ideas (old and new) are expressed; to reassure us that we are not alone or odd.

We briefly discussed Aaliyah's discussion of the role of causality in fiction and in life. She argued that our desire for a cause encourages us to separate ourselves from others. For example, she says:
If you read these pages and think I’m the way I am because I lived through a civil war, you can’t feel my pain. If you believe you’re not like me because one woman, and only one, Hannah, chose to be my friend, then you’re unable to empathize.
On practical matters, Aaliyah says about reading that "my books show me what it's like to live in a reliable country".

Other discussion ...

As always, our thoughts roamed far and wide. We noted that Aaliyah makes several negative comments about Lebanese people's lack of interest in literature and history.

Several members mentioned the gorgeous language in the book, such as this description of a derelict building:
Amid the proliferation of unsightly buildings, this crumbling Ottoman house with its triple arcade and red tile roof stands out as starkly as a woman in parliament. There are a few of these houses here and there in the city, but none is as decrepit or as defeated as this one, none as beautiful.
And this, which could be a metaphor for Aaliyah herself as an ageing woman:
The rim of the saucer’s depression is lightly discoloured – a dusting of rust and red and brown, remnants of teas gone by that did not wish to be washed away, refused to be forgotten, the age rings of a small plate.  
She "did not wish to be washed away", she "refused to be forgotten" despite her "age rings".

We talked about marriage. Aaliyah was briefly married, unhappily, to an impotent man, and prefers being alone to such marriage. She quotes Chekhov's statement that "If you are afraid of loneliness don't marry".

We also talked about translation (and that for Aaliyah it was as much about the process as the end-product); about the use of defilement as an act of control during war; and about how our lives can be as much defined by the paths we don't take, the decisions we don't make, as those we do.

... and finally

Given this book is about the love of literature and that the narrator references many books, a member asked whether we were inspired to read any book as a result? Some of us were, and named:

  • Junot Diaz
  • WG Sebald's Austerlitz
  • Marguerite Youcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian

One member, intrigued by Aaliyah's discussion of the art of translation, suggested that we schedule a book that's been translated multiple times and organise for different members to read different translations.

And, given Ursula LeGuin's recent death, it was suggested that we could read one of her books, although it was remembered that we've read her before.

PRESENT: 11 members

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