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Interview with Marina Warner

At the beginning of From the Beast to the Blonde, her study of fairy tales and their tellers, Marina Warner recounts a Kenyan fable in which an ailing Sultan’s wife is restored to health by being fed ‘meat of the tongue’ – tales, stories, jokes and songs. A belief in the central, sometimes life-giving importance of storytelling is the woof which weaves all Warner’s work together, both fiction and critical works; the warp, on the other hand, could be almost anything which catches her magpie-like eye, from the Cumaean Sibyl to Jurassic Park. 

 

Born in London to an Italian mother and an English bookseller father, Warner’s early childhood was spent in Cairo and Belgium, after which she was educated in England, firstly at a convent school and then at Oxford. Beginning her career as a journalist, Warner’s writing encompasses myth, fairy tales, symbolism, the visual arts and feminine archetypes. Her first book, The Dragon Empress (1972), a biography of the Chinese Empress Dowager Tz’u-hsi, was followed by a study of another iconic female figure, the Virgin Mary, in Alone Of All Her Sex (1976). Subsequent critical works have addressed topics such as the female form in myth and sculpture (Monuments and Maidens, 1985), fairy tales (From the Beast to the Blonde, 1994) and ideas of spirit and soul (Phantasmagoria, 2006). She has also written several novels and short story collections, many of which also draw on older myths and tales, mixing the mundane with the magical; Indigo (1992), for instance, reworks Shakespeare’s The Tempest, while a story from mermaids in The Basement (1993) reimagines the temptation of Eve by a snakily persuasive saleswoman in a supermarket. Her most recent work, Stranger Magic, is a study of the Arabian Nights, which will be published later this year. She is currently writing a novel inspired by her father’s bookshop in Egypt, entitled Inventory of a Life Mislaid.

 

I meet Marina Warner at her home in north London, a wonderful bibliophilic Aladdin’s cave of a house. There are richly coloured rugs on the floors, an old grandfather clock in the corner, and books everywhere – on bookshelves, stacked up next to the bookshelves, on tables. The everyday and the fantastical jostle together; a tangled marionette hangs from the door of a kitchen cupboard, a giant wooden oar stands at the top of the stairs. (This last is a sculpture by her son, the artist Conrad Shawcross, entitled The Winnowing Oar, inspired by Tiresias’ prophecy in The Odyssey that Odysseus will know when he is near his death when the oar over his shoulder is mistaken for a winnowing fan by an inland-dwelling stranger.) We talk in her kitchen, where I am plied with carrot cake, strawberries and coffee – and plenty of meat of the tongue.

 

Q

The White Review

— What are your very first memories of storytelling?

A

Marina Warner

— Oddly enough, I don’t think I did have much storytelling at home, because I began reading with a huge passion when I was pretty young, so all my memories of stories are actually clandestine reading at night. I used to be put to bed, and then I’d read under the bedclothes, very often with a torch. I’m always very worried about my childhood reading, because I fear it’s stamped me with its prejudices. I pretty much read through my father’s entire library which he had inherited from his parents, and even possibly from his grandparents, and so there was an enormous amount of British Empire literature. We also used to have a complete set of The Strand Magazine, which I very stupidly let go when my father died – they were illustrated. I adored Rider Haggard – he was one of my favourites. I think he’s slightly coming back now, but he has a dreadful attitude – it’s real imperialist jingoism – although I’m told that I should go back to him, and that it isn’t quite as bad as all that. G. A. Henty was another, I adored Hornblower, I read my way through Kipling, I adored Conan Doyle. I was terrified of those books, but I devoured them.

Q

The White Review

— What was so terrifying about them?

A

Marina Warner

— Well, take The Hound of The Baskervilles: I remember I was sleeping one time in my grandmother’s bedroom in London, and she had one of those tall armchairs with wings. They looked to me just like the ears of the hound – absolutely terrifying! And ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’… I learned a lot of very weird and distorted history from these books. And then I read Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, which again were illustrated. And in fact, a lot of this Victorian literature I was reading is illustrated, and that, I think, did quicken my imagination. I also read a lot of children’s books, some of them in French, because I was brought up partly in French and went to French convent schools in Egypt and in Belgium. There was a very favourite writer called the Comtesse de Ségur. She was a sort of Frances Hodgson Burnett, but very much more mawkish and more sadistic – there were always little girls being violently tormented by appalling governesses, a little bit like Jane Eyre but much more sentimental and moralising, with a lot of piety thrown in. Again, I fear what kind of influence this must have had on me!

 

Funnily enough, Paula Rego, who’s a friend of mine, was brought up on the Comtesse de Ségur. She went to a French school in Portugal, and, again, the Comtesse de Ségur was a favourite of her teachers, so she was brought up on Les Malheurs de Sophie. It is kind of like de Sade – in fact, de Sade was probably parodying that kind of moralising, cruel, cautionary way of disciplining girls and socialising them into good behaviour.

Q

The White Review

— Did you read in Italian as well?

A

Marina Warner

— My mother was Italian, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we didn’t have so much storytelling at home. She spoke to us in Italian, and I can speak, and indeed do read in Italian (I’ve acted as judge of the John Florio prize for a while). But at home when I was young, it was very much part of our women’s world, behind the scenes, in the sense that it wasn’t the official language of our house.

Q

The White Review

— Which was English?

A

Marina Warner

— Which was English. I also could speak Arabic when we were in Egypt, and it’s a matter of regret to me that whilst everyone encouraged me to keep up my French and Italian, nobody thought it was worth retaining or working on my Arabic – colonial attitudes, alas. However my mother was inhibited about her own language; she felt she shouldn’t speak to us in much Italian. And of course she didn’t know any stories in English and in fact I didn’t have some of the things I rather love, like nursery rhymes, because she didn’t know them. I know some Italian nursery rhymes, and I know quite a lot of Italian songs – she sang most of the time, she was a very good singer. She knewa lot of opera, popular songs and also ballads and Neapolitan songs. She also knew a lot of crooning – American songs – because that was the fashion when she was young. It was frowned on by the Fascists – they didn’t like foreign culture – so it was clandestine to like Bing Crosby. Can you imagine?

 

I didn’t have the background that I’ve written about at all. I didn’t have bedtime sessions with my nanny or my granny telling me fairy tales. I pretty much discovered that I liked fairy tales by myself with the Lang books but it was later that I began to be very fascinated by them.

Q

The White Review

— Was this as an adult?

A

Marina Warner

— I think I had a rather kitsch view of it, as so many do, from popular films like the Disney Snow White, which is probably the most influential fairy tale film in the world. It’s very much earlier than most people think, 1937, so it had a huge impact. Then, of course, there was Cinderella, and that was very much when I was a child, in 1950. I knew that imagery and found it peculiar. I remember puzzling about the way her hair looked inflated under the hair band. I wasn’t terribly drawn to it.

 

My fascination with fairy tales started with Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber, which is quite a lot later, in 1979. She began publishing those fairy tales in the early 1970s and I read them in magazines before the book came out. And there were other feminist writers, who are still around, but aren’t quite so identified with that kind of material as she is – Michelene Wandor, Emma Tennant, Michèle Roberts, Sara Maitland – who all appeared in a magazine in the Sixties called Bananas. They very much mined the received conventional literature for girls and turned it round and subverted it. And Angela began part of that and then, of course took off in her own inimitable way.

Q

The White Review

— So this is what drew you into fairy tales?

A

Marina Warner

— Yes, I was very much formed by that desire to see what had been happening to female consciousness, the shaping of female behaviour. These questions are still so, so with us, actually. They’ve obviously metamorphosed, and they’re in different forms, but the problems haven’t gone away at all. I went to Tracey Emin‘s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery recently and her way of expressing her sensibility as a woman has got so many connections with the kind of violence and the rites of passage that are represented in fairy tales. At one point in the exhibition, she says, ‘I learned to think with my body.’ She comes straight out of that tradition, really.

Q

The White Review

— I was struck by your discussion of Margaret Thatcher as a ‘female monument’ figure in Monuments and Maidens, which examined the phenomenon of abstract virtues and powers being represented throughout history by female figures, even though women themselves may have had no real power. Have things moved on in terms of how women are portrayed in public life since you wrote that in the Eighties?

A

Marina Warner

— Well, certain things have happened, of course, which could not have been predicted. They range very widely and go very deep. The first is the rise of and return of religion and its important place in the national discussion. The rather unusual alliance of some forms of religion with female emancipation is very strange. Within Islam, it’s not at all the case in this country that veiling is to do with male oppression; it actually seems to be rather a choice by quite a lot of young women. The ones I see as a teacher are not being veiled by their parents – they’re choosing to veil and very often come from a secular background. And that’s also true of Jewish Orthodoxy. There’s some sort of return of faith as a place where you can have identity in an effective way as a woman. That’s very, very strange. I never would have predicted that.

 

The other thing, of course, is that, in the Sixties and Seventies, women thought that the world would be a better place if run by women. I laugh with a hollow, bitter laugh… There’s been a terrific rise of female power at the top but not so much through the middle and it’s probably through the middle that it would actually make the greater difference. Of course there are marvellous exceptions like Aung San Suu Kyi but on the whole we’re stuck with the likes of Rebekah Brooks as women in power and they have truly let down the side…

 

I grieve and rage that there are people in the world who are taking to the streets and braving death to have a free press, and all we do with ours is chase the dental records of some prince or celebrity. It’s so disgusting! So disgusting, that one wants to say to the Arab Spring: ‘DO NOT IMITATE US! DO NOT GO THERE! DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT, PLEASE!’

Q

The White Review

— But there has been progress…

A

Marina Warner

— Yes, and I think there have been some very good signs. Higher education is available to all women, given some restrictions on their class and actual conditions, and that’s why I’m upset that David Willetts’ socalled reforms will actually reverse that. I think that women will be discouraged from spending and getting into that kind of debt. Debt is the same for men and women but women never earn as much. Maybe that can be redressed in some utopia because it’s not round the corner. That is going to be a disincentive to women. Do you really want to be a woman who wants to have children, who wants to have a career, but with that amount of debt? That’s a great shame, because it was a great achievement that it became absolutely normal for a father to let his daughter go to university.

 

My father was unusual because he wanted us, his daughters, to go to university. The other area of progress for women is in the arts. There’s still a dearth of women in some areas: music composition has grown a little bit, opera direction a tiny bit, not much, but in the visual arts the change is fantastic! I used to peg away, when I wrote articles, in promoting interest and attention to women’s work – and that’s not that long ago – and you had movements like the Guerrilla Girls pointing out the purchasing policies of galleries and so forth. And women kept on disappearing – they would be acclaimed and then suddenly they would vanish. That doesn’t happen now – there are retrospectives of guerrilla artists, and there’s an extraordinary presence. And nobody would challenge now that a woman can be a great artist. And I think that what women have done with it has also been extremely interesting.

 

I have several friends whom I both love but also very much admire, and I think that in all cases they bring a sensibility that is, somehow, a female consciousness. That’s not to say that there is an intrinsic or irreducible femaleness but their whole experience of existence fuses with their work. I’m thinking of people like Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois and Tacita Dean, whose work isn’t identifiably connected to female pursuits or female representations at all – she’s done an enormous number of works about men – but the form of scrutiny she brings can be placed, I think, in a tradition of absorption, dedication, embodiment, but also patience, craft, attention to emotional subtlety. I interviewed her a few years ago and I began with Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being. I think that Tacita Dean is in the tradition of attention to moments of being – and that is possibly not intrinsically female, but it has been an area demarcated by women practitioners.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think that it is possible to talk about work being intrinsically female in terms of things like presentation and style?

A

Marina Warner

— Not intrinsically, no, but I think there are cultural traditions and also a constant exchange of challenge and appropriation of certain things that were considered off-limits because they were considered low, female, inferior. A good example is material craft. To go back to Tracey Emin, she’s absolutely seized that. She makes dainty handkerchiefs, draws on them, scatologically defaces them, and the materials she uses in her blankets are all sprigged muslin, Jane Austen materials. So there’s a constant desire to take what has been identified with women in her work.

 

I’m sure that male artists work in the same way too. Mark Wallinger, whom I admire, also does that. He will take what has been identified with Britishness, and then he’ll unfold it, unpack it, change it, transform it. That’s a piece by him (points to the wall). It’s Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, which Wallinger has turned into a unicorn. That’s a very characteristic form of transformation that he would make, one of the iconic Arcadian or pastoral kind of images of England: a beautiful stallion by Stubbs is turned into the heraldic animal representing England. It’s very economical in that way, strong but also mesmerically seductive in its silvery, aerial presence.

Q

The White Review

— You always seem to have had an interest in the visual arts, all the way through your writing. Where did that come from?

A

Marina Warner

— That came from my father, I think. My mother was also very keen on visual arts as well. Funnily enough, we didn’t have History of Art at school, but we had one lecture a term in which a man came in to school. There were no men at my school, you see, because it was nuns, so we were always very fascinated. There was a male gardener, and there were priests and local monks, friars from a Franciscan friary nearby (whose bare feet in their sandals were utterly fascinating as one bent down one’s head after taking communion from them), and then there was this man, who was the magic lanternist. He came with a box of black and white slides and projected them once a term in lectures that would be ‘The Gothic’, ‘The Italian Renaissance’. I adored those lectures.

Q

The White Review

— And being at a Catholic school, you had all the religious stories as well, as a kind of first language.

A

Marina Warner

— Yes, exactly. Now that is an area of storytelling, I shouldn’t have forgotten that: the nuns loved telling stories. Actually that went right through the rather rigid class system in the convent because there were what we called the lay nuns although they didn’t take different vows, as happens in some orders. But they were definitely servants, and did everything for us: they bathed us, and cleaned, and cooked, and looked after us, and when we were small – I went when I was 9 – they were really quite close to us and very much our surrogate mothers. They loved telling saints’ lives. And again, my anxieties about how I was formed – there was a very strong streak of cruelty in those.

Q

The White Review

— Yes, particularly the virgin martyr stories.

A

Marina Warner

— Yes, well, The Golden Legend is astonishing. And some of them were quite recent martyrs. Maria Goretti had died not long before I was at school, and she was an exemplary figure, this little girl who’d been raped and murdered. And Thérèse of Lisieux was another one, not martyred, but of course had the martyrdom of her daily life, and this was always taught to us, and of course her dreadful illness and her dying of tuberculosis at 24.

 

It was a female Jesuit order – it’s called the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but they were founded by an Englishwoman called Mary Ward to be ‘Jesuitesses’. Mary Ward was a very interesting, powerful, courageous woman who wanted to educate women. We were taught the spiritual exercises of Ignatius and other forms of intense meditation and prayer which required making very vivid mental images. They require you to meditate on the Passion, the life of Mary and the rosary. The rosary is a storytelling device – you meditate on the Glorious Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and so forth. I think it’s good training if you’re going to be a writer. And the other discipline of Catholicism that relates to writing is the examination of conscience because it’s a form of diary keeping. You gather up the acts and feelings of each day, because sins are not only acts. ‘Whoever looketh after a woman, to lust after her…’

Q

The White Review

— They’re in the mind?

A

Marina Warner

— Sins are in the mind. Thérèse of Lisieux was a very popular saint at the time, and there was this phrase, ‘Offer it up’. She had this idea that if anything was unpleasant you offered it up for the souls in Purgatory, so that you used it almost in a sort of transactional way, like a ransom. There was a famous scene in her autobiography where the nun next to her drives her mad by the way she chomps her food. She can’t conquer her infuriated impatience with this awful chomping. One understands this very small, detailed thing, it’s very clever, very sensitive – but she offers it up. So anyway, this idea that you went through the day retrospectively, every night – of course, it is very much a writerly practice.

Q

The White Review

— At what point did you move away from Catholicism? Coming from that background, how did you come to write Alone Of All Her Sex, which is obviously much more critical?

A

Marina Warner

— Well, I was already very critical at school, actually. I had a lot of trouble with a lot of the doctrines. I was already aware that they were such galloping snobs! And I intensely disliked the doctrine about sexuality. I was just very defiant of many of the principles, certainly by the sixth form. They actually underestimated things, they thought they could just dismiss this and that, they didn’t think – and that of course was very damaging.

 

Now they’re much cleverer. They very much take you on, saying things like ‘Oh no, that’s fine, I couldn’t agree with you more.’ But in those days, in the 1960s, they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, just pray, God will pour grace into your soul and you won’t worry about these things anymore.’

 

I lost my faith and it hasn’t come back. I sometimes fear – in the same way as I used to fear that I would get a vocation to be a nun – that faith will walk into the bedroom one day and say ‘Here I am!’ But it hasn’t happened, I’m glad to say.

Q

The White Review

— When did you start writing? You were obviously immersed in stories from a young age, but did you also write then?

A

Marina Warner

— I started writing quite young, actually, yes, but very badly. I found an early story the other day called ‘The Last Cigarette’, an extraordinarily morbid story about someone about to die on the gallows and being asked what his last wish was, and he only wants a cigarette.

Q

The White Review

— How old were you?

A

Marina Warner

— The writing is sort of italic, so I suppose I was about fourteen or something, doing my best Osmiroid pen italic! It must have been to do with the forbiddenness of cigarettes. I did become a smoker, but I’ve given up. The funny thing is, the DNA goes through in an identifiable way, because a lot of my early stuff was about imagination – I won a school prize for an essay on imagination – and that has stayed with me. That really is my theme. And also my argument: that we discount the importance of imagination, not as a moral value, but as the primary ground of experience, rather than experience itself. People actually experience things through making mental pictures. We don’t analyse it or know what’s happening. We actually can’t, really…

Q

The White Review

— Yes, you have to tell yourself a story about whatever’s happening to you as it happens.

A

Marina Warner

— Yes, and that’s formed by existing structures. It’s quite hard to experience something without some language structure. That’s why, when people are in a war situation, they always say ‘It was just like a film,’ or ‘It was just like being in a newsreel.’ I don’t know what happened before there were newsreels! They probably said, ‘It was just like being in a martyrdom story.’

Q

The White Review

— What brought you to the subject of your first book, The Dragon Empress?

A

Marina Warner

— My great love was China. I became obsessed with it. My first pet was a Pekinese, which my parents gave me because I was so in love with Chinese things and I terribly wanted a Chinese dog. I was about 8, I think, and I painted Chinese characters onto the side of my bookcase. The bookcase still exists, with these painted characters on it – it’s now in one of my nephew’s houses. I also loved the Chinese fairy tales and also the ghost stories.

 

I also liked what I heard about China. In ancient China, the military wasn’t placed at the pinnacle of their scale of values, unlike in Europe, where the army was dominant, more so when I was young than now. They admired scholars. And they didn’t have sacrifice at the centre of their religion, they didn’t have a gory death on the cross. I found Confucianism extremely civilised and Buddhism was a much less bloodthirsty religion than Christianity. I made a very close friend in Paris during my gap year who is Chinese and she lighted up further my great love of China and Chinese civilisation through her stories. She’s a great storyteller. She told me lots of stories about all kinds of wicked and powerful women in Chinese history, such as the Empress Dowager Tz’u-Hsi.

 

Later I won a writing prize when I was a journalist and a publisher asked to see my work. I had written a novel – my first – but he didn’t want to publish it, and asked me what else I was interested in writing. I told him, ‘I’m very interested in China!’ That’s how it happened: Christopher Falkus at Weidenfeld and Nicholson commissioned it, and then he commissioned the Virgin Mary book. I did publish a novel between the two, my second, in A Dark Wood (1977), which features Jesuits in China in the seventeenth century. I’ve still got that first novel. I keep thinking I must get it out. It’s probably a disaster.

Q

The White Review

— Have you ever been to China?

A

Marina Warner

— I went later and, of course, all my idealism fell away: I stopped liking China. Mao was still alive, and I was absolutely shocked by the oppression, I really was. We were taken to see a collective farm and the intellectuals who were meant to be so happy cleaning out pigsties all told us at lunch how perfect life was. Every time I produced a book – I’d brought some books with me to read – the entire company would fall on this book and want to look at it. I’d brought books about China which they were not allowed to see and these were already people who were fairly privileged because they were working as guides and meeting foreign visitors. And they were so hungry!

 

When we were taken to a bookshop – a beautiful bookshop, lots of wonderful things – it was closed to the Chinese. It was only for foreign visitors. I told the person who was looking after this show bookshop that I was interested in certain poets – Li Po and Du Fu, whom I knew from Arthur Waley’s translation – and he sighed and said, ‘Ahhhh, so beautiful, but absolutely forbidden.’ I was very shocked.

 

I’ve never been a Maoist in the way that the Parisians had gone for it. And, in fact, one of the very first reviews I wrote for the TLS when it was still anonymous was of Julia Kristeva’s Des Chinoises (1975), which I must say I thought was junk. This was before I went to China, but I did think that all the eulogies about Maoist women being all soft and happy in their bodies was completely ridiculous. French Maoism was wildly over-idealistic and very dangerous, actually. But I haven’t become a rabid right-winger either! It’s just that I was disillusioned.

Q

The White Review

— Now you’re working on the Arabian Nights

A

Marina Warner

— Yes, that’s been very enjoyable. It had two starting points. One grew completely naturally out of my interest in fairy tales, as I realised I had really overlooked the importance of the Arabian Nights model in the first wave of written literary fairy tales in the seventeenth century with Perrault and co. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy actually says in the preface to one of her collections that she has them from ‘une vieille esclave Arabe’ (an old Arab slave woman). I just thought that that was a bit of exoticism, but it’s actually a trope she gets from the Arabian Nights. Even if it’s not the case that she got the stories from an Arab slave, which is not very likely, she wanted to say that. So that actually positions it in that way, and I had overlooked that completely in From the Beast to the Blonde.

 

The second starting point was the conflict with Islam, and part of my advocacy of the imagination arises from my conviction that if you look at history culturally as opposed to looking at history militarily, you get a very different picture. Culturally, there was an extraordinary exchange. Chaucer’s got at least two stories from the Arabian Nights and Boccaccio took some wonderful ones as well. The stories travelled on the trade routes – even major crusading epics like Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) carry strong traces of Oriental romance. Oriental romance comes out of Greek romance: it’s the world of the Mediterranean, a very rich world of trade and ideas, and that was the traffic. I wanted to write about that, to say: ‘Let’s just turn around this history a bit, not think about religions at war with one another. Let’s think about silk, coffee and stories.’

 

There are many aspects of the Arabian Nights that are very attractive to me. They have fantastic heroines. A fundamental difference is that the heroines experience desire and act upon it. They chase their beloved all over the place through thick and thin in this wonderful way, often in disguise as boys. There’s a terrific energy-charge of pleasure from them.

 

The other reason relates to this idea of the imagination. The book was published for the first time – in any language – in 1704, in French. Before that it existed as an Arabic manuscript; it wasn’t printed in that language until afterwards. It seemed to be a contradiction: at the very beginning of the Enlightenment, the book is not read as nostalgia but as the latest thing. Why is a collection of medieval Arabic and Persian fairy tales the latest thing in 1704? What is it about the book?

 

My argument is that it’s a parable of modernity in Oriental disguise which actually helps the Enlightenment reader because it sets the need for fantasy at a distance, giving it this Oriental colour. It smuggles the fantasy that has been expelled back into the European Enlightenment. The stories give premonitions of certain aspects of modern life that have actually become even more intense. One is the phantasmic character of goods, because everything in the Arabian Nights is enchanted.

Q

The White Review

— Carpets and things…

A

Marina Warner

— Yes, exactly. This is the beginning of the eighteenth century, the beginning of the traffic in goods, of manufacturing, and serial mass-production is about to come, and some goods  are better than other goods because of some magical ingredient they have! (Editor’s Note: This conversation took place before the riots in mid-August 2011 when the chief targets of the looting were brand-name goods.) The other aspect of the Nights that fits eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Europe more closely than our fairy tale tradition is that it’s a very scribal form of magic. The magic is written. Our magic tends to be performed with wands and some verbal formulae, but in the Arabian Nights it is written. They began being written in the ninth and tenth centuries, and they continue to develop and increase, but they represent a much more scribal culture than the fairy tales of the forests and mountains of Europe. It’s characteristic of the passionate heroines that they would write these letters and send them. All the talismans are inscribed. I’ve tried to make an argument that this also meshes with modernity. Paper money, which is an entirely written magic, arrived in the late eighteenth century.

Q

The White Review

— What about Scheherazade herself as a figure? Is she portrayed as someone who would write or is she very much the oral storyteller?

A

Marina Warner

— Well, she can read, because the interesting thing about her stories is that they’re not her invention. She has a vast repertoire; she knows them. At the beginning she says to her father, ‘Let me go to the palace because I know so many stories,’ and she has a library of over a thousand books. There’s no suggestion that she’s illiterate but she never evokes writings. However, whenever the Sultan likes a particular story, he says: ‘Let this story be written in letters of gold and placed in the state archives.’ Abdelfattah Kilito, a Moroccan writer, a fabulist as well as a scholar, and one of the most illuminating commentators of the Nights, points out that this is actually a redundant measure for the Sultan because he could bring the books from Scheherazade’s house! He doesn’t have to have them written all over again but the point is that the audience wants to know that these libraries are proliferating, before print, so that there’s another copy being made of her stories.

 

Scheherazade is telling stories to fight off death and that was absolutely the attraction for me. She’s invoked by Proust, in a very different way, because his is deep psychological realism, very different from the Nights, but he sees that as the pattern of what he’s doing. He’s repairing and redressing through the activity of words. I’m deeply committed to that.

Q

The White Review

— Did the fact that the heroines wrote things down in the stories reflect what actual women at the time would have been doing in terms of being able to write? You often have fictional women writing letters in European medieval romances, but real women didn’t necessarily write.

A

Marina Warner

— No, that’s right, they didn’t, apparently. In the Arabian Nights, slaves can write.

Q

The White Review

— So it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re the one doing the writing, as long as you can get someone to do it for you?
A

Marina Warner

— No, the slaves write – they are usually slaves in disguise, almost everybody is in disguise, but their literacy isn’t commented on at all. In fact, sometimes it’s commented on the other way. For example, in ‘Hasan of Basra’ it’s mentioned that Hasan himself is a very good scholar and that his widowed mother – of course – has done everything to get him educated, so he writes a very beautiful hand and can recite the Koran and compose verse. And the mother, though she can neither read nor write, knows a lot of poetry by heart. That draws attention to the possibility that you can be extremely literate while not actually being lettered. And that probably does reflect a deep experience of literature for a very long stretch of the past, when poetry, stories, plays, rituals, prayers, and even speeches were performed – not improvised – from composed texts. An intermediate, evolved condition of the word, neither written nor spoken, dominated culture. Without contemporary media, this form of story transmission has become strongly present again and brought with it a reinvigoration of many ancient myths and stories.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Elizabeth Dearnley holds a Ph.D. from Pembroke College, Cambridge, on French-English translation in the fourteenth century.