Writers like to write about the writing process, and critics like to read novels that reflect on literature itself—that much is clear. All too often, of course, this metafictional bent devolves into (at best) a kind of neurotic navel-gazing and (at worst) self-important proselytizing on the transcendent, transformative nature of art. The messianic overtones of the latter in particular can quickly become grating, even to the staunchest proponents of literature’s intrinsic value, which is perhaps why Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman comes as such a breath of fresh air. “I bet you believe in the redemptive power of art,” writes Aaliya Sohbi, the novel’s wearied, aging, but delightfully quick-witted narrator, “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.”
It is, if not the first, perhaps the most bluntly disarming of the novel’s efforts to upset its readers’ ideas about the nature and function of the arts. Aaliya has an undeniable knack for neatly puncturing her audience’s pretensions, and she is quick to point out how baldly self-indulgent our relationship to literature can be:
May I admit that being different from normal people was what I desperately sought? I wanted to be special. … I knew that no one would love me, so I strove to be respected, to be looked up to. I wanted people to think I was better than they were. I wanted to be Miss Jean Brodie’s crème de la crème.
I thought art would make me a better human being, but I also thought it would make me better than you.
… I know. You think you love art because you have a sensitive soul.
Isn’t a sensitive soul simply a means of transforming a deficiency into proud disdain?
And yet An Unnecessary Woman does not confine itself to biting observations on the grandiose airs of literary aspirants; scathing as the novel can be, there is a tender core to it—a plaintive longing for meaning that manages to avoid any hint of triteness through its subtle subversiveness. In telling the story of a woman who translates novels but never publishes them, An Unnecessary Woman gently interrogates not only the role and significance of literature, but also what it means to live a full life.
Of course, even the form of Alameddine’s novel constitutes a challenge to literary convention—though, after the innovations of Modernism, it is an extremely mild one. Indeed, there is a good deal that is Woolfian about Aaliya’s story: the interweaving of past and present, the lingering focus on striking vignettes, the cyclical return to strangely charged moments—even the sensual evocation of the life of a city (here Beirut rather than London). Now 72, Aaliya is taking stock of her life, and tragicomic scenes of her attempts to reach out to her estranged, aging mother are interspersed with recollections of her former husband (the “listless mosquito with malfunctioning proboscis”), her days as a bookseller, the Lebanese Civil War, and, of course, her private career as a translator. But while there is a distinct, conversational rhythm to An Unnecessary Woman—and even a hint of forward narrative momentum—Aaliya is strikingly determined to resist even the impressionistic unity that characterizes the Modernist novel:
Blame Joyce and his Dubliners, which I adore, but do pity Mr. Joyce, because the only thing some writers ever understand from his masterpiece is epiphany, epiphany, and one more blasted epiphany. There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.
Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories.
I should send out letters to writers, writing programs, and publishers. You’re strangling the life out of literature, sentence by well-constructed sentence, book by blasted book.
There is, to be sure, more than a touch of bitterness to Aaliya’s words, but there is also something oddly and compellingly prideful in her rejection of common narrative form—perhaps even something truly radical. As she says of her translations—years upon years of work that she has simply boxed up and placed in a spare room—it is not the end point that matters but the “process,” in all its messy confusion. Aaliya of course acknowledges that she once dreamed her work would “matter”; even now, and with a touch of embarrassment, she asks whether it is “immoral for someone like [her] to want to be more,” when “Kafka … can resign himself to being a cockroach … [to] being the blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps” (hardly an extravagant or unsympathetic desire). And yet, there are also moments when Aaliya seems to revel in her self-proclaimed uselessness. As translations of translations, her works, she says, have no market value—but then, they were not intended to; they are a project Aaliya undertakes solely for her own pleasure. Indeed, much of Aaliya’s life—her hobby of choice, her social isolation, her almost complete withdrawal from the fraught political environment in which she lives—implicitly challenges our assumptions about utility and teleology in a way that seems highly salutary.
This is particularly true—if, perhaps, counterintuitive—when one considers Aaliya’s enforced marginality as both a woman and as an Arab. Even her age relegates her, in the popular imagination, to a kind of superfluousness, if only because she has relatively little time left for epiphany and change. Aaliya’s willing uselessness thus presents a challenge to anyone who sees political engagement in stark, either/or terms; if it is not an outright act of rebellion, it is also not a simple acquiescence to the powers that be. It is, instead, a kind of luxurious retreat into interiority that is in some ways as subversive as, for example, her candid account of her post-marital sex life. Indeed, while Aaliya’s life may be a lonely one at times, it is also, by her own admission, a hedonistic one. “Reading a fine book for the first time,” she says, “is as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan.” Of translating, she writes as follows:
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. … My translating is a Wagner opera. The narrative sets up, the tension builds, the music ebbs and flows, the strings, the horns, more tension, and suddenly a moment of pure pleasure. Gabriel blows his golden trumpet, ambrosial fragrance fills the air sublime, and gods descend from Olympus to dance—most heavenly this peak of ecstasy.
During these moments, I am no longer my usual self, yet I am wholeheartedly myself, body and spirit. During these moments, I am healed of all wounds.
I’ll be sitting at my desk and suddenly I don’t wish my life to be any different. I am where I need to be. My heart distends with delight. I feel sacred.
In passages like this, Aaliya is not simply eking out a few moments happiness in a lifetime full of disappointments—though that in and of itself is important. Rather, she is basking in precisely the kind of visceral, unifying pleasure that is so often denied to those who are marginalized. When your existence itself is viewed as expendable, there is something powerfully subversive in the simple act of claiming full, sensuous, subjective delight in that existence.
There is, of course, a contradiction in finding in so resolutely apolitical a voice (for Aaliya, “this art business … is mere folly,” when all is said and done) a message of dissent. And then, of course, there is the novel’s ending, which does ultimately embrace a kind of forward movement, even if it refuses the gift-wrapped, end-goal happiness that Aaliya disdains; from now on, Aaliya will translate novels directly from their original language—will even, perhaps, share her translations, though still in an essentially private (and female) setting. But perhaps the revelations of the novel’s final pages simply—if paradoxically—underscore Aaliya’s point about the “mere folly” of art: never give too much credence to solemn pronouncements on the nature and role of literature, even when what they’re asserting is its purely hedonistic value—art is not bound by aesthetic rules.
Then again, if Aaliya’s story teaches us one thing, it’s that you should never judge a book by its ending, so take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt.
An Unnecessary Woman was published in February 2014 by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. It was first published in January of 2012.
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