“The One Significant Work About Egypt’s Levantine World”: Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff on The Alexandria Quartet (30 May 2011).

The Israeli novelist and critic Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (1917 – 1979) gave high marks to Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, calling it “the one significant book about Egypt’s Levantine world.”

Kahanoff shared her appreciation for Durrell’s achievement in her 1973 essay, “A Culture Stillborn,” collected in the new anthology Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (Stanford 2011).

Kahanoff saw The Alexandria Quartet as a touchstone work for exiled writers struggling to come to terms with the sweeping homogenization of Egyptian culture that took place after the rise of Nasser’s Pan-Arabism in the late 1950s:

Why did we have an attitude at once so touchy and denigrating toward ourselves?  I think we considered ourselves too inferior — or, as we say in Israel, too “Levantine” — to dare express ourselves in writing.  Gide and Malraux were our standard, but it didn’t occur to us that the point was not to emulate them, but to tell our own story, in our own words.  Once we had left Egypt, it broke our hearts to think that practically nobody had done this; that a whole community, one of the most complex and interesting, disappeared without leaving a trace.  The one significant work about Egypt’s Levantine world, The Alexandria Quartet, was written not by one of us, but by Lawrence Durrell, an Irishman.  But then, he had a language at his command, perhaps also a vitality, a naïve self-confidence that we lacked.  He could describe our failure of nerve just because he didn’t suffer from it.  It was as if something inside us had broken, long before we reached adulthood.

In Kahanoff’s view, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet — with its “five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar” — best conveys the polyglot dynamism of Egypt’s lost past, thus serving as a helpful reminder of the region’s rich tradition of “Levantinism.”

The 2011 release of the Mongrels or Marvels collection marks the first full-length, English-language publication of Kahanoff’s “A Culture Stillborn.”  The essay was originally published in Hebrew.

Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff was born in Cairo in 1917.  She left Egypt in 1940, living for a time in the United States and France before settling in Israel.  Early on in her career, she won the “Best Short Story Award” from the Atlantic Monthly for “Such is Rachel” (1946).  Kahanoff’s first novel, Jacob’s Ladder, appeared in 1951.  A number of her essays and short stories address Egypt’s changing cultural landscape.  These include “Childhood in Egypt,” “Passover in Egypt,” “Cairo Wedding,” “Alexandria,” “To Remember Alexandria,” “A Culture Stillborn,” and “To Live and Die a Copt.” Kahanoff died in 1979.

Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff appears as a new volume in Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture.  The collection is edited by Deborah A. Starr and Sasson Somekh.

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