The Big Read Blog (Archive)


Washington, DC

General view of Cairo, Egypt, circa 1893 from Library of Congress collection.

Much is made of the depth of Emily Dickinson's understanding of the world and of human character, given that she never traveled very far from her family's home in Amherst, Massachusetts. It turns out that Dickinson is not the only homebody in The Big Read library. Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a native of Cairo, developed his extraordinary gift for understanding and writing about the human psyche without ever (to my knowledge) leaving Egypt. In this interview excerpt, South African author---and fellow Nobel Laureate---Nadine Gordimer comments on why Mahfouz may have made the choice to be an armchair traveler and writer.

I think it?s indeed a puzzle and strange that pure curiosity didn?t send Naguib Mahfouz out of Egypt to have a look at the world outside. But he didn?t really need it. One sees that, and, indeed, many writers, perhaps, lose the sense of their human rootedness, not just in geographical terms but in all the psychological things that go with it.  They lose this by becoming public figures, going round the world all the time, being invited to appear . . . . They go out and indeed become fragmented by this constant exposure and the adulation. I?m sure he feared the corruption of praise, and I think that he was right that he indeed kept himself whole and drew the world into him through what he read, through what he observed in newspapers. His connections with the world are clearly very strong from his works, even though physically he did not travel.

So I think that many writers and young people beginning their careers shouldn?t be too much flattered by being asked to appear on television here or to go and do a sabbatical there. You have to quote another writer, Jean Paul Sartre, talking not of people who are forced to this by political pressures, he said, ?To go into exile is to lose your place in the world.?  [For] Mahfouz, it wasn?t a question of going into exile but too much exposure to the world may indeed cause you to lose your place in the world.  I know that I have stayed where I was born and where I feel I belong and faced whatever happened around me and in me. I?ve learnt a lot of that from Mahfouz.

Hear more about Mahfouz and his work from Gordimer, Trevor Le Gassick, Mohamed Salmawy, and others on The Big Read radio show for The Thief and the Dogs.

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