Presentation Speech by Professor Sture Allén, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
On the Nobel Day, 10th December, 1911, Maurice Maeterlinck received that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature from the hands of King Gustavus V here in Stockholm. On the following day Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo. The capital of Egypt has remained his home and he has left it only on very rare occasions.
Cairo also provides, time and again, the setting for his novels, short stories and plays. There we find the throng in Midaq Alley, described in a manner that is both affectionate and translucent. There, in the great novel trilogy, Kamal faces the crucial questions of existence. There lies the houseboat which, in Chit-chat on the Nile, becomes a platform for conversations and animated discussions about social roles. There we meet the young lovers, preparing their bed amidst the blocks of the pyramid.
It is vital for a living society to take its authors seriously. They have learnt to see in the profoundest sense of the word, exploiting its full potential. This, in fact, represents a fundamental component shared by art and science alike.
One approach, among several others, to the works of this year’s Nobel Laureate is to read them as a committed, perceptive, almost prophetic commentary on the world around him. During a long writer’s life, he has witnessed sweeping social changes. Also, his production is uncommonly extensive.
In Arabic literature, the novel is actually a 20th-Century phenomenon, more or less contemporary with Mahfouz. And it was he who, in due course, was to bring it to maturity. Some of the milestones are Midaq Alley, The Trilogy, Children of Gebalawi, The Thief and the Dogs, Chit-Chat on the Nile, Respected Sir, and Mirrors. Greatly varied and partly experimental, these novels range from psychological realism to an allegorical and mystic-metaphysical design.
The nature of time is one of his basic preoccupations. As for last year’s Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky, it takes on the character of mercilessness. “Time cuts like a sword”, it says in the novel Respected Sir. “If you don’t kill it, it kills you.”
For the numerous readers that Mahfouz had acquired through The Trilogy, with its broad canvas depicting contemporary life, Children of Gebelawi meant quite a surprise. The novel comes out as a spiritual history of mankind,’ presented in as many chapters as there are suras in the Koran, i.e. 114. The great figures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – although recognizable – appear in disguise, facing new situations charged with tension. The man of modern science mixes, with equal skill, an elixir of love and an explosive. He bears the responsibility for the death of Gebelawi or God – but also perishes himself. Still, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the novel. Mahfouz is not a pessimist, even though he is occasionally referred to as one. “If I were a pessimist”, he says, “I wouldn’t write.”
In the short stories, too, we meet the great existential themes: reason versus faith in God, love as a source of strength in an inexplicable world, the alternatives and limitations to an intellectual attitude, the existential struggle of exposed man.
Taking authors seriously does not always imply taking them literally. Mahfouz once said that he writes because he has two daughters in need of high-heeled shoes. Unconventional remarks like that may be – and have been – misunderstood. They tell us less about Mahfouz’s literary achievements than about his personality – moderate as well as serious and, at the same time, slyly humorous.
Naguib Mahfouz has an unrivalled position as spokesman for Arabic prose. Through him, in the cultural sphere to which he belongs, the art of the novel and the short story has attained international standards of excellence, the result of a synthesis of classical Arabic tradition, European inspiration and personal artistry.
For private reasons Mr. Mahfouz is unable to join us tonight. However, with your permission I should like to address him directly at this moment, using the medium of vision.
Dear Mr. Mahfouz,
Your rich and complex work invites us to reconsider the fundamental things in life. Themes like the nature of time and love, society and norms, knowledge and faith recur in a variety of situations and are presented in thought-provoking, evocative, and clearly daring ways. And the poetic quality of your prose can be felt across the language barrier. In the prize citation you are credited with the forming of an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind. On behalf of the Swedish Academy I congratulate you on your eminent literary accomplishments. And now, may I ask you, Miss Om Kalsoum Naguib Mahfouz, and you, Miss Fatma Naguib Mahfouz, to step forward to receive from the hands of His Majesty the King, on behalf of your father Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize in Literature 1988.