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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Morning and Evening Talk

Naguib Mahfouz

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To purchase Morning and Evening Talk

Title: Morning and Evening Talk
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 204 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Morning and Evening Talk - US
Morning and Evening Talk - UK
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Morning and Evening Talk - India
  • Translated and with a Translator's Note by Christina Phillips

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive -- but can be hard to follow

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 19/1/2008 Maureen Freely
The NY Sun . 30/1/2008 Benjamin Lytal

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he pieces of the jigsaw never make a picture. They swim in and out of each otherís lives so fast and so often that any mental map we might have half-constructed soon dissolves. The only organising principle is the Arabic alphabet. Each chapter carries the name of a character and they appear in alphabetical order. (...) By the time I reached the end, I felt as if I had read the obituary of an entire civilisation. But what an obituary. What a civilisation. And what a triumphant last word." - Maureen Freely, Financial Times

  • "Sixty-seven characters in 200 pages is a lot to keep up with, and the reference-work format assumes that each entry is its own beginning -- therefore the novel has no learning curve, it simply plunges through information at random. I drew a family tree to keep track, making for a very crowded and messy legal pad. This can be an enjoyable exercise, but it means the reader spends less time empathizing with the characters than the author might have hoped. Yet Mahfouz delivers two significant emotional lessons. (...) Though it is not one of Mahfouz's best works, Morning and Evening Talk offers a unique argument for the Arabic novel." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Morning and Evening Talk is a remarkable book. It consists of sixty-seven biographical pieces, each briefly describing the life of a member of one of three Egyptian families, covering some two centuries. It is arranged alphabetically (according to the Arabic alphabet, that is), according to the name of each character -- meaning it is more like a family-dictionary and not at all a chronological account. (Such alphabetically-arranged encyclopaedic works devoted to important figures are familiar to Arabic readers, but it is unusual to see the structure used for a work of fiction -- and focussed on what largely amount to commoners.) But, as in Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas, the unusual form works to surprisingly good effect.
       It is, however, confusing. A 'Note on the Arabic Alphabet' at the beginning of the book is slightly helpful, but what's really needed is an enormous pull-out chart that connects the characters and sets a timeline. As is, the reader is plunged into a swirling mass of life-stories, and tossed back and forth across the decades and centuries (though the bulk of the lives described are of the twentieth century). There is a great deal of overlap of characters, as parents and children and siblings get their separate entries, and it is possible to put together some of the pieces by jumping back and forth between sections, to fill in gaps and learn more about characters mentioned in one section, but there are simply so many that it is very difficult to keep track of anywhere near everyone and everything.
       A Glossary also helps in placing some of the significant events, for those who aren't sure which 'May 15' is referred to, or when the 'Free Officers Movement' took place, or what the 'Tripartite Aggression' was. But not all of the entries mention specific dates or events, and some can be hard to place.
       Christina Phillips' 'Translator's Note' is well worth reading before tackling the book -- indeed, an expanded version would have made a welcome introduction to the work. So, for example, it's helpful to keep in mind that, as she notes:

The reader of Morning and Evening Talk finds symptoms of social breakdown everywhere in the text: as time goes by the father loses his authority, family ties grow weaker, and the family tree is increasingly dispersed across the city of Cairo and beyond. The narrative fragmentation of Morning and Evening Talk is thus an embodiment of the erosion of traditional Arab society, and the family nucleus in particular.
       As Phillips also notes: "the book represents an attempt by the author to come to terms with the events of the last two centuries" of Egyptian history, and while a chronological approach may seem far easier and more obvious, there's also something to be said for this one, shaking chronology completely loose. In a way, these vignettes, slowly coming together, offer a stronger picture than a mere chronological account could (and, especially: it's hard to see how Mahfouz could have unfolded so much history in such a short space if he had chosen a more traditional approach). Some of the life-stories do cover enormous spans, as some of the characters live very long lives, and it's this overlap of generations (with their different perspectives and personal histories) that also helps bring the picture into focus.
       Ultimately, however, the book comes down to these short character portraits, none more than a few pages long, in which Mahfouz presents remarkable (even as they are often commonplace) stories and life-summaries. The many names that keep coming up, and the shifts back and forth in time, are distracting, but the pieces hold up very well by themselves. Put them all together (arduous though that can be) and Morning and Evening Talk is, indeed, a remarkable overview of two centuries of life in Egypt.
       The form of the novel does present some challenges, but it's an impressive achievement and well worth the trouble.

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Morning and Evening Talk: Reviews: Naguib Mahfouz: Other books by Naguib Mahfouz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ, Nagib Machfus) was born in 1911 and died in 2006 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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