With Wire Dispatches
A prominent Egyptian novelist, known for his works on social change in post-World War II Egypt, yesterday won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The foremost literary figure in Egypt in the late '40s and '50s, Naguib Mahfouz is the first Arab language writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in the 87-year history of the award. His works are known throughout the Middle East for their vivid descriptions and insights about turbulent social change in postwar Egypt, according to Harvard experts on Arabic literature.
"[Mahfouz's work] deals with the problem of the changing structure of society," said Muhsin S. Mahdi, Jewett professor of Arabic literature. "It is not just a reflection, but a perceptive analysis of what is going on, in some cases psychological, in some cases political and historical."
Mahfouz's writing is important to the study of post-war Egypt, Mahdi said, because his descriptions give students insights into the turmoil of Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s.
"Student love to read him because it gives them an insider's view on what was going on in Egypt at that time," Mahdi said.
Mahfouz's 1959 work "Children of Gebelawi"--singled out by the Nobel Prize committee for special praise--was banned in Egypt because religious authorities found analogies between characters in the book and prophets disrespecful, Mahdi said. The book was widely read in other Muslim countries.
Mahdi added that Mahfouz's most famous work is Trilogy, a novel completed in 1957, which describes the spiritual and economic transformation of Cairo during the second world war.
Professors also said that Mahfouz was recognized for his literary style. Mahfouz is "the father of the modern Arabic short story," said professor of modern Arabic Wilson B. Bishai.
"His style is simple but cannot be imitated. It is easy to read, and flowing and very eloquent," said Bishai. "Once you get started you have to finish."
Mahfouz was one of the first literary figures to abandon the old classical style in Egyptian literature and write in a newly emerging style of combined romanticism and realism, Mahdi said, adding that Mahfouz was strongly influenced by the French novels of the 19th century. "He grew up reading Balzac," Mahdi said.
But Mahdi said that the prize is a belated one, adding "There is a whole new generation of novelists and play-writes who have taken over the literary scene. He was a great figure but the excitement of reading him was 20 years ago. He has done his deeds."
"It is even kind of late for Naguib Mahfouz to receive the prize now," Mahdi said.
Mahdi said some of Mahfouz's works, including Trilogy and Children of Gebelawi will probably become classics. "They are the best thing that happened in this period of Arabic literature," he said.
Mahdi said he thought the award would lend increased prestige to Arabic literature. Although 12 of Mahfouz's works have been translated into English, they were published by smaller publishing houses and consequently received less attention.
Mahfouz graduated from the University of Cairo. In the early 40's he joined the Egyptian Ministry of Culture where he worked until his retirement in 1971.