Dear Penthouse

I’m currently reading The Arabian Nights, a fairly recent translation (1990) by Husain Haddawy. Over the last few years, I’ve tried to start reading some of the classics of Western literature. Assisting me in this attempt is the embarrassingly useful reference guide, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. (There are also 1001 movies to watch, 1001 albums to listen to, etc.) Laugh all you want, but I’m the sort of person who enjoys lists, and enjoys trying to do everything on a given list (Donald can attest to this, after I dragged him around to see every single sculpture at the De Cordova open-air museum.) And it’s not like I’ve stopped reading books that didn’t make it into the 1001 Books list.* It’s just that I’ve found this reference book a good place to get ideas for books I might want to read that didn’t get reviewed in Locus.

I have to say, of the really really old books in the 1001 Books list, I’m enjoying Arabian Nights far more than I enjoyed Aesop’s Fables, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Chariton’s Chaireas and Kallirhoe, Heliodorus’ Aithiopika, and Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. A lot of it probably has to do with the accessibility of the translations; I can’t speak to how closely Haddawy’s translation matches the original Arabic texts, but I find the writing fresh, lively and interesting in English. I think my enjoyment of Arabian Nights may also be partly because the stories are not as ancient as the others I’ve mentioned, and are thus culturally more accessible to a modern reader. (Familiarity of the stories may be part of it, as well, though some of the more famous Arabian Nights tales are not included in the translation I’m reading because their authenticity is apparently either dubious or absent – Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, for instance. And Aesop and Ovid both had a lot of familiar stories.)

So, I’m enjoying Arabian Nights. One thing I never realized before, though, is how erotic some of the stories are. I was telling Donald about The Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies. There’s this porter, waiting in the marketplace to be hired, and a woman comes by and hires him to carry her groceries home from the market. When they get back to her house, the porter finds that, not only is she quite beautiful, but she lives with two other women who are even more lovely, and no men. He invites himself to stay for dinner, and they accept his invitation, and they all start drinking … well, you should read it yourself, but suffice it to say that there’s a lot of splashing naked in the fountain and “carousing”.

Anyway, Donald said, “That sounds like a Penthouse letter or something. ‘I never thought something like this would happen to a porter like me….'” Not that Donald has ever read Penthouse, of course; at least, that’s what he tells me.

Interestingly, the version of this story that appears in the children’s abridged version of Arabian Nights says only that the porter “sang a song … The three ladies were pleased with the song, and then sang themselves, so that the repast was a merry one, and lasted much longer than usual.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

There is, of course, far more to Arabian Nights than erotic stories of lovely women entertaining lonely porters. It’s a wonderful source of ideas to steal–er, be inspired by–if you’re a fantasy author. And there are really great insights into the culture of the 13th century Muslim world, and the every day life. For instance, in the story about the porter and the ladies, as they go through the market, you get to read about all the different shops they stop at, and what the lady buys at each one: at the fruit vendor’s, various fruits as well as baby cucumbers and flowers; mutton at the butcher, as well as charcoal (!); at the grocer’s, olives, cheese and pickles; at the dry grocer’s, dried fruits and nuts and sugar cane and roasted chick peas; cakes and cookies and sweet breads (not the pancreas kind!) at the confectioner’s; perfumes at the druggist, as well as loaves of sugar, candles and torches. (This being the Muslim world, the lady buys wine not at a wine shop, but by stopping at the apparently unmarked door of a house, “and when she knocked, an old Christian came down, received a dinar from her and handed her an olive green jug of wine.” Obviously not a southern Baptist Christian!) I mean, this kind of information about how people would do their shopping and what they might buy is just invaluable, if you’re writing fantasy set in a medieval sort of world.

Another fascinating insight comes where, in one of the stories, a lady relates how she used to be so wealthy that she owned 10 complete changes of clothing! I mean, I guess it would still be unusual today for a man to own 10 expensive suits, unless he were quite wealthy and needed to wear suits every day to his job. But reading stories from a time so long ago can really help you to step out of assumptions you might have about what people’s lives would be like in an imagined world that you’re writing about. If having 10 outfits is a sign that you’re very wealthy, you probably don’t want the baker’s daughter in your story owning 3 or 4 outfits. (I mean, obviously it depends on which historical time period and cultures you’re borrowing from, but it’s just good to think about these things.)

The next really old book on my list is Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. An English translation, obviously. I once tried to read Victor Hugo in the original French, and gave up after a page and a half; if I can’t handle 19th century French, I’m unlikely to do better with the 16th century. We’ll see how that goes. It’s over a thousand pages long, so I’m a little worried. (I feel I should clarify that this is not the next book I’m planning to read, just the next really old book I’m planning to read.) But I hear that it has plenty of sex, too.

* No, no, there are plenty of other lists for me to choose from! I’m also trying to read all the Hugo-award winning novels. Then I guess I’ll read the Nebula-winning novels that didn’t also win Hugos, then maybe the World Fantasy winners … don’t know what I’ll do after that.

I do also read novels just because I picked them up and thought they looked cool, or because I’ve liked other books by that author, or because a friend recommended them. They don’t have to make it onto a list first. Just so you know.

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