The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Nights

The stories of King Arthur and the knights of the round table have permeated popular culture. John Steinbeck, the acclaimed American author of novels such as Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, decided to retell Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur (full text of the novel at that link). In his introduction, Steinbeck writes how Malory's novel was the book that began his passion for reading emerged, "my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have had against the oppressor and for the oppressed came from this secret book. It did not outrage my sensibilities as nearly all children's books did." (2) The novel is the retelling of Malory's work with Steinbeck's commentary (via letters to his agent and editor) included at the end of the novel. The only point where Steinbeck writes something that isn't a direct adaptation (not sure if that's the correct term for what this book is) is under the title THE NOBLE TALE OF SIR LANCELOT OF THE LAKE there's a note (And noble it is. - J. S.) That tale ends the novel, he ended suddenly for reasons unknown. The last letter (July 8, 1965) in the book says:
I go struggling along with the matter of Arthur....I am going to protect myself by not showing it to anybody so that after I get a stretch of it done, if it seems bad, I can simply destroy it. But right now I don't think its bad. Strange and different, but not bad. (402)
I definitely didn't think it was bad. Filled with some of the "best prose [he] has ever written" (words taken from a letter to his editor written six years prior), it is a rich telling of the stories of King Arthur. The magic lies in the stories, yes. But also in these letters in the end that offer a look into Steinbeck's process. As he describes in a letter (March 27, 1959),
Malory wrote the stories for and to his time. Any man hearing him knew every word and every reference. There was nothing obscure, he wrote the clear and common speech of his time and country. But that has changed — the words and references are no longer common property, for a new language has come into being. Malory did not write the stories. He simply wrote them for his time and his time understood them. (359)
So Steinbeck wrote them for his time. There are so many lines I bookmarked as I was reading; too many to share. I encourage you to read this, learn the stories of King Arthur and his knights, and enjoy. Rating: ★★★★


The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Yesterday night, after finishing Tales from 1,001 Nights, I picked up Mohsin Hamid's tour-de-force, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I just didn't put it down. Reading for about two, three hours, I was enthralled by the story of Changez, a Pakistani immigrant who is the top of his class at Princeton and gets a job at an elite valuation firm: "I was, in my own eyes, a veritable James Bond--only younger, darker, and possibly better paid." (64) The entire novel is told in monologue form, with Changez talking to an American at a café in Lahore. His tale begins at Princeton, but the true heart of the story (what made him who he is today) starts with a smile. He goes on a business trip to Manila in September 2001. He watches the towers fall on his hotel television. “I stared as one — and then the other — of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” (72) His listener's "disgust is evident" but he goes on to explain himself:
But at that moment, by thoughts were not with the victims of the attack...no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees. Ah, I see I am only compounding your displeasure. I understand, of course; it is hateful to hear another person gloat over one's country's misfortune...
And so his true tale begins. He thought he loved America, his new job. But that smile, that pleasure, changed everything. At that time, he was in a semi-relationship with a classmate from Princeton, Erica, who was enveloped in nostalgia of her deceased boyfriend, Chris. America, Changez believed, was "giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia" and he detested it: he believed America was a country that looked forward, but now it had a "determination to look back" (115). He was confused by what "your fellow countrymen longed for...a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty?" all he knew was that he no longer considered himself an American, and was unsure if this new era "contained a part written for someone" like him.
This isn't simply a novel about the competing identities of a Pakistani man in America: it also details his struggles with class in America and Pakistan, and how he ultimately choses one country over the other, even though he belongs in both. Since he is telling this tale to a mystery American (is he CIA? is he just a curious tourist? is he even an American? the ending is extremely open-ended and I don't know what I want to think about what happened) but as the NYT Book Review writes, the interruptions "do lend his tale an Arabian Nights-style urgency: the end of the story may mean the death of the teller." Which is so interesting that I read his story right after finishing the One Thousand and One Nights and there were many parallels, it seemed a natural continuation; as if this story may have been one of those simply set in the modern era. When you have the change, I urge you to read this novel. Its clear storytelling and smart prose are definitely a treat. Rating: ★★★★★