May 26, 2009

But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch


As I have posted several times here (and there) about my unfolding project on Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun, I thought it was only fair to post the conference paper I delivered on Sunday at ACCUTE, which is the first concrete result of the research and thinking I have done so far. Tempering justice with mercy, I won't put the entire paper, especially because I can't figure out how to put only the first bit on my front page. The paper was written to be read aloud, and the time limit was strict (20 minutes): both of these requirements have certain effects on both style and substance. Beyond that, I have only myself to blame. In italics is some material I wasn't sure I'd have time to read (mostly, I didn't). And so, without further hemming and hawing...

But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch

Ahdaf Soueif’s 1992 novel In the Eye of the Sun has been called ‘the Egyptian Middlemarch,’ a comparison invited by its numerous intertextual gestures towards George Eliot’s masterpiece—most conspicuously, its epigraph is the famous 'squirrel's heartbeat' passage. Critical work on the novel so far has focused on Soueif as a postcolonial writer and thus on her Arab or Egyptian perspective, on issues of national identity or the possibilities of “cultural dialogue” (Massad 74), and on her works as examples of cultural and linguistic hybridity (Darraj, Malak). Though I believe that these are not just inevitable but also illuminating approaches to Soueif's fiction, including In the Eye of the Sun, I also think it is important not to limit the range of questions we ask of a text because it appears to fit into a particular category (in this case, the postcolonial novel). In doing so we risk enacting a kind of literary essentialism by which our interpretation of a text is determined by the geographical origins of its author. Priya Joshi notes that the “persistent critical reference to writing from once colonial lands as postcolonial” may inhibit attention to their particularities:
When does it end? For how many years after empire ends does writing have to be “post” before it can become itself? . . . does it ever end or does all literature from once colonized lands always bear the stamp that comes with the appellation “colonial”? . . . The danger, therefore, of preserving any part of the term “postcolonial” is that it ultimately eviscerates the possibility of conducting a historically grounded or specifically directed study. . . . (233)
A particular danger seems to me to be that reading a text as “postcolonial” means fixing it in a certain relation to the world, and especially to the literature of the “colonizer”--often viewed within postcolonial studies as “a vehicle for imperial authority” (Tiffin et al.). The work of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and many others on the ways 19th-century novels are “implicated” or even complicit in imperialism, for instance, has established a near-normative paradigm that predisposes us to find a confrontational (or at least corrective) relationship between a “postcolonial” author or critic and any given Victorian text he or she might invoke. I will argue that Soueif's allusions to Middlemarch work against this oppositional paradigm. Rather than writing back against Eliot's novel, Souief writes with it, sharing and extending some of its central ideas about how we perceive and live in the world, ideas that are not determined by national identities or other historical contingencies but appeal to “a commonality of human experience beyond politics, beyond forms” (In the Eye of the Sun 754). The two novels coexist, that is, in a literary version of the space defined by Soueif in her non-fiction writing as the 'mezzaterra,' or common ground. There, “differences [are] interesting rather than threatening, because they [are] foregrounded against a backdrop of affinities” (Mezzaterra 7).

I'm going to use the rest of my time to bring out what I see as “affinities” between Eliot's novel and Soueif's. I'll start with some basic information about Soueif and In the Eye of the Sun (assuming that most of you are familiar with Middlemarch). Like Asya al-Ulama, the protagonist of In the Eye of the Sun, Ahdaf Soueif was raised and educated in both England and Egypt. Though she began publishing fiction (written in English) as early as 1983, In the Eye of the Sun was her first full-length novel. It attracted a lot of mostly positive attention from high-profile critics including Edward Said (in the TLS), Frank Kermode (in the LRB), and Hilary Mantel (in the NYRB). Essentially a Bildungsroman in its structure, the novel is heavily autobiographical. Like Soueif, Asya, the child of Cairo University professors, is raised in a cosmopolitan milieu in which English language and culture are as familiar as Egyptian or Arabic. Also like Soueif, Asya aims to follow her mother into the University's English Department (“To hear her father when he had to give his occupation for some form or another say 'University professor,' you would know for sure there was no other job in the world worth having” [450]). While an undergraduate at CU she falls in love with Saif Madi, older, worldly, self-confident. Though Asya somewhat inexplicably adores him, from the beginning there are hints that all will not go well with them: Saif makes Asya feel tongue-tied, naïve, inadequate (“I talk plenty to everyone else, but he seems so clever, I just don't want to look stupid in front of him by saying something not particularly profound” [107]); to suit his taste, she begins choosing clothes that are “much more subdued,” mostly beige (227, cf 651). One of their most serious early conflicts is on an unexpected subject. “'What was the argument about?'” Asya's mother asks Asya's friend Chrissie:
'It was about George Eliot, Tante'
'George Eliot? ... But why were they arguing about George Eliot?' 'I think Asya was saying she was a great writer and he was saying she wasn't.'
'I thought you were supposed to care about literature. [Asya protests]. . . And anyway that wasn't what it was about, it was about him. He hasn't read her and yet he can sit there and say she's not worth reading. If it's not Sartre or the Spanish Civil War or Camus or someone he already knows than it's worth nothing. . . . I thought he was...available to—to life. But he's got a closed mind. He actually makes me think of that passage where she says Mr. Casaubon's mind is like a—an enclosed basin. (298)
As Asya says, George Eliot is here really just the occasion for one of a series of struggles between Asya and Saif that, whatever their explicit topic, really turn on Asya's right to her own point of view. The alienation between them worsens during the years Asya is in England studying (as Soueif did) for her Ph.D.; for Asya, the failure of their sex life (in nine years they never fully consummate their marriage) becomes both symbol and symptom of the deeper failure of intimacy between them.

Disillusioned by the realities of both her married life and her (dull and unrewarding) scholarship, Asya resolves to resign herself to her narrowed lot, to
create meaning in her life by striving to be the best person she can, not in the ways that appeal to her, not by spooning aid porridge into the mouths of rows of starving children or bringing comfort to shrapnelled soldiers or . . . or writing Middlemarch, but in the more difficult way that has been allotted to her—for the moment—and to draw strength that while she is doing her best for those whose lives most immediately touch her own, she is not at a standstill; she is working towards making her own life the way she wants it. (462-3)
But Asya finds renunciation “á la Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke” very difficult (303), and eventually in her frustration and loneliness, she begins an affair with an English business student, Gerald Stone. Characters from 19th-century novels continue to serve as her reference points:
You've committed adultery, you've done it, [she reflects after her first night with Gerald] you've joined Anna and Emma and parted company forever with Dorothea and Maggie—although Dorothea would have understood—would she? Yes, she would; she would not have approved, she would have urged her to renounce, to stop, to send him away—but she would have understood; she had a great capacity for understanding. (541)
The affair is sexually liberating for her, but unfortunately Gerald proves shallow and emotionally parasitic. Eventually she confesses the affair to Saif; although she insists it is meaningless and Gerald is “irrelevant,” Saif is outraged, and the resulting conflicts, some of them violent, destroy the remnants of their marriage. Asya eventually does complete her doctorate and then returns to Egypt, not only to teach English literature, but to work with a program offering sex education and birth control to Egyptian village women.

Aside from Soueif's intertextual allusions, there's not a lot in In the Eye of the Sun that brings Middlemarch immediately to mind. Their plots have little in common besides the bad marriages. Futile scholarship is another shared element, though, as Said remarked, “in many ways Asya is her own Casaubon” (her Ph.D. research, for instance, is essentially a key to all metaphors, and she stores her index cards in stacks of boxes reminiscent of Casaubon's pigeonholes [379]). Both are very long books! But other overt parallels are hard to discern. The novels diverge most significantly in their forms. Middlemarch, of course, presents a web of complexly interrelated plots and characters unified by the narrator's sage moral, philosophical, and historical commentary. The novel's subtitle, 'A Study of Provincial Life,' indicates its aspirations to breadth and objectivity. As my overview of In the Eye of the Sun shows, Soueif's novel in contrast is intensely personal, a priority also reflected in its form—as a Bildungsroman, it focuses almost entirely on Asya and is told almost entirely from Asya's point of view. No narrative interventions put her experiences in broader perspective.

These differences might seem like indications that Soueif rejects the premises of Eliot's formal choices: that comprehensive understanding (promised via multiple plots) and universal norms (established via the narrator's commentary) are discredited in Soueif's postmodern, postcolonial world. If this were the case, we would, I think, be led towards an interpretation of In the Eye of the Sun as an example of postcolonial 'talking back,' or at least revision, asserting difference, contingency, and resistance in the face of imperialistic presumptions of universality. Such a reading would be consistent with Amin Malak’s claim that “dislocation between the realm of Western literature and the reality of the Middle Eastern world constitutes a leitmotific feature that runs throughout Soueif’s fiction” (134).Yet these conclusions seem inadequate to the actual uses of Middlemarch (and, just btw, other “Western” texts) in Soueif's novel and to the similarities in theme and ethos that the novels manifest despite their surface differences.

For instance, though In the Eye of the Sun is far more focused on one individual life than Middlemarch, Asya's story is carefully placed and contextualized historically. The Six Day War breaks out as Asya studies for her university entrance exams in 1967; as the novel proceeds we learn of Nasser's sudden death and the decline of his version of pan-Arabism; we watch the dawning of the Sadat era; we hear about the beginnings of civil war in Lebanon; we witness, on Asya's return to Cairo in 1980, the increased Islamist influence signalled particularly by the presence in her classroom of veiled students. The stories of Asya's friends and family also put human faces on regional conflicts and politics: her friend Chrissie loses a lover in the 1967 war; her friend Noora marries a Palestinian, Bassam, and as a consequence is disowned by her family; her sister Deena's husband Muhsin ends up in the infamous Tora prison for leftist activism against Sadat's government. Malak points to this integration of “the private history of a woman and her family with the political history of the nation” (146) as a typical feature of postcolonial writing; a Victorianist would also readily identify it as a form of the “history by indirection” typical of novels by Scott, Thackeray or George Eliot, which also portray and thematize intersections between private and public life, between the individual and the historical.

I'd like to walk through two more examples of subtle but persistent thematic congruity between In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch, both of which, I think, further discourage an oppositional or postcolonial reading of the relationship between these two novels and move us towards the idea of a literary mezzaterra or common ground...

[Here I move into a comparison of the passages I looked at in this post, arguing that although they seem very different, overall both novels move us towards the same conclusion: that sympathy is the antidote to cruelty or suffering, on whatever scale. Then I argue that, while urging the necessity of acknowleding that everyone has, as Eliot's narrator says, "an equivalent center of self," the novels also dramatize the necessity of acknowleding your individual needs, a particular challenge for the female protagonists.]

One answer to the question “why always George Eliot,” then, is that despite their different origins and contexts, and despite the conspicuous differences in the particulars of their novels, there are strong affinities between Soueif's vision or ethos in In The Eye of the Sun and Eliot's in Middlemarch. I suppose this might seem an unremarkable conclusion, given that Soueif signals as much by her choice of epigraph (!). But in fact in the context of postcolonial discourse there is something unexpected about it. It points us towards a theory of literary relations according to which Middlemarch need not be read as the Western text and In the Eye of the Sun the Eastern—or Middlemarch need not represent Victorian literature, or English literature, or colonial literature and In the Eye of the Sun need not be, or stand for, Egyptian, or Arabic, or post-colonial perspectives. This need not be seen as returning us to a problematic universalism. For one thing, both Soueif and Eliot are too intensely conscious of the role of history in determining character and values. Instead, I want to come back to the notion of the mezzaterra, an arena in which “differences are foregrounded against a background of affinities.” Said concludes his review of In the Eye of the Sun with a question that (especially coming from him) cannot be seen as wholly rhetorical: “Who cares about the labels of national identity anyway?” (19). Soueif's sympathetic invocations of Middlemarch (or, I would also add, her entirely non-ironic choice of a line of Kipling for her title) show setting aside such labels, including the label “postcolonial,” lets us focus on things we share (including our global literary inheritance) and thus “inhabit and broaden the common ground”(Mezzaterra 23). (Said: “In fact, there can be generosity, and vision, and overcoming barriers, and, finally, human existential integrity.”)

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