1. The character
Beiruti recluse Aaliya Sohbi says she suffers the neuroses of a writer without the talent. Her hair is too blue, her back is too knotty and her thoughts twist through memories of her volatile past and the scores of books she’s read and translated. She’s grumpy, lonely, ageing, witty, obsessive and unpractised at connecting with others emotionally. Her interior monologue seethes with opinions, quips, philosophical rants and aphorisms. I loved her!
2. The quotes
Wonderful quotes are legion. Ponder these:
“I thought art would make me a better human being, but I also thought it would make me better than you.”
“Compared to the complexity of understanding grief, reading Foucault or Blanchot is like perusing a children’s picture book.”
“When I read a book I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book.”
“Among the many definitions of progress, ‘enemy of trees’ and ‘killer of birds’ seem to me the most apt.”
3. The books
Aaliya Sohbi says “I am a reader” and she muses about the books she’d sold when she was a bookseller and has read over the course of her lifetime. This novel can easily be used to form a great reading list and three titles I’ll be seeking out are Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertesz, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Real literature, as Aaliya reminds us, exists to make palpable the mysteries of human existence, not to explain them away.
4. The authors
Writers mentioned include Helen Garner, David Malouf, Patrick White, William Burroughs, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Junot Diaz, Nadine Gordimer, Milan Kundera, Ismail Kadare, J. M. Coetzee, Aleksander Hemon, William Faulkner and many more. This is a book about the transformative power of reading but also shows how desolate it can be to retreat into the world of ideas at the expense of connecting with the people around you.
5. The playlist
Early on in her life, Aaliya stepped into a record shop and it led her on a voyage of discovery regarding classical music. By her 30s she was a Chopinofile and she learnt more of other composers as the decades passed. Author Rabih Alameddine lists some of the piano music that Aaliya talks about in the novel here. Read the novel first … then listen.
6. The depths
This is definitely a meaning of life book. Aaliya says her life has become inconsequential: “I have reached the age where life has become a series of accepted defeats.” The novel probes questions like: What makes a good life? Does art really make a difference? Does the city and country one lives in make it harder or easier to bear ageing’s “illusion-crushing” indignities? “Is life less thrilling if your neighbours are rational, if they don’t bomb your power stations whenever they feel you need to be admonished?”
7. The depths
Aaliya’s story unfolds within Beirut and in the context of the wars and violence that, in the late 20th and early 21st century, scarred the city and unsettled its people. Beirutis suppress the trauma of battles very well, Aaliya says, and she does not feel at home in the city.
“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”
New York Review of Books blogger Robyn Creswell criticises the book for painting Beirut as a literary desert that’s hostile to literary translation. This was not something I noticed while reading An Unnecessary Woman and so, although I appreciate the points Creswell makes, they have not damaged the book’s achievement in my eyes.
8. The language
Dine out on Alameddine’s fabulous sentences and savour his deft powers of expression. Superb.
9. The idea
Aaliya has translated 37 works of great literature into Arabic over the course of five decades. She translates and then crates; that is, she does not offer the translated works to be published due to her belief that the work she undertakes is an end itself and has its own rewards like alleviating what Camus called “the weight of days”. Mostly it passes the time but just occasionally it elevates her above the ordinary so she feels “sacred”. Readers learn from Aaliya about the complexity of being human and how an accretion of hurts and a tendency to cosset oneself into the world of books ideas can build up walls between people — the very barriers it is hoped art will break down.
10. The minor players
While Aaliya is the star turn here, other characters from her 72 years of life also feature. At 16 she was subject to an arranged marriage to a “shrimp of a man” she later divorced. Her best friend Hannah committed suicide in 1972 and a young Palestinian called Ahmad she gets to help her in the bookstore is expelled from Beirut along with thousands of other Palestinians in 1982. She is also estranged from her family.
The three “witches” — Joumana, Marie-Therese and Fadia — drink coffee and gossip together each day on the landing in Aaliya’s apartment building and they swoop in to help her when she faces a crisis. They’re so full of life and noise it spills over and cracks Aaliya’s carapace. She props her door open — light and air from the outside world pours in.