A few weeks ago, Randa mentioned Elif Shafak’s novel The Saint Of Incipient Insanities on this blog. Shafak is a Turkish writer who has already written novels in her native language (The Flea Palace is the only one available in the U.S., it seems) but she wrote The Saint in English.
I was quite looking forward to the book for two reasons. One is that I’m acutely aware of the difficulties of writing in a foreign language, and was curious about how Shafak’s book would read. The other is that the novel features a Moroccan character, which seems to be a bit of a trend these days, what with Algerians, Tunisians, and Americans writing about Moroccans. Aren’t we the lucky ones.
A recent phone conversation with Maud Newton tempered my curiosity, when she shared some of her reservations about The Saint. Here’s her review in this weekend’s Newsday.
All literature is a struggle to escape the confines of language, to transform what Proust called the “cracked kettle” of human speech into something transcendent. And in places “The Saint of Incipient Insanities” achieves this goal. What Nabokov might call the book’s birthmarks – the irregular usage choices and strange turns of phrase – frequently enrich the prose. But at least as often they make for confusion and slow progress. Shafak’s significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the adage that the avant-garde artist must master the rules of her chosen form before breaking them unfortunately is true, and applicable here.