Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 659

Since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz has become internationally acclaimed as Egypt's foremost literary figure and recognized as one of the most accomplished novelists of the twentieth century. He is also celebrated as the first Arabic language writer to receive a Nobel Prize.

While a renowned writer in the Arabic world, Mahfouz's work was unknown in the West until receiving the prize. Since then, however, over half of his books have been translated into English, for the first time making his work available to readers in the English-speaking world.

Mahfouz's body of work is generally categorized into three distinct phases: the historical/romantic, the social realist, and the modern/experimental. His first three novels, written between 1943 and 1945, represent his historical romance phase. They are set in ancient Egypt, but function as allegories for modern Egyptian politics and society.

His most celebrated novels, however, are those set in modern-day Cairo and written in a social realist style. Among these works are Midaq Alley, published in 1947. A series known as ‘‘The Trilogy,’’ established his reputation as the foremost Egyptian novelist, while for the first time earning him recognition in literary circles outside of Egypt.

These novels trace three generations of an Egyptian family from just after World War I to the end of World War II. They have been translated into English in the 1990s as Palace Walk: Cairo Trilogy I, Palace of Desire: Cairo Trilogy II, and Sugar Street: Cairo Trilogy III. In his depiction of the struggles of lower middle-class Egyptians, Mahfouz has been compared to Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevski.

The third phase of Mahfouz's literary output, sometimes referred to as his modern or experimental phase, began in the 1960s when Mahfouz turned away from the realist style that had won him such critical acclaim. The watershed work which ushered in this new style was The Thief and the Dogs, published in 1961.

In this and later novels and stories, Mahfouz turned to the use of symbolism, experimented with such narrative techniques as stream-of-conscious-ness writing, and used film-style dialogue to tell his stories. He also began to explore existentialist themes, which became a central concern of much of his later work.

Rasheed El-Enany described the general response to this change in literary style in his book Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning: ‘‘Mahfouz's sudden headlong dive into surrealist and absurdist modes of expression left his critics reeling from the impact of the surprise.'' Expecting a realist style of narrative that reflected the modern conditions of life in Cairo, they were not prepared for "the artistic reality badly distorted to reflect the disintegration of the society is sought to comment upon.’’

It was in this later period that the majority of his short story collections were published. Among his later novels of note is Arabian Nights and Days (1982), clearly a reference to Arabian Nights, a traditional Egyptian story familiar to Western readers.

Although known primarily for his achievements as a novelist, Mahfouz has also mastered the form of the short story, publishing fourteen collections of stories. As El-Enany has noted, ‘‘If Mahfouz had not written any of his novels, he would still have merited a place of high prominence in the history of modern Arabic letters on account of his short stories alone....’’

His first collection of short stories, The Whisper of Madness (1947) is generally considered unremarkable. His second collection, God's World, did not appear until 1963. Twelve more collections of stories followed.

Included in his collection The Time and the Place, ‘‘Half a Day’’ concerns Mahfouz's recurring existential themes of life, death, and time, as the entire life of the main character seems to last only half of one day spent in school. El-Enany has called the five-page story a "tour de force.'' He goes on to state: ‘‘Brief as it is, the story must count as the author's most powerful rendering of the dilemma of the gulf between observable time and mnemonic time.’’

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Essays and Criticism