A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

reading when I shouldn’t be: The Return to Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 21, 2008

Last night I had dinner with my friend S, who not only shares a birthday with Owlfish but shares the distinction of being my two oldest (as in “longest-running”, not as in “getting on in years”) friends.

What have you been reading lately? S asked as we waited for our entrees to arrive. (I know: entrees are appetizers in French. But in the US, we use “entree” for the main course.) This is one of the many reasons why we are friends: we both love reading.

I told her about Body of Lies, and she told me about Lonesome Dove, which she has been working her way through each night before bed. And we both admitted to bargaining with ourselves, in exactly the same way we used to bargain with our parents when we were girls.

I tell myself: just five more minutes, S told me. And then 45 minutes later I think: I really need to go to bed.

I do the same! I said. Or I promise to turn the lights off once I reach the end of the chapter. But then I want to know what happens next, so I keep reading.

Of course, I’m proud that each of us recognize the importance of getting good sleep. But the fact that we are reduced to wheedling extra pages out of our better selves does strike me as a bit odd.

My latest reading-when-I-shouldn’t-be book is a short novel originally published in France in the mid 1980s and translated for English publication in the early 1990s: Andree Chedid’s The Return to Beirut:

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The novel is not bad: it tells a beautifully elliptical story of a 50-something Lebanese-Egyptian returning to Lebanon in May 1975 to spend two weeks with her American-Swedish granddaughter, marred by a slightly overwrought parallel story-line and a crash-boom-bang ending. Chedid interweaves memory and present deftly, but the story has some very odd bits. For example, Kalya, the woman, has only been to Lebanon once before; and although she does not seem to be estranged from her son, she has never met her granddaughter.

I also suspect that a certain amount of “ethnic” marketing went into the US edition of the book. For one, the French title is La maison sans racines, or “the house without roots” – a fitting title given how much of the book is devoted to Kalya’s memories of various interior spaces. But I imagine that the US publishers felt that a book with “Beirut” in the title would sell better.

And look at the image on the cover. Yes, there are two girls in this novel who wear yellow. And yes, Lebanese men and women come in all shapes and colors. But these young women do not look particularly Lebanese – and nor do they match the description of the girls that the novel gives. Again, I wonder whether the publishers were trying to market the book to a particular type of “world literature”-loving audience.

Despite these quibbles, the book definitely kept me up past my bedtime, and thanks to some very sleight-of-hand finagling with myself I went from “I’ll just read the opening” to “well, I’ve finished” in one night.

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One Response to “reading when I shouldn’t be: The Return to Beirut”

  1. Hi Diamond,

    I added pictures from the 50’s on Skyscrapercity.com

    http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=408084&page=54

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