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Memphis Flyer Great Expectations

In fiction, memoir, and history, the big question is where to begin.

By Leonard Gill

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  Last week in this column it was Israeli author Amos Oz on the subject of compromise between Arabs and Jews. This week it is Oz in The Story Begins: Essays on Literature (Harcourt Brace) on the subject of promises — the kind made, explicitly or implicitly, by a writer on page one to a reader. Assisting Oz in a footnote is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, this past year’s president of the Modern Language Association, virtual inventor of postcolonial studies, widely revered culture and literary critic, and not so widely revered advocate of Palestinian nationhood Edward Said. Said’s own latest book, published in September, is called Out of Place (Knopf).

The book by Oz is about promises made, honored, or broken, the book by Said is about himself, and both have to do with beginnings, the one fictional, the other factual. (The September issue of the neoconservative Jewish magazine Commentary, charges that Said deliberately poses himself and his family as political refugees in Out of Place in order to further his political agenda, have since been discharged.)

There are other beginnings here, too, however: in the field of history writing, specifically the revisionist histories being written by authors such as Benny Morris in Righteous Victims (Knopf) and Michael Doran in Pan-Arabism Before Nasser (Oxford).

The question that ties these disparate titles together, straight from Oz’s Introduction to The Story Begins, is this: “Where does a story properly begin? ... Can there exist, in principle, a proper beginning to any story at all? Isn’t there always ... a latent beginning-before-the-beginning? ... A reason for the motif for the factor from which the initial cause originated?”

Oz is referring here to the extent to which a writer of fiction does or does not supply us with needed information and the extent to which that writer honors or dishonors our expectations: promises of answers to questions a writer may or may not, in the end, deliver on; promises a writer may or may not deliver on in ways we expect; and promises a writer may do more than keep by delivering more than we’d dreamed. (Moby-Dick is a prime example of that third option; Oz examines 10 additional authors and their page-one strategies in the course of the next 115 pages).

But back to beginnings, and for this, back to Said, whom Oz, also in his Introduction, quotes: “According to Said, a beginning is, essentially, an act of returning, of going back, and not just a departure point for linear progress. ‘Beginning, and beginning anew,’ he argues, ‘are historical matters’ .... an interplay between the familiar and the new.”

The drafts, the writes, the rewrites, and the refinements a writer goes through in his or her beginning sentences, what he or she chooses to reveal or conceal, depend, according to Oz, precisely on that interplay between the familiar and the new, what we’re “shown” as opposed to what we “learn” when we sit down to a work of fiction.

Edward Said’s Out of Place is, for this scholar, something certainly new, and true to beginnings. It is a return: a recounting of how Said grew and grew up in a steady state of disorientation by the people, the places, and the events surrounding him — prosperous, demanding father, loving, then distant mother; privileged education on the English public-school model in Cairo; scattering of family and family holdings after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; further distancing from home and heritage in the United States. The book is no political tract, but it is essential to our understanding of the man and the man’s outspokenness.

In Righteous Victims and Pan-Arabism Before Nasser: more essentials, gainings in our understanding, beginnings. Both authors have dug into newly accessible Israeli and British (though not the still-closed Arab) archives to separate what we thought we knew from what the documents reveal to be the case. The breakthough in Morris’ book, subtitled A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999, though, is its even-handed presentation of Israeli and Arab motives, some of them still noble, some of them less than noble but recognizably all-too-human. Doran’s book, with its hefty subtitle Egyptian Power Politics and the Palestine Question, argues the more controversial claim that Egyptian foreign policy at the mid-century mark was less anti-Zionist than it was anti-British and suspicious of fellow Arabs. If this is a corrective to our incomplete past understanding, Doran’s boldness could, depending on future scholarship, require its own corrective. Neither book is in the business of fresh mythmaking. The realities — if we can ever reach their proper beginnings — are complicated enough.

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