Swedish Academy member speaks about Naguib Mahfouz and Nobel Prize

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In 1988 Professor Sture Allén of the Nobel Prize organization’s Swedish Academy in Stockholm, the awarding institution for the literature prize, delivered the Award Ceremony Speech for Naguib Mahfouz’s nomination.

In an online interview, Professor Allén, a distinguished computational linguist, Emeritus Professor at the University of Gothenburg, and the author of Nobel Lectures in Literature, speaks about the Nobel Prize and the great Egyptian writer whose centenary is celebrated this year by the AUC Press.

(Professor Allén will be giving a lecture about the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Prize, and Naguib Mahfouz on October 18 at 5:00 pm, at Oriental Hall, at the AUC Tahrir Campus).


AUC Press
: In the 1980s, the Swedish Academy extended the prize to the most worthy writer “whether he be Scandinavian or not.”  Why do you think it was important to broaden the scope to include literature of the whole world?

Professor Sture Allén: As a matter of fact, it was specified already in Alfred Nobel’s will of 1895 that no consideration shall be given to nationality. Among laureates from various parts of the world before the 1980s, in accordance with the testament, there is Tagore, O’Neill, Mistral, Hemingway, Agnon, Asturias, Kawabata, Neruda, White, Singer, and others. Naturally it takes time to establish the survey of world literature which is requiered for the task.


AUC Press: You said in the Award Ceremony Speech that you gave for the Nobel Prize of Naguib Mahfouz, that the Egyptian literature laureate presented themes in “clearly daring ways.” Is this a trait that the Swedish Academy holds in high regard and do you have some examples to illustrate what the Swedish Academy considered daring in Mahfouz’s writing?

Professor Sture Allén: What I said when I addressed the laureate who was sitting in Cairo was: “your rich and complex work invites us to reconsider the fundamental things in life. Themes like the nature of time and love, society and norms, knowledge and faith recur in a variety of situations and are presented in thought-provoking, evocative, and clearly daring ways.”


AUC Press: The prominent translator Denys Johnson-Davies said about Mahfouz that the Egyptian writer “rendered Arabic literature a great service by developing, over the years, a form of language in which many of the archaisms and clichés that had become fashionable were discarded” and that “he dealt with life in a very direct manner.” Do you think the Swedish Academy would share this opinion?

Professor Sture Allén: Based on our reading of translations and expert reports, on the whole yes.


AUC Press: On the other hand, some critics have suggested that “Mahfouz [was] perhaps an obstacle for the development of the Arabic novel” because he was so influential and this prevented other writers, younger ones, from breaking new ground. What is your opinion?

Professor Sture Allén: This way of thinking suggests that Nobel laureates as well as their eminent forerunners in earlier centuries were to be seen as obstructing rather than promoting cultural development. However, it seems that, through the years, there are pioneers overcoming the enemy.


AUC Press: Naguib Mahfouz himself said that it was through the translation of his novels into English by the AUC Press …. “that other publishers became aware of them and requested their translation into other foreign languages, and I believe that these translations were among the foremost reasons for my being awarded the Nobel prize.” How true is that?

Professor Sture Allén: In view of the fact that several thousand languages are spoken on earth, it is important that the œuvre of prominent authors is made accessible in good translations.


AUC Press: What do you think makes Naguib Mahfouz’s writing unique?

Professor Sture Allén: His excellence appears to be the result of his synthesis of classical Arabic tradition, European inspiration, and personal artistry.


AUC Press: Can you talk about your favorite Naguib Mahfouz work?

Professor Sture Allén: Writing a novel coming out as a spiritual history of mankind, which is what is done in The Children of the Alley, is a first-rate achievement.


AUC Press: How would you describe Naguib Mahfouz as a person, based on his writing?

Professor Sture Allén: As a worthy Nobel laureate, dedicated to his versatile literary undertaking.

October 2011

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