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The Five Thousand and One Nights
You may well have wondered about the subsequent marital history of Scheherazade and the Sultan. Did they live happily ever after? Well, of course not--it is only in stories that people do that and Scheherazade was a purveyor of stories. She was the story, indeed; the symmetries and resolutions of fiction were not for her. Nor for the Sultan, poor fellow. Poor fellow? With his record? Ah, but he was a reformed character. Tamed by narrative. The sting drawn; the fires banked. He had revised his opinion of women. He loved his wife. He took a benign interest in his children. He hadn't beheaded anyone in years. He was running to fat and looked rather less like Omar Sharif than he had done in his heyday. He drank a lot of coffee and watched videos and paid desultory attention to the family oil business. Sometimes he accompanied his sisters and his old mother to London or to Paris for the shopping season. Life wasn't bad, not bad at all. A little on the quiet side, maybe--once in a while he would feel a twinge of guilty nostalgia for the old days--but agreeable enough. And he was married to the most beautiful and talented woman in the eastern world, was he not?
There was just one problem.
Scheherazade, you will recall, was an accomplished young woman even before her fateful encounter with the Sultan. She had degrees in philosophy, medicine, history and fine arts, to which she had now added doctorates in comparative literature and philology. She taught creative writing, she ran creches and family-planning clinics, she advised governments on women's issues. At forty-two she was as lovely as ever, if not more so, and being a devoted wife she never allowed her commitments to keep her for long away from the Sultan. A night or two occasionally, no more. Their marriage, after all, had its own tradition, its internal structure, its story that could not be interrupted.
For Scheherazade had continued to narrate. After the first thousand nights there had come the second thousand, and the third, and the fourth. Where they were now the Sultan had no idea; he knew only that he was advancing towards old age with Scheherazade's soft and compelling voice still narrating to him across the pillow, night after night after night. There was sometimes an admonitory edge to the mesmeric flow, and he was certainly not allowed to fall asleep; he would jerk himself back to consciousness to find Scheherazade's incomparable eyes staring stonily at him over the embossed satin sheets from Harrods, while her elegant finger tapped irritably at the sleeve of his pyjamas. "I'm sorry, my dear," he would say. "I must have dropped off for a moment. No reflection on you. Marvellous stuff, as ever. Enthralling. It's just that..."
"It's just that what?" inquired Scheherazade, icily.
"It's just that I get a bit lost sometimes," apologized the Sultan. "You're using some rather confusing words these days, you know. What does sensibility mean? And I get muddled about the settings. Where's Devonshire?"
Scheherazade gave him a freezing look. "When you've stopped yawning," she said, "I'll continue."
The trouble was that the stories had got longer and longer and, in the Sultan's opinion, a great deal less gripping. The backgrounds had become more and more exotic and the pace, in his view, slower and slower. The characters bewildered him: all these Elizas and Janes and Catherines. They talked and talked and nothing much happened except that occasionally there was a restrained social event or someone got married. He wondered, secretly, if Scheherazade was losing her touch. The trouble did not lie with him, he felt sure; he'd always been a man for a good yarn. After all, what was it about her that had bewitched him in the first place? Apart, of course, from her physical charms, which were as they had ever been--he had no complaints in that quarter. Except that ... well, the spirit was willing but the flesh perhaps not quite as game as it had been in its prime.
The Sultan sighed and composed himself to listen. "It is a truth universally acknowledged," intoned Scheherazade, "that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. And stop yawning!" she snapped.
Time passed. The narratives continued. The Sultan was far too much in awe of his wife to complain again. He disliked domestic dissension (this may seen startling, given his past, but remember that we are dealing with a remarkable instance of personality change). And in any case, he did not want the stories to stop, he just wanted to get back to the old days.
He was brooding upon all this one afternoon when Dinarzade paid him a call. Dinarzade, you remember, was Scheherazade's younger sister and indeed had played a crucial role in the events of the wedding night. Latterly, though, the sisters had grown apart somewhat. Dinarzade, who was studying sociology at university, had fallen in with a fundamentalist sect.
Dinarzade settled herself on a heap of cushions at the Sultan's elbow and began to chatter about a party she'd been to, tucking into a box of Turkish delight as she did so. She was almost as lovely as her sister, but very differently turned out. Dinarzade was dressed according to her beliefs (or according to something, at any rate). She wore the chador, and was veiled; her dark and lustrous eyes were all that the Sultan could see of her face. Her body, too, was covered. The general effect, though, was not one of propriety, female reticence and religious piety. Her ankle-length garment was made of cyclamen satin; her pretty feet peeped out from beneath it, shod in high-heeled shrimp-pink silk slippers. Her veil sparkled with sequins and silver beads. She wore pale lilac lace gloves. Quite a lot of her bosom was visible between veil and neckline. The bosom, in Islamic lore, is not a sexually provocative area: it is hair and hands that inflame. The Sultan had always found women's bosoms quite as alluring as any other part and hence had never known whether it was he who was perverted or traditional wisdom that was faulty.
He averted his eyes from the luscious contour of Dinarzade's breasts and sighed. The sigh had in fact nothing to do with frustrated lust but everything to do with the Sultan's more pressing preoccupation.
"What's the matter?" said Dinarzade. "You're looking down in the mouth."
"I am feeling a bit low," confessed the Sultan.
"You poor old thing," cooed Dinarzade. "I know what you need--a good cuddle ..." She moved closer to the Sultan.
"It's very nice of you, my dear," said the Sultan, with a further sigh. "But believe it or not I'm even losing heart in that area these days."
"Can't get it up?" inquired Dinarzade sympathetically.
The Sultan winced. Not for himself but for his sister-in-law. He was old-fashioned where women are concerned (well, we know his track record, don't we?) and he didn't like to hear language like that from a nice girl.
"That's not quite the problem," he said with dignity. "It's a spiritual malaise, rather. To be frank, it's the stories. Your sister ... well, to my mind she's gone right over the top. She's getting more and more experimental. We haven't had a djinn or an ogre or a youngest son or a poor fisherman in years. I never know what's coming next. And they're so long. And the characters are so dull. All these girls agonizing about their state of mind."
"No love interest?"
"There's usually a love interest," the Sultan admitted. "But it's all so far-fetched you can't make head nor tail of it. We had one that went on for weeks about people shouting at each other in some place called Yorkshire where they have the most appalling weather. And then no sooner were we through with that than we were off on one about an extraordinarily tiresome young woman who marries a fellow much older than herself and then gives him the run-around. I'm pretty well at the end of my tether. I'll be a nervous wreck before the year's out."
"Shame..." said Dinarzade, taking a bite of Turkish delight. "She used to be able to do ever such a nice romance."
"Oh, romance..." said the Sultan scornfully. "It's not the romance I miss. What we never have these days is action. I want some action. Adventure. Feats of daring. Heroism and endurance. Crime. Sex. Violence."
"I tell you what," said Dinarzade, "why don't you have a go yourself?"
The Sultan turned to stare at her with blank amazement. "Me? Me? What an extraordinary idea! I couldn't do that sort of thing! I mean--that's women's stuff. One isn't ... well, one is differently equipped. Tell stories!" He laughed lightly.
"Oh, well," said Dinarzade. "If you're not capable of it ..."
The Sultan bridled. "I imagine that one would be capable of it. It just hasn't occurred to one to try."
It was at this point that Scheherazade walked into the room. The Sultan hastily picked up the newspaper and began to study the oil prices. His wife glanced disapprovingly at her sister and said, "What's that ridiculous outfit supposed to mean, Dinarzade?" Dinarzade twitched a pink satin slipper and glimmered over the top of her veil.
Scheherazade wore a cream wool Armani suit with a skirt short enough to make the most of her exquisite legs. Her black hair lay in shining waves upon her shoulders. She sat down, kicked off her Kurt Geiger shoes, fished her glasses out of her bag and put them on. She had taken to wearing very large spectacles with light tortoiseshell frames although she was not, so far as the Sultan knew, short-sighted. They were extremely becoming but also intimidating. The Sultan was intimidated right now; he whipped out a calculator and frowned sternly at the oil prices. "Had a good day, dear?" he inquired.
"Interesting," said Scheherazade. "And ultimately productive, I think. I am working on the initial stages of an ambitious scheme for setting up creative writing classes in the Sahara. Very exciting, but there are some initial difficulties with literacy that we have to overcome. What have you been doing?"
"Working," said the Sultan vigorously.
He had, of course, dismissed Dinarzade's absurd suggestion. Indeed, had it come from anyone else he would have felt his manhood to be impugned and would have taken appropriate steps. But Dinarzade ... the silly girl had always been allowed a certain licence, one could let it pass.
And then matters came to a head. That night Scheherazade began a new story. "Tonight," she said, "we are starting something rather special. It is a narrative which deals with the interior life of a woman. She is not a typical woman but we may perhaps think of her as a quintessential woman, or indeed human being. Her name is Mrs Dalloway. You may at first find the ambience and the presentation a little alien, so you will need to pay particular attention. And please ... you have developed a bad habit of fidgeting. Don't. This style of fiction is extremely cerebral and I need to concentrate in order to do it justice. Are you ready?"
After three nights the Sultan's spirit was broken. He could stand no more, he realized. He had to do something. And it was then that Dinarzade's proposal came back into his head. Well, he thought, I wonder... Maybe...
All that day he paced the palace gardens, alone. His brow was creased in concentration; his eyes were glazed. From time to time his lips moved. Occasionally he flung himself upon the grass and stared up into the sky. And when the night came he laid his proposal before his wife. With dignity and with firmness.
Scheherazade was thunderstruck. Silenced, indeed. For the first time that he could remember the Sultan saw her at a total loss for words. Then, eventually, she began to laugh.
"Your turn! Well, by all means, if that's what you want... But ... forgive me..."--for a moment she was quite overcome with hilarity--"... I mean, it is too absurd... But of course--you must. Please go right ahead." And Scheherazade propped her head on her elbow and looked across at the Sultan, tolerant and amused.
Two hours later the Sultan ended his tale. He glanced warily at his wife.
Scheherazade stifled a tiny yawn. "Not bad. It had its moments, I suppose, if you like that kind of thing. Quite good narrative drive. Rather crude characterization. Far too much rushing about on horseback and waving swords."
"That was the point," the Sultan protested. "It's a war story."
"Quite," said Scheherazade. "Never mind." And she gave him a kindly little kiss on the cheek, turned over and went to sleep.
The Sultan persisted. Indeed, it was not really persistence that was needed, he found--now that he had got started he was quite carried away. There was more to this than one had thought--it could become quite obsessive. He never knew himself what was coming next. There were so many different ways of doing it. He spoke with tongues, night after night.
"... A Colt Army .45 looked like a toy pistol in his hand. `Don't nobody try to fancy pants,' he said costly. 'Freeze the mitts on the bar.'"
Scheherazade gave a little groan. The Sultan broke off. "What's the matter?"
"Another of those... There's a certain stylistic panache, I grant you--but what's the point of it?"
"Someone's going to get killed..." explained the Sultan.
"Yes dear, I realize that."
"... and then you have to find out who did it and why."
"Who cares?" inquired Scheherazade.
The Sultan ignored her. He listened, lovingly, to his own voice: "The Indian threw me sideways and got a body scissors on me as I fell. He had me in a barrel. His hands went to my neck ..."
He experimented. He roamed wider and further.
"What's a ray gun?" said Scheherazade with a sigh. "And why are they going on about this galaxy?"
"They're in a spaceship. Please don't interrupt."
"Forgive me. But again, one asks oneself--what is it all about?"
"It's allegorical," said the Sultan with sudden inspiration. He smirked. Scheherazade, thrown, glared at him across the pillow. "Zap! Vroom! Pow! Gotcha!" continued the Sultan. Scheherazade closed her eyes wearily.
He had taken on a new lease of life. He was filled with a sense of purpose; he felt younger and more vigorous. He thanked heaven that he had realized his potential in time--there would be no more frittering away of his talents on pointless matters of business and finance. Any fool could do that. He went on a diet, had his moustaches trimmed and waxed, discarded his suits and took to wearing flowing robes which, he felt, expressed his artistic temperament rather better.
"How's it going?" asked Dinarzade. "I love the dressing-gown thing, by the way. Really sexy. Very Clark Gable." She patted the silken folds of the Sultan's garment.
The Sultan twirled a moustache. "I think one might say without undue immodesty that it's going rather well. One is into one's stride. One has grasped the essentials."
"And whose idea was it?" purred Dinarzade.
But the Sultan was far beyond giving credit where credit was due. "The key to it all," he told Dinarzade, "is action. Get the action right and the rest follows. You know--shooting things and bullfighting and catching enormous fish and getting drunk and behaving with amazing nonchalance when fatally wounded. I've got some terrific ideas. Marvellous stuff. Can't fail."
"Sounds great," said Dinarzade. "Is there any love?"
"Of course. Doomed love, naturally. To be honest, it brings the tears to my eyes."
"How does she like it?"
"Your sister," said the Sultan peevishly, "has a one-track mind. I produce the most stunning piece, a real cliff-hanger, and all she does is go on about content and relationships. It's got content, I tell her--things are happening, aren't they? And my characters have very interesting relationships--they kill each other and rescue each other from hideous fates and make passionate love. What they don't do is sit around endlessly talking."
Nevertheless, he was more affected by Scheherazade's strictures than he cared to admit. All right, so she wanted content, did she? Relationships. She wanted depth. Very well, then.
The Sultan flung himself into it. He abandoned himself to his Muse and let fiction flow. He narrated like a man possessed. He unfolded teeming sagas of poverty and social injustice swarming with vibrant characters, lurid with the din and stink of nineteenth-century London. She wanted characterization, didn't she? Atmosphere? He grew tired of that and summoned up tales of passion, power and betrayal in fields and cow byres. Inflamed with his own fluency, he was barely aware of his audience. Once or twice, pausing for breath, he noticed Scheherazade, listening now with a rather different look in her eye. "Good stuff, eh?" said the Sultan.
Scheherazade sniffed. "I wouldn't try that one about the man auctioning his wife outside these four walls, if I were you. You'd get ripped apart by the critics."
The Sultan switched tactics yet again. He plunged into the dark reaches of the human spirit; his men and women seethed and fought and expounded.
"Sex in the head?" said Scheherazade. "That's a new one on me."
"Me too," agreed the Sultan. "But it's intriguing, don't you think?" He took to the sea in ships; he roamed to the far corners of the earth; he told of love and war and crime and retribution. It was as though he were driven by some irresistible force, and when from time to time he glanced at his wife he saw on her face the pleading look that he knew had once been on his own. But he could not stop; there was no mercy for either of them; he was all set to go on for ever. And then, one dawn, the children came bursting into the room and clustered around the end of the bed. The Sultan broke off. The children clamoured for attention and one of them cried, as children will, "Tell us a story!"
The Sultan looked at Scheherazade. A strange gleam had come into her eye. "Very well," she said. "Sit down quietly and I'll begin."
The children sat. The Sultan made himself more comfortable upon the pillows.
"Once upon a time," said Scheherazade, "there was a poor fisherman ..."
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