Books by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin was born in 1946. He read modern history at Oxford and taught medieval history at the University of St. Andrews. He has held teaching appointments in Arabic and Middle Eastern history at Oxford and Cambridge.

Released: Oct. 5, 2006

"Latter-day Orientalists and students of intellectual history will benefit greatly from this study, but so also will others charting the discourse between East and West."
"Oriental studies" once came wrapped in a dreariness dull enough to make its practitioners envy economists. Thanks to Edward Said, though, Irwin has a lively fight on his hands. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 11, 2000

"Magic carpets, djinns emerging from bottles, and both lyric grace and earthy realism are prominently featured—in an indispensable anthology that has the breadth of an encyclopedia and the immediacy of a fascinating tale told by a fireside."
This lavish collection of prose and poetry spanning the 4th through 16th centuries is one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Novelist and "eminent Arabist scholar" Irwin, whose books include Exquisite Corpse (1997) and The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994), blends extensive and illuminating commentary (virtually in itself a small separate volume of exemplary criticism) with generous selections from The Qu'ran, medieval love and court poetry, and narrative forerunners of the modern novel (including, though by no means limited to, the epochal Thousand and One Nights). Among the most intriguing of many dazzling entries: Aristotelian polymath al-Jahiz's Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals); the "sorcerer's manual" Ghayat al-Hakim ("story-telling thinly disguised as magical instruction"); the work of writer-adventurer Usamah ibn Munqidh (a medieval Arabic Richard Burton); and Firdawsi's 12th-century "Shahnama" ("one of the longest poems in the world"). Read full book review >
Released: April 7, 1997

The obsession of a British surrealist with his muse, as the world teeters on the brink of WW II, furnishes the psychodrama in Irwin's (The Mysteries of Algiers, 1988, etc.) latest, but solid historical detail only adds lead to a tale already heavy with introspection. Caspar, one of the inner circle of the Serapion Brotherhood, London's surrealist group, recalls in his postwar memoir the glory days of the movement, days that began with a well-received exhibition in 1936 and ended with an orgy gone wrong in 1937. The period also marked Caspar's first and last contact with Caroline, a pretty petit-bourgeois typist who enters his world as he is led around town blindfolded—a typical surrealist outing. She poses for Caspar and enchants him, goes along on other outings, and even tells him she loves him, but it isn't long before she becomes restless. Desperate to hold her love, or at least to have sex with her, Caspar masters hypnosis, but Caroline, declaring herself pregnant by another man, flees when he tries it on her, never to be seen again. He searches, waits, and frets incessantly for her, then attends an orgy organized by the Brotherhood, hoping to be distracted, but is dealt another blow instead when the group's leader uses the opportunity to commit suicide. Institutionalized and given shock therapy, Caspar misses the coming of war and is released only after the Blitz is well underway. He spends the war happily turning out documentary-like paintings of bomb damage, and is even sent to Germany as the war ends to sketch the concentration camps, but life is still empty without Caroline, so he writes his memoir—and lo! its publication brings her to him again (a meeting he recounts in a postscript). The touches of madness here have merit; otherwise, it's a slow, confusing crawl through exotic scenery. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 1994

Matching The Arabian Nights' scope and enchantment with erudition and wit, Irwin (The Arabian Nightmare, 1987) explores its elusive kingdom of stories, delving into the vast work's textual genesis, cultural history, and literary legacy. The most influential book in the Western canon that does not actually belong to it, The Arabian Nights never enjoyed the same literary status in the East, and its origins have been made only murkier by its reception in Europe. Irwin begins with the translators who popularized the Nights and, along the way, bowdlerized and warped it, or even inserted their own episodes. Most famously, Aladdin, who has no Arabic version predating his appearance in 18th-century France, may well have been the creation of translator Antoine Galland, not of Scheherazade. Irwin wryly glosses these early translations, which distortedly mirror the original Eastern exoticism with the reflections of their age's prejudices and their translators' personal eccentricities (notably the lexical, racial, and sexual obsessions of the Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton). The earlier Arabic compilations are no more reliable, however—Irwin devotes a separate chapter to forerunners (conjectural or lost) over several centuries, from India to Persia and Egypt. In a quixotic effort to amass 1,001 actual tales, these medieval compilers would incorporate local legends and real settings, sometimes approaching souk storytellers as sources. Throughout, Irwin's scholarly acumen illuminates these myriad worlds of the Nights, whether the cityscapes of the Mamelukes, the urban rogues' gallery of thieves and bazaar magicians, or the marvels of jinn and clockwork birds. The longest chapter is a selected roster of its literary heirs, from nursery fables and gothic novels through Proust, Joyce, and Borges, to contemporaries like Salman Rushdie and John Barth. An enchanting dragoman and chaperon for sleepless nights with Scheherazade. Read full book review >