A scholarly comparison of two monumentally important works of modern literature: John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy.
In this work, debut author Ontl tries to create a theoretical framework that captures the relationship between literary style and its cultural/political context. He also gives a scrupulously detailed analysis of two major literary works that are quite different, artistically and politically; however, he hopes that their comparison might inspire cross-cultural dialogue. Borrowing from the seminal work of the late German social scientist Niklas Luhmann, the author assesses Mahfouz’s and Dos Passos’ works from the perspective of systems theory—more specifically, Luhmann’s notion of open and closed systems. Ontl places Dos Passos’ work within the open system of modern liberal democracy, characterized by “constant fluctuation of ideas, people, ideologies”—a political environment that encourages radically creative “narrative strategies” to capture its heterogeneity. By contrast, the Egyptian Nobel laureate Mahfouz operates within a closed system, Ontl says, whose authoritarianism prompts more traditional novelistic techniques. Ontl meticulously combs through six significant works of literature in fewer than 200 pages of analysis—a remarkable exercise in synoptic concision. Along the way, he places each author in context: Dos Passos as part of a realist movement that examined the restless alienation produced by capitalism, and Mahfouz as part of an “Oriental-Islamic tradition” that undergirded Egypt’s nationalism. The author’s command of the relevant literature, both primary and secondary, is impressive, and he furnishes a sweeping account of competing ideas. His exegesis is impressively careful but also far-reaching, as he aims for nothing less than an “appropriate scientific method” for cross-cultural literary studies. Paradoxically, though, his book also demonstrates how ineffective such a theory can be when faced with the “inexhaustible resources of language” embedded within the “literary imagination.” As a doctoral dissertation, it’s dragged down by forbiddingly technical academic jargon; as a result, it’s unlikely to appeal to non-academics who know and love the books under discussion. As such, Ontl’s work will likely struggle to find a wide audience.
A notably rigorous but overly theoretical comparison of landmark literary works.