The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Sufrah” was written by Marcel Schwob and first appeared in Vie Imaginaire (1896). The French Schwob (1857-1905) was a writer noted for his scholarship and his short stories.
“Sufrah” is a sequel to the Arabian Nights. Moghrabi Sufrah is the magician who is Aladdin’s enemy in the Arabian Nights, but as “Sufrah” tells us, at the end of the Arabian Nights Sufrah’s body was not burned black by the drug he consumed, but rather put into a deep sleep. Sufrah escapes from Aladdin’s palace through a window while Aladdin is making love to the princess. But when Aladdin’s palace disappears to China, as happens in the Arabian Nights, Sufrah is left alone in the open desert, without any food or water. Nor does he have any magic charms he can cast or magic items he can use to rescue himself. Sufrah prepares to die, but that night, slightly relieved from the awful heat of the day, he traces a magic figure in the sand and does a minor forecast of his life. He comes up with “Fortune Major” and sees that he will escape from the desert. Sufrah traces another magic figure and runs his fortune through the twelve houses of astrology. He sees Fortune Major in the first house, foretelling success and glory, but in the eighth house he sees the Red One, the “messenger of blood, fire, and omen sinister.”1 Sufrah’s final conclusion from the casting is that “he would find glory at great peril in some shut and secret place.”2 Now confident that he will survive, Sufrah traces another magic incantation in the sand, trying to find out who was the first owner of Aladdin’s lamp. Sufrah discovers that it was Solomon, and then finds out where King Solomon is buried. The next dawn Sufrah is found by a group of Bedouins and given dates and water. Sufrah walks until he comes to the correct location of the King Solomon’s tomb, then performs a ritual which opens an entrance to the tomb. Sufrah enters it and takes from the hand of King Solomon the ring that is his seal and which grants immortality to its wearer. Solomon’s body immediately crumbles to dust. At that same moment the Red One smites Sufrah, who spends “all the blood of his life in one vermilion gush”3 before the sleep of immortality takes him. Sufrah lays himself down on Solomon’s diamond couch, and the door to the tomb shuts behind him.
Like “Septima,” “Sufrah” is a dark fantasy. “Sufrah” is not written in the same detached and ironic tone and lush vocabulary as “Septima,” but is instead written in the style of the Arabian Nights. But “Sufrah” does have vivid imagery as well as a dark, ironic twist, and (as with all of Schwob’s work) is eminently readable.
“Sufrah” is of note because it reflects the growing French interest, at the end of the nineteenth century, in the Arabian Nights. The original Nights, the Persian Hazār Afsān, was translated into Arabic in the eighth century, and from there evolved over the next nine centuries, with Iraqi, Syrian, and Egyptian sources all adding material, so that what Antoine Galland translated as Les Mille et une nuits from 1704-1717 was a hybrid work of many cultures over the span of many centuries.4 Galland’s version was quickly translated into English by “an anonymous Grub Street hack”5 as Arabian Nights Entertainment (circa 1706-1721), and in English it went through a few different translations and augmented or censored versions over the next two centuries, but in France Galland’s version (which included “a few dictated to him by a Syrian Christian informant, and even a few of his own invention”6) remained the standard edition until 1899-1904, when Joseph Charles Mardrus published a “fin-de-siècle one…which enchanted Proust and impressed T.E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) but outraged most specialists because, like Galland, Mardrus felt free to move stories around and write a few of his own.”7
“Sufrah” predates Mille et une nuits, Mardrus’ retranslation of The Arabian Nights, but Schwob’s story appeared as French colonial efforts overseas were ramping up. After 1870 France extended its influence across Africa, starting with Tunisia in 1881 and extending to much of north, west, and central Africa by the turn of the century. (This was in addition to French colonial actions in Southeast Asia, concurrently taking place). While the French view of Africans, including the Arabs of north Africa and the countries of the Middle East, remained biased and Orientalist,8 there was a simultaneous fascination—bigoted and skewed, true—with elements of African and Arabic culture, including Arabian Nights. Schwob, when he wrote “Sufrah,” was writing to an audience with an avid interest in Arabian Nights-style literature.
Print: Marcel Schwob, Imaginary Lives, transl. Chris Clarke. Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press, 2018.
Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100645170 (in French; there is no English-language translation available online).
1 Marcel Schwob, “Sufrah,” in Vie Imaginaire (Paris: G. Charpentier & E. Fasquelle, 1896), 103-104.
2 Schwob, “Sufrah,” 104.
3 Schwob, “Sufrah,” 108.
4 Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Tauris Parke, 2005), 48.
5 Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600, 469.
6 Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600, 469.
7 Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600, 469.
8 “Orientalism” was coined as a critical term and first explored by Edward Said in Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). Briefly: Said’s argument—controversial then and controversial now—was that Western views of “the Orient” (meaning Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa) exaggerated the differences between Westerners and “Orientals,” presumed that the West was innately superior to the “Orient,” and applied a series of bigoted and clichéd analytical models for perceiving the “Oriental” world, and that therefore Orientalism was responsible for the inaccurate and biased cultural representations of the “Orient” and the “Orientals” in the West. Said’s argument is not without its flaws, and has attracted a great deal of criticism, both informed and uninformed, in the more than forty years since its publication, but the core of his arguments seems to this reader to be unassailable.