Review: Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman

I’ve just finished reading The Unnecessary Woman by noted Lebanese-American novelist, Rabih Alameddine, a brilliantly told, but sad story of an unfulfilled life.

Aaliya Saleh is a 72-year old woman who tells her story through interior monologue, one of an early arranged marriage, followed by divorce, a lover’s betrayal, alienation from her family, a cherished friendship lost, and a brutalizing civil war.

For decades she’s lived the life of a recluse in the apartment in which she and her husband lived before their divorce. Seeking escape from both outer and inner dissonance, she translates Western literary masterpieces into Arabic, except she stores each painfully crafted translation, some thirty-seven of them to date, in a box at year’s end without any intention of publishing them. Each January 1, she begins a new translation.

As she confesses, literature is her sand-box: “In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble.…Literature gives me life, and life kills me.”

Aaliya is no conformist. As the novel opens, we learn she’s dyed her hair blue. Briefly married, she’ll not do that again. In a culture esteeming family, Aaliyah rejects her own. As for the latest fashions, they’re simply banal utterances of the volatile. Contrariness extends to her frequently voiced opinions. Brilliant, but short-tempered, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

We see this immediately in Aaliyah’s plethora of opinionated readings embracing not only literature, but music and philosophy. Some may see these name-drops as affording intertextual nuance. Flaubert and Joyce were renowned for prolific allusion, and they’re among those artists she admires. Aside from this, they’re necessary catalysts to her annual choice for translation.

Meticulously discriminate in her tastes, she isn’t an aficionado, apart from Faulkner, of American novels, particularly disliking Hemingway: “I consider it a shame that most contemporary American writing seems informed more by Hemingway, the hero of adolescent boys of all ages and genders, than by the sui generis genius of letters, Faulkner.”

She finds fault with many contemporary novels for their fixation on well-crafted sentences climaxed by epiphany: “Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment,” Aaliyah laments. “You’re strangling the life out of literature, sentence by well-constructed sentence, book by bland book.”

Nor does she like the modern penchant for the psychological, reducing narrative to a quest for causality which, at best, is simply conjecture.

I’m curious if Aaliyah’s opinions, political as well as cultural, mirror Almaddine’s. Labyrinthian in its vast interlace of names, cultural masterpieces, and even philosophers, the novel overwhelms, even humbles, and I am like apartment neighbor Marie-Thérèse, toward story end: “Thank the Lord! I’ve read this” {Anna Karenina}. I was worried because I hadn’t even heard of the others. I felt so small. In all the other piles not one name I recognized. I felt inadequate.”

By any measure, An Unnecessary Woman, like its eremite protagonist, echoes the novel’s alienation motif, the distancing of culture in a utilitarian world of pecuniary priority. Veritable artistry isn’t simply imitation or representation as Plato and Aristotle offer, but a reaching for empathy, an embracing of humanity in transcending the spatial and temporal, endorsing what George Eliot termed “the fellowship of human feeling.“ It isn’t incidental she adores Spinoza.

An Unnecessary Woman defends culture as a sanctuary in a mad-dash world. Pope Francis has dubbed artists “evangelists.” Surely Alameddine is one of them.

As a devotee of language study, I’m especially intrigued with translation, admiring what good literary translators do, even more so with poetry, the translator’s greatest challenge. Aaliyah’s eccentric approach is at odds with the expected. Though fluent in English and French as well as Arabic, she doesn’t translate from them, since she thinks this superfluous for cultured readers. In her own words,

“I have never translated a French writer, an English writer, or an American one. No Camus, no Duras, no Faulkner, no Welty, no Hemingway (thank the Lord), and not the young writers I admire….So I invented my own special system: to achieve the most accurate representation of a work, I use a French and an English translation to create an Arabic one. I know this makes my translation one step further removed from the original….”

An Unnecessary Woman moves beyond the cultural, movingly discoursing on feminism, aging, alienation and, of course, the tragedy of modern Lebanon in its sectarian division and brutal civil war legacy. Some examples :

Of feminism:

“What could a young middle-class woman of her day do? One who was educated, fluent in two languages, Arabic and French, and “how do you do?” familiar with a third, English? One who had loved and excelled in philosophy in high school? Not much.”

“To begin with, her father, as was to be expected, was opposed to his daughter working, opposed to her generating any kind of income. He was a good man. She adored him. His obstructionism was of its time.”

Of aging:

“Barely functions, like me: swollen limbs, arthritis, insomnia, both constipation and incontinence, the low and high tides of aging nether regions. In my morning veins, blood has slowed to the speed of molasses. My body is failing me, my mind as well. When my body functions, it seems to do so independently of my desires, and my mind regularly forgets what those desires are, not to mention where I’ve left my keys or my reading glasses. One could say that every day is an adventure.”

Of alienation:

“It has bothered me all my life that I am not like everyone else; on the other, May I admit that being different from normal people was what I desperately sought?”

Of Lebanon:

“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is. There may be much I can’t remember, and my memory may have become distorted along the way, but Beirut and how she was, how she has changed through the years—her, I never forgot. I never forget, and I have never left her.”

In all of this, I would be amiss not to mention two narrative aspects I found deeply moving: Aaliyah’s frequent recall of her deceased friend Hannah who gave her affirmation in her prodigious kindness to everyone, while masquerading her own inner dissonance.

The other, when she bathes the feet of her demented mother, desperately seeking, yet vainly, restored communion.

As for the novel’s closure, Aaliyah’s secret life is inadvertently rendered transparent to her three apartment building neighbors whom she has consistently ridiculed and shunned. Coalescing into instruments of grace ministering their sympathy, they kindle awakening. No longer merely neighbors, they are flesh and blood fellows with whom Aaliyah commingles, joining their concerted efforts to salvage a life’s investment from the water damage of a broken pipe.  

Ironically, the epiphany she had earlier disavowed inaugurates new vision and identity, the dissolution of regimented routine and former attitudes. Water, the pervading archetype here, harbingers genesis:

This destruction is an opportunity to break free from the rules I’ve set for translating, or from some of them, at least. Like a teenager, I too can rebel. Maybe I can translate a book written in English for a change. Miss Spark—I’ll translate Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or, better yet, the crème de la crème of short story writers, Alice Munro. I can live in Alice’s skin for a while. Forget the industrialized countries; I can work with writers from the third world, Ireland! Edna O’Brien, Colm Tóibín, or Anne Enright. The subcontinent and its diasporas.”

If English and French are the limits of my language, the limits of my world, then Mr. Biswas or Midnight’s Children. A farrago of possibilities. Coetzee! I would love to do Coetzee; yes, I would. I can translate Mrs. Dalloway. I can if I want to. I’ll spend that famous day inside Clarissa’s head as she prepares to host the party. Or work on A Room of One’s Own in a soggy apartment of my own. Maybe I should translate Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The pain might induce a religious ecstasy. No, I can translate a French book. I can spend a year with my darling Emma Bovary. If English and French are the limits of my language, the limits of my world, then still my world is infinite. I no longer need to translate a translation. Not all has to be doubly lost. I’ve been studying the water while snugly nestled within the safety of a boat, but now I will swim in the murky waters of Flaubert’s French. I don’t have to work from a language once removed; I don’t have to translate from a distance. Aaliya, the above, the separate, can step in the mud.

Am I experiencing an epiphany?

Alameddine has given readers not simply a novel, but a gift—universal, timely, and of compelling resonance.


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

One thought on “Review: Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman”

  1. So delighted to find your review. This is one of my very favorite novels. I recommend it often to friends. I will now add your extraordinarily well written review along with my recommendation.

    Liked by 1 person

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