Queens of the Night

McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas
Set design by Leon Bakst for the Ballets Russes production of Scheherazade, circa 1910

On June 24, 1911, the fashion designer Paul Poiret held a much-anticipated costume party in Paris, which he promised would “be the Thousand and Second Night.” The guests, who had received invitations designed by Raoul Dufy, were led past a huge golden cage, in which Madame Poiret was imprisoned, along with a harem of friends singing Persian songs. In another room, the actor Édouard de Max, lounging on embroidered cushions, recited select tales from Joseph Mardrus’s recent translation of the Thousand and One Nights. Mardrus, the Cairo-born friend of Gide, Mallarmé, and Proust, was himself a guest. Monkeys, macaws, and parrots were released into the garden, where famous ballerinas of the period danced on the lawn. Poiret’s wife Denise, evoking Shahrazad’s captivity, left her gilded cage, “as a bird might escape.”

Poiret, Proust, and their belle epoque circle were what the scholar Robert Irwin calls “the Children of the Nights,” who emerged in Europe after the first French translation of 1704–1717, by the scholar of Oriental languages Antoine Galland, who also translated the Koran and collaborated with another scholar on an encyclopedic study of Islamic cultures. Galland had been sent by Louis XIV’s finance minister, Colbert, to a school of Oriental languages established by the French in Turkey, the precursor of France’s famous École des Langues Orientales.

The primary source of Galland’s Nights was a set of fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Syrian manuscripts brought to him by a friend from Aleppo for his personal library. Galland eventually incorporated into his translation tales told him by Hanna Diab, a Maronite Christian monk living in Paris. Galland might very well have worked with another compilation, incorporating other stories, if one had come his way. As the English scholar of myth Marina Warner writes:

Now in this version, now in that, [the Nights] has no known author or named authors, no settled shape or length, no fixed table of contents, no definite birthplace or linguistic origin….

Galland’s translation launched a sequence of translations into other languages, serials, adaptions, abridgments, and expurgated children’s editions, in such quantity that by 1783 the poet James Beattie remarked that “most English young people knew the Nights intimately.” They would all have been familiar with the frame tale that starts off the intricate story-within-a-story of the thousand and one nights: the Sassanid Persian King Shahriyar discovers his wife making love with a slave. After killing them both, he vows in revenge to marry a virgin every day, and ensure her fidelity by having her executed by his vizier the next morning.

The killing persists for three years until the kingdom is nearly depleted of marriageable women. The vizier’s own daughter, Shahrazad, insists on marrying the king, hoping to save the remaining women and girls of the kingdom, as…

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