What is the literary arabesque?

The term ‘arabesque’ has several interesting meanings, including a type of ballet position, a type of musical embellishment, and a type of Islamic art. But did you know it can also refer to a type of literature?

In the context of Islamic art, arabesques interweave different shapes and elements to produce harmonious and symmetrical designs. Typically an artistic representation of foliage, they are often composed using a single pattern that repeats indefinitely. If you follow a line in an arabesque, you will end up back at your starting point as the pattern continues endlessly. This means the arabesque does not have a definite beginning, middle or end.

Image source Dimitry B.

Surprisingly, this aspect of the arabesque has played an important role in literature throughout the world due to its multicultural and intercultural nature, resulting in a writing style called the literary arabesque, or the arabesque novel.

However, this influence is not always explicit, which means it has often gone unnoticed. One such example is the Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov, most famous for Lolita, but also widely influential in the development of postmodern literature.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire

The literary arabesque draws on the decorative motifs of the artistic arabesque and incorporates them in textual form. Like the art form, these motifs include symmetry, continuity and no definite beginnings, middles or ends. One of the most interesting examples of how these motifs are manifested as literature is in Nabokov’s postmodern novel Pale Fire (1962).

Imitating the arabesque style of writing, Nabokov presents Pale Fire as a critical edition of a 999-line poem called “Pale Fire”, by fictional author John Shade. The poem is accompanied by a Foreword, as well as Commentary section which makes up most of the book. The Commentary is written by the editor, Charles Kinbote (also fictional), and consists of bizzare and diverse stories. These stories include Shade’s friendship with Kinbote, the escape of the Zemblan King Charles into exile, and Gradus, who is an assassin sent by the new Zemblan rulers to kill Kinbote but accidently kills Shade instead.

This sounds chaotic, but the way these diverse stories are interwoven into a single novel reflects the inspiration of the arabesque. The integration of seemingly different shapes and patterns creates a single decorative ornament.

“Pale Fire’s” Continuity

A more obvious indication of the arabesque nature of the text is the structure of the poem “Pale Fire” itself.   The poem reflects the motif of continuity, just like how the lines of a visual arabesque return to their origin and have no clear beginning or end.

Consider the first and last lines of the poem:

Line 1: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

Line 2: By the false azure in the windowpane;

Line 3: I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I

Line 4: Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.


Line 997: A man, unheedful of the butterfly –

Line 998: Some neighbour’s gardener, I guess- goes by

Line 999: Trundling an empty barrow up the lane.

Moreover, according to Kinbote, the poem contains 1000 lines, even saying that “Line 1000 = Line 1”.

Hence, the poem reads:

Line 997: A man, unheedful of the butterfly –

Line 998: Some neighbour’s gardener, I guess – goes by

Line 999: Trundling an empty barrow up the lane.

Line 1000 = Line 1: I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.

Line 2: By the false azure in the windowpane;

Line 3: I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I

Line 4: Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.


In other words, the poem reverts back to its beginning (Line 1), which is also its ending (Line 1000), and so the poem continues forever in an infinite loop.

The Subverted Arabesque

Nabokov’s authorised biographer, Brian Boyd, has observed Nabokov’s use of ‘patterns’ in Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. These patterns include symmetry and spirals. However, he does not make specific reference to the arabesque pattern in Nabokov’s works.

Perhaps the arabesque is overlooked by Boyd because Nabokov himself does not mention it in Pale Fire. Readers might even question whether Nabokov was aware of the arabesque art form.

But on the contrary, Nabokov was well aware of the existence of the arabesque. Six years after writing Pale Fire, Nabokov wrote a book called Ada in which he makes direct reference to the arabesque three times. He was also aware of it before this.

Nabokov was influenced by the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol, one of the first European authors whose work was inspired by Friedrich Schlegel, who created the literary arabesque in his Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms (1800). Schlegel’s creation was not accidental, and instead reflects the new discovery of Eastern culture, philosophy, and art by the expansion of Western imperialism. Schlegel’s arabesque is further elaborated by Raymond Immerwahr, who also discusses the role of the arabesque in nineteenth century irony and literature.

Nabokov was influenced in particular by Gogol’s writing, especially the book Arabesques (1835). Yet Gogol only mentions the word ‘arabesque’ once: in the title. Similarly, Nabokov only mentions the word ‘arabesque’ in his own treatment of Gogol (Nikolai Gogol, 1944) when he refers to Gogol’s book and hardly discusses arabesques. This suggests that the arabesque art form has been deliberately subverted, fitting into to the wider pattern of subversion and appropriation of Middle Eastern culture identified famously by Edward Said (who described how “a dizzying variety of peoples, languages, experiences, and cultures, are swept aside or ignored” in the cultural exchange stimulated by colonialism).

An additional interesting fact is that Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol begins with Gogol’s death and ends with his birth, just as the arabesque’s beginning and end are treated as one and the same. Furthermore, Nabokov’s preface in Nikolai Gogol is also the last paragraph in Nikolai Gogol’s book, Arabesques. This suggests that Nabokov picks up where Gogol’s Arabesques left off, reinforcing the style of the literary arabesque that never ends, just like the visual arabesque that exemplifies the element of continuity.

The example of Nabokov is just one example of arabesque writing that has been overlooked. Other texts which show the Islamic tradition has contributed to Western art and literature are Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Robert Dessaix’s Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives. I only wonder how many more literary arabesques remain hidden among a vast collection of literary texts just waiting to be explored.


2 Replies to “What is the literary arabesque?”

    1. Thank you so much Susanne! This is the first I hear about the ‘Emerging Critics Fellowship’ so thanks letting me know. I will definitely look into it. I’m glad I’ve inspired you towards Pale Fire and my future work. I have also submitted another article to Global Media Journal/Au edition to be published mid-2019 – something to look out for. Thank you for your reply!

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