Entry updated 26 October 2021. Tagged: Author.
(1946- ) UK academic and author whose work in Arabian studies, of importance in itself, underpins the world envisioned in his first and most famous novel, The Arabian Nightmare (1983; rev 1987), which may be the definitive rendering of its central conceit: the dream narrative whose protagonist, upon seeming to awaken, only finds himself passing through a Portal into a deeper dream [for Arabian Nightmare and Portal see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Irwin's protagonist Balian falls into a nightmare which causes infinite suffering and cannot be recollected upon awakening; each further descent embeds itself deeper into the overall structure; but there is no end to the nightmare, though the Ape of God – who in The Arabian Nightmare iterates the final instalment of Balian's ordeal – may be telling us that Balian is now in Hell. The clarity of Irwin's articulation of this story structure inspired the use of his title as a theme entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, where it links to various authors; those also with entries in this encyclopedia include Lisa Goldstein, L Ron Hubbard, Charles Nodier, Jan Potocki, Herbert Rosendorfer, Gene Wolfe and others.
Irwin's shaping gift tends to be embodied in work whose violations of mimetic assumption make much of it describable in terms of Fantastika, a short example being "Waiting for the Zaddik" in Tales of the Wandering Jew (anth 1991) ed Brian Stableford. The protagonist of his second novel, The Limits of Vision (1986), is aided by imagined helpers in her fight against Mucor, the demon of dirt and decay (see Entropy; Gods and Demons), whom she has also "imagined" – a dangerous term to use without quotes in any story by Irwin, whose plays with narrative structure constantly challenge any clear distinction between the imagined and the real. The Mysteries of Algiers (1988) effortlessly evades the mimetic implications of its initial setting, which is Algeria at the verge of independence as France is beginning to understand it has lost the Algerian War (1954-1962); the double-agent protagonist of the tale, whose name is Roussel, can be understood as reiterating the surreal dismantling of Western colonial presumptions at the heart of Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa (1910) and New Impressions of Africa (1932) (see Absurdist SF; Imperialism). Exquisite Corpse (1995) continues to harass the gates of Perception through a kind of Body English of the disruptions of Surrealism. Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh (1997) is as close to an Arabian Fantasy [again see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] as Irwin has allowed himself to penetrate. Satan Wants Me (1999) wryly fantasticates 1960s London as (in retrospect) something like (yet very unlike) a land of sorcery. In Wonders Will Never Cease (2016), a tapestry-like chronicle of the fifteenth-century War of the Roses, a kind of song of history in which the song is true, a talking head quotes H G Wells about things to come.
Among more specialized studies, Irwin's scholarly texts include The Arabic Beast Fable (1992 chap), The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994) and Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights (2011). The Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies (2006; vt Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents 2006) disputes Edward W Said's argument in Orientalism (1978) that "Western" creative works which attempt to inhabit or "exploit" the East are inherently Imperialist. Insofar as Fantastika can be seen as a Western way of seeing and wrestling with a world that includes Eastern modalities of apprehension, the arguments Irwin here addresses cannot be ignored, and seem increasingly integral to our apprehension of the reach of story across the world. [JC]
Robert Graham Irwin
born Guildford, Surrey: 23 August 1946
- The Arabian Nightmare (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: Dedalus Books, 1983) [pb/uncredited]
- The Arabian Nightmare (London: Viking, 1987) [rev of the above: hb/Paul Lenoir]
- The Limits of Vision (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: Dedalus Books/London: Viking, 1986) [hb/Neil Breedon]
- The Mysteries of Algiers (Viking, 1988) [hb/Mick Brownfield]
- Exquisite Corpse (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: Dedalus Books, 1995) [hb/Lise Weisgerber]
- Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: Dedalus Books, 1997) [pb/from Jules Migonney]
- Satan Wants Me (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: Dedalus Books, 1999) [hb/David Bird]
- Wonders Will Never Cease (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: Dedalus Books, 2016) [pb/from René d'Anjou]
- My Life Is Like a Fairy Tale (Sawtry, Cambridgeshire: Dedalus Books, 2019) [pb/Marie Lane]
- The Arabic Beast Fable (London: Journal of the Warburg and Courtland Institutes, 1992) [nonfiction: chap: bound offprint from vol 55 (1992) of the journal: pb/nonpictorial]
- The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Allen Lane, 1994) [nonfiction: hb/from E J Detmold]
- The Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies (London: Allen Lane, 2006) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2006) [nonfiction: vt of the above: hb/]
- Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 2011) [nonfiction: in the publisher's Studies in the Arcadian Library series: hb/]
works as editor
- Night and Horses and the Desert: The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arab Literature (London: Allen Lane, 1999) [anth: hb/]
- Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- The Encyclopedia of Fantasy: Arabian Fantasy; Arabian Nightmare; Arabian Nights; Robert Irwin; Portal.
- Picture Gallery
previous versions of this entry