Irwin, Robert 1946- (Robert Graham Irwin)

views updated

Irwin, Robert 1946- (Robert Graham Irwin)


Born August 23, 1946, in Guildford, Surrey, England; son of Joseph Alan (a psychiatrist) and Wilhemina (a homemaker) Irwin; married Helen Elizabeth Taylor (a parliamentary clerk), September 30, 1972; children: Felicity Anne. Education: Merton College, Oxford, B.A., 1967; graduate study at School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1967-72. Religion: Monotheist. Hobbies and other interests: Juggling, roller-blading, crossword puzzles.


Home—London, England. Agent—Juri Gabriel, 35 Camberwell Grove, London, England.


University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland, lecturer in medieval history, 1972-77; part-time teacher of Arabic and Middle Eastern history at Cambridge University, Oxford University, and University of London, 1977—.


Royal Asiatic Society (fellow), Society of Antiquarians (fellow), Royal Society of Literature (fellow).


The Arabian Nightmare (novel), Dedalus (London, England), 1983, revised edition, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

The Limits of Vision (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1986.

The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate, 1250-1382 (nonfiction), Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1986.

The Mysteries of Algiers (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1988.

The Arabian Nights: A Companion, Viking (New York, NY), 1994, revised with a new preface and updated introduction, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 2004.

Exquisite Corpse (novel), Dedalus (London, England), 1995, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1997.

Satan Wants Me (novel), Dedalus (London, England), 1997.

Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh (novel), Dedalus (London, England), 1999, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2002.

Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture, and the Literary World, Prentice-Hall (Upper Saddle River, NJ), 1999.

(Editor) Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2000.

The Alhambra (nonfiction), Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.

For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, Allen Lane (London, England), 2006, published as Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, Overlook Press (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals, including the Times Literary Supplement and the Washington Post.


In The Limits of Vision Robert Irwin tells the story of Marcia, a South London homemaker who is obsessed with grime. The novel depicts Marcia's typi- cal day, from the time her husband goes to work until he returns home. During this period Marcia does her household duties, but, according to Stephen Dobyns in the New York Times Book Review, imagination—not housework—is the main subject of The Limits of Vision. Jeanette Winterson expressed a similar view, writing in the Times Literary Supplement that Irwin's book "ranks as a genuine (and rare) work of the imagination."

Irwin lets Marcia's imagination run wild throughout The Limits of Vision. One day Marcia is led by a distracting dustball "into the fantastic landscape" of her tattered, filthy carpet, Nadia Cowen explained in the Chicago Tribune. "Like Alice in a weird, primeval wonderland of grime," Cowen continued, "she is led by a white mite to a meeting with her nemesis—‘Mucor, Lord of the Dust.’" In addition, to help her through her day of cleaning, Marcia invents illustrious historical visitors—artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, artist and poet William Blake, writer Charles Dickens, and naturalist Charles Darwin, for example—with whom she converses on the subject of dirt. "This quirky book … is witty, sometimes uproariously funny," Cowen stated. In much the same vein, Dobyns declared The Limits of Vision "an immensely intelligent and delightful novel that constantly jumps and turns through level after level of humor and invention while managing to hold at bay those enemies of comedy—the cute, the winsome and the arch." Dobyns added that "the book is very short … yet so dense with wit and surprise that it seems longer."

Irwin's novel Exquisite Corpse takes its title from a collaborative writing technique of the Surrealists in which an individual author would add a passage to an ongoing composition while being aware only of the contribution of the author immediately preceding him. The novel opens in London in the 1930s and takes the form of a memoir written by its protagonist, a minor Surrealist painter named Caspar. Irwin creates a fictitious British Surrealist movement and peoples it with an entire cast of characters. Yet Caspar finds the British movement a poor excuse for Surrealism, lacking the romantic and adventuresome spirit of its French predecessor. He is desperate for something exciting and romantic to happen in his life, and he does not have long to wait. He falls in love with a woman named Caroline, a typist who is amusing herself by frequenting bohemian circles. Caroline's mundane life somehow strikes Caspar as erotic and sublime, and his love soon takes the form of an obsession that drives the plot of the novel. After Caroline disappears, Caspar's search for her carries him through a series of adventures involving orgies, opium, Nazis, and, eventually, his commitment to a mental institution. Caspar has supposedly written his memoir in the hope that Caroline will read it and return to him. In the final chapter of the book Caroline does return, only it is unclear whether this is an actual event or merely a product of Caspar's imagination.

Village Voice contributor Richard Gehr found Caspar to be "an appealingly unbalanced witness to a most peculiar and believable imaginary historical movement." Reviewing Exquisite Corpse for the Washington Post Book World, Steven Moore observed: "Irwin has done his homework in Surrealism, and the whole novel could be read as a critique of the Surrealist program if not for the fact that Caspar's kind of erotic obsession is hardly limited to Surrealists." According to Peter Parker of the Times Literary Supplement: "Irwin's novel is partly about chance meetings, and is at its most compelling when describing the fruitful randomness of life and the unexpected collisions of the marvelous and the everyday." Brooke Allen, critiquing the novel for the New York Times Book Review, characterized Robert Irwin as "a deft writer with a fine ironic touch." Allen continued: "Exquisite Corpse is far superior to the usual type of highbrow historical novel, in which real figures are brought creakily on stage for unconvincing little cameos in contrast, Mr. Irwin's novel, in which fiction and reality are woven unobtrusively together, is consistently clever and inventive."

In his novel Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh Irwin presents an erotic fable focusing on Orkhan, heir to an Arabian throne, and his initiation into the ways of the harem's prayer cushion cult. As Orkhan becomes familiar with the various women of the harem, they eventually present him with an option to participate in the ritual of simultaneously being strangled and fellated, the outcome of which will be his marriage to a goddess and transformation into the Golden Man. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "this outrageous, often wickedly funny novel spins baroque tales that careen to the outer limits of sexuality." Bonnie Johnston described the novel in Booklist as "Gulliver's Travels meets The Story of O, with Tantric overtones."

Although he has gained renown for his novels, Irwin is also a scholar of the East and has written extensively about Orientalism and other related topics. For example, in The Arabian Nights: A Companion the author provides commentary on the noted piece of Arabian literature, including historical and literary commentaries on the stories and a history of the society and culture of the Near East. Ali Houissa, writing in the Library Journal, called the book "the perfect companion to a monumental original." Irwin also served as editor of Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature. The author includes both poetry and prose from the fifth to the sixteenth century. Referring to the book as a "meticulously researched yet leisurely presented study," a Publishers Weekly contributor went on to write: "This persuasive work will surely fill in the gap in the study of Arabic literature in this country."

In The Alhambra the author writes a history of this noted example of Moorish architecture that stands on a hill over Granada, Spain, and is the only surviving Muslim palace in the West. Andy Boynton, writing in Booklist, commented that the author "has clearly done his homework … and his detailed prose is complemented by a striking array of photos and illustrations." In a review in the Library Journal, Olga B. Wise asserted that "Irwin's direct and witty style makes this slim volume a joy to read."

In his Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, published in England as For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, Irwin focuses on Oriental history from the Middle Ages to modern times, including profiles of many prominent Orientalist scholars such as Edward William Lane and Silvestre de Sacy. The author also presents his arguments against Edward Said and his writings, which turned the term "Orientalism" into a pejorative reflecting biased and racist scholarship by Westerners devoted to imperialism. Writing in the New Statesman, Terry Eagleton felt that despite Irwin's disregard for Said's belittlement of the field of Orientalism, Irwin tries to maintain a fair approach in his rebuttal. Eagleton remarked: "In fact, what is striking about For Lust of Knowing is how unspiteful it is. The book is refreshingly free of the suave malice of the senior common room. Instead Irwin comes across as a genial, rather unworldly, upper-class English scholar, struggling to preserve his public-school values of fairness and decency in the face of what he sees as Said's barbarous slur on oriental studies." Commentary contributor Martin Kramer stated: "Two truths emerge from a stroll through Irwin's gallery. First, Orientalist scholars, far from mystifying Islam, freed Europe from medieval myths about it through their translations and studies of original Islamic texts. Second, most Orientalists, far from being agents of empire, were bookish dons and quirky eccentrics."

Many reviewers praised Dangerous Knowledge as a thoughtful and insightful scholarly defense of Orientalism. Writing in the London Review of Books, for example, Maya Jasanoff averred that the book "is indisputably erudite." As for Irwin's rebuttal of Said, Jasanoff noted: "Irwin's main response to the Said view that Orientalism and imperial power are intertwined is to uphold a faith in the detachment of pure scholarship from real-world problems." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Irwin provides "both a brilliant defense of Orientalism and a masterful intellectual history of the Orientalists and their work." Several reviewers also considered Irwin's book to be accessible to the general public. For example, David Keymer wrote in the Library Journal that the author's "judgments are measured and urbane, and he delivers his numerous asides with a sly sense of humor." In a review in the New York Times, William Grimes concluded: "Mr. Irwin writes for a general audience in a lively, readable style."



Booklist, October 15, 2000, John Green, review of Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, p. 410; May 1, 2002, Bonnie Johnston, review of Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh, p. 1507; September 15, 2004, Andy Boynton, review of The Alhambra, p. 197.

Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1986, Nadia Cowen, review of The Limits of Vision.

Christianity Today, January, 2007, John Wilson, review of Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, p. 64.

Commentary, March, 2007, Martin Kramer, review of Dangerous Knowledge.

Contemporary Review, August, 2004, review of The Alhambra, p. 123.

Geographical, February, 2004, Nick Smith, review of The Alhambra, p. 69.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2006, review of Dangerous Knowledge, p. 767.

Library Journal, September 1, 2000, Ali Houissa, review of Night and Horses and the Desert, p. 208; March 1, 2004, Ali Houissa, review of The Arabian Nights: A Companion, p. 77; July, 2004, Olga B. Wise, review of The Alhambra, p. 108; September 15, 2006, David Keymer, review of Dangerous Knowledge, p. 72.

London Review of Books, June 8, 2006, Maya Jasanoff, review of For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, p. 14.

Middle East, November, 1999, Fred Rhodes, review of Night and Horses and the Desert, p. 41; July, 2006, Fred Rhodes, review of The Alhambra, p. 65.

Middle Eastern Studies, April, 1995, M.M. Badawi, review of The Arabian Nights, p. 375.

Middle East Journal, winter, 2005, Sara Hahn, review of The Alhambra, p. 168.

New Statesman, February 13, 2006, Terry Eagleton, review of For Lust of Knowing, p. 48.

New Statesman & Society, January 28, 1994, Michael Moorcock, review of The Arabian Nights: A Companion, p. 38.

New York Times, November 1, 2006, William Grimes, review of Dangerous Knowledge.

New York Times Book Review, August 24, 1986, Stephen Dobyns, review of The Limits of Vision; May 25, 1997, Brooke Allen, review of Exquisite Corpse, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, February 15, 1999, review of Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh, p. 88; September 11, 2000, review of Night and Horses and the Desert, p. 76; February 4, 2002, review of The Arabian Nightmare, p. 55; April 22, 2002, review of Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh, p. 51; August 28, 2006, review of Dangerous Knowledge, p. 43.

Spectator, January 28, 2006, Philip Hensher, review of For Lust of Knowing, p. 41.

Times Literary Supplement, April 25, 1986, Jeanette Winterson, review of The Limits of Vision, p. 453; March 24, 1995, Peter Parker, review of Exquisite Corpse, p. 21.

Village Voice, April 15, 1997, Richard Gehr, review of Exquisite Corpse, p. 54.

Washington Post Book World, May 4, 1997, Steven Moore, review of Exquisite Corpse, p. 4.

ONLINE, (May 4, 2007), Scott McLemee, "What Said, Said," includes interview with Robert Irwin.

About this article

Irwin, Robert 1946- (Robert Graham Irwin)

Updated About content Print Article


Irwin, Robert 1946- (Robert Graham Irwin)