My holiday read

The first part of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy has Michael Holroyd sneezing with indignation

I had heard much about Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, so it seemed reasonable to take the first volume to read while on holiday in Egypt. Palace Walk is a long novel and I, increasingly, am a slow reader. Nevertheless, I resolved, between journeys and tombs and temples, to finish it within the week. The plane actually flew over Cairo and landed near Luxor - but that didn't trouble me. Opening my novel on the first evening, I fell into the company of the Egyptian shopkeeper's teeming family.

So far as I could judge, however, they were all behaving wretchedly to one another, so wretchedly that I began to sneeze with indignation - and continued sneezing with great violence as their behaviour got worse. Eventually I managed to acquire a mask, reminiscent of wartime, and sat in the placid hotel gardens, a fantastic-looking figure, book in hand, trying to stifle my explosions of outrage as I absorbed the bullying, selfishness, hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of the characters.

Was I allergic to the novel? Now that I am back in Britain, I find I have developed a great affection for Palace Walk - its vitality, skill, humour, shrewdness and generosity. So I am hoping to pack my gas mask and take Mahfouz's Palace of Desire to Aswan, and, if I am spared, Sugar Street to Cairo itself.

Michael Holroyd's most recent book is Mosaic, a family memoir, published by Little, Brown