The history of the epigraph from Appointment in Samarra

The epigraph from John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra was much of what I remembered from an earlier reading of the novel, but I realized today that I’d never looked into its background – the cited W. Somerset Maugham seeming an unlikely true origin for a tale about death in Samarra. So below is my reconstruction of the tale’s journey to O’Hara.

The ultimate written source of the tale is almost certainly the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 53a5 with Hebrew here):

The Gemara relates with regard to these two Cushites who would stand before Solomon: “Elihoreph and Ahijah, the sons of Shisha” (I Kings 4:3), and they were scribes of Solomon. One day Solomon saw that the Angel of Death was sad. He said to him: Why are you sad? He said to him: They are asking me to take the lives of these two Cushites who are sitting here. Solomon handed them to the demons in his service, and sent them to the district of Luz, where the Angel of Death has no dominion. When they arrived at the district of Luz, they died.

The following day, Solomon saw that the Angel of Death was happy. He said to him: Why are you happy? He replied: In the place that they asked me to take them, there you sent them. The Angel of Death was instructed to take their lives in the district of Luz. Since they resided in Solomon’s palace and never went to Luz, he was unable to complete his mission. That saddened him. Ultimately, Solomon dispatched them to Luz, enabling the angel to accomplish his mission. That pleased him. Immediately, Solomon began to speak and said: The feet of a person are responsible for him; to the place where he is in demand, there they lead him.

The Talmud‘s version is usually cited online as background to Maugham’s, but I think it’s far more likely there were a couple of intermediary sources along the way. First of these is Rumi’s 13th century Persian telling (Mathnawi bk.1 950-970, Reynold Nicholson trans.):

How ‘Azrá‘íl (Azrael) looked at a certain man, and how that man fled to the palace of Solomon; and setting forth the superiority of trust in God to exertion and the uselessness of the latter.

One forenoon a freeborn (noble) man arrived and ran into Solomon’s hall of justice,
His countenance pale with anguish and both lips blue. Then Solomon said, “Good sir, what is the matter?”
He replied, “Azrael cast on me such a look, so full of wrath and hate.”
“Come,” said the king, “what (boon) do you desire now? Ask (it)!” “O protector of my life,” said he, “command the wind,

To bear me from here to India. Maybe, when thy slave is come thither he will save his life.”
Lo, the people are fleeing from poverty: hence are they a mouthful for (a prey to) covetousness and expectation.
The fear of poverty is like that (man’s) terror: know thou that covetousness and striving are (like) India (in this tale).
He (Solomon) commanded the wind to bear him quickly over the water to the uttermost part of India.
Next day, at the time of conference and meeting, Solomon said to Azrael:

“Didst thou look with anger on that Moslem in order that he might wander (as an exile) far from his home?”
Azrael said, “When did I look (on him) angrily? I saw him as I passed by, (and looked at him) in astonishment,
For God had commanded me, saying, ‘Hark, to-day do thou take his spirit in India.’
From wonder I said (to myself), ‘(Even) if he has a hundred wings, ’tis a far journey for him to be in India (to-day).’”
In like manner judge of all the affairs of this world and open your eye and see!

From whom shall we flee? From ourselves? Oh, absurdity! From whom shall we take (ourselves) away? From God?
Oh, crime!

There are actually several variations I found in the Islamic tradition but Rumi’s seems far the likeliest crossing point for the move to European literature. For interest though, here’s another version by a 15th century Egyptian scholar named Al-Suyuti (recently translated as Angels in Islam here).

Abū ‘l-Shaykh from Dā’ūd ibn Abī Hind; he said: It reached me that the Angel of Death was made responsible for Solomon (peace be upon him), and he was told: ‘Go into his presence every day, and ask what he needs; then do not leave him until you have performed it.’ He used to enter upon him in the image of a man, and he would ask him how he was. Then he would say: ‘Messenger of God, do you need anything?’ If he said: ‘Yes’, then he did not leave him until he had done it; and if he said: ‘No’, then he left him until the following morning. One day he entered upon him while there was an old man with him. [Solomon] stood up, and greeted [him], then [the Angel of Death] said: ‘Do you need anything, Messenger of God?’ He said: ‘No.’ The [angel] glanced at [the old man] and the old man trembled; the Angel of Death left and the old man stood up and said to Solomon: ‘I beg you, by the truth of God! to command the wind to carry me and throw me down on the furthest lump of mud in the land of India (hind)!’ So [Solomon] commanded it and it carried him [there].

The Angel of Death came unto Solomon the next morning and asked him about the old man. [The Angel of Death] said: ‘His book came down to me yesterday, [saying] that I should take his soul tomorrow at the rising of dawn in the furthest lump of mud in the land of India; but when I came down, and thinking that he was there, I then found him with you. I was astonished and could not think of [anything] other than him; I came down to him today at the break of dawn and found him on the highest lump of mud in the land of India, and he trembled, and I took his soul (rūh).’

Jean Cocteau is the next link in the chain, through his 1923 novel Le Grand Écart. Chapter 2 of that work opens (my translation):

Our life’s map is folded such that we do not see a single great road crossing it but, gradually as it opens, always a small new road. We believe we chose and we have no choice.

A young Persian gardener said to his prince:

– I met Death this morning. She made a threatening gesture. Save me. I want to be, by some miracle, in Isfahan this evening.

The good prince loaned his horses. In the afternoon, this prince meets Death.

– Why, he asked her, did you make a threatening gesture to our gardener this morning?

– I didn’t make a threatening gesture, she replied, but one of surprise. Because I saw him far from Isfahan this morning and I have to take him at Isfahan this evening.


La carte de notre vie est pliée de telle sorte que nous ne voyons pas une seule grande route qui la traverse, mais au fur et à mesure qu’elle s’ouvre, toujours une petite route neuve. Nous croyons choisir et nous n’avons pas le choix.

Un jeune jardinier persan dit à son prince:

—J’ai rencontré la mort ce matin. Elle m’a fait un geste de menace. Sauve-moi. Je voudrais être, par miracle, à Ispahan ce soir.

Le bon prince prête ses chevaux. L’après-midi, ce prince rencontre la mort.

—Pourquoi, lui demande-t-il, avez-vous fait ce matin, à notre jardinier, un geste de menace?

—Je n’ai pas fait un geste de menace, répond-elle, mais un geste de surprise. Car je le voyais loin d’Ispahan ce matin et je dois le prendre à Ispahan ce soir.


I’d prefer a more definite connection between Rumi and Cocteau but I think the ‘Persian’ element and especially the confusion over Death’s response/gesture allows a reasonable assumption (though knowledge of the translation history of Rumi into French would be a nice addition). The link from Cocteau to Maugham 10 years later fortunately feels more firm, Maugham’s telling in his 1933 play Sheppey clearly being a padded and altered expansion of Cocteau’s.

DEATH SPEAKS:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

O’Hara had initially intended his novel to be called The Infernal Grove but neither his publisher nor friends cared for the title so he changed it to Appointment in Samarra after Dorothy Parker showed him the above passage in Maugham’s play. Although he included it as epigraph in the 1934 first edition, he apparently didn’t cite Maugham as the source until the 1952 reprint.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s