Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a habitue of bazaar coffee shops and once called his writing "fourth or fifth rate."

Although he ranks among Egypt's most popular writers, Mahfouz's realistic, almost Dickensian portrayals of the wretched conditions under which his country's poor live have made his popularity less than unanimous.One book of his was banned from Egypt, and another attacked then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser's domestic and pan-Arabist policies.

Widely translated, he writes in Arabic but has little respect for Arab writers, including himself. Once asked to rate his work, Mahfouz said: "Probably like the rest of modern Arabic literature, fourth or fifth rate."

He spends an hour a day in the coffee shops of Khan Khalili, soaking in the ambiance of one of the Middle East's oldest and largest bazaars.

He is widely popular throughout the region but does not relish public acclaim.

Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911, the youngest child of a lower-middle-class family. He showed no interest in foreign literature before he entered the King Fuad I University in 1930, but his strongest influences in college became the turn-of-the-century British social realist novelists and Victorian writers.

Scholars generally place Mahfouz's writing in three periods:

The first featured "Trilogy," a 1,500-page partly autobiographical work he completed in 1952. That period entailed three historical novels and then a series on social themes, detailing the struggles of Egyptian society.

Mahfouz's second period began in 1959, when he turned away from social realism toward metaphysical allegory. The specialists Marsden Jones and Hamdi Sakkut wrote in 1978 that in this period Mahfuz "forsook . . . man in society for man in time."

Beginning with "Miramar" in 1967, which took aim at Nasser's domestic and pan-Arabist policies, Mahfouz's third period shows a synthesis of the first two periods.

Mahfouz's novels are more historical chronicles than political treatises, their only political meaning being a tangential reflection of conditions that politics cause.

Nevertheless, after Nasser's Free Officers Movement overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, Mahfouz showed his displeasure by stopping writing for seven years.

His 1959 allegory "Children of Gebelawi," which included characters based on Adam and Eve, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and a modern scientist, was banned because it contained religious themes deemed unacceptable in Arab society.

Although he writes in Arabic, his knowledge of ancient Arabic literature is slight. He much prefers writers of the English language - Joyce, Huxley, Orwell, Faulkner, Hemingway - and Balzac, Sartre, Proust and Camus in the French.

He once told an interviewer that William Shakespeare, James Joyce and Leo Tolstoy are examples of first-rate writers; second-raters were H.G. Wells, Dickens, Thackeray, Shaw, Galsworthy, Huxley and D.H. Lawrence.

But he said he never had read and doesn't want to read lesser European writers than those, "adding that he did not suppose many Europeans would be interested in modern Arabic literature, as it has produced only such writing."

John Rodenbeck, a professor of literature at the American University in Cairo who as head of the university press was Mahfouz's publisher for nine years, called him "the greatest novelist of the Arab world, living or otherwise."

He said Mahfouz's "impact on prose narrative will probably be everlasting in the Arab world."