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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Book Reviews

Alexandria Tercet

Alexandria: City of Memory by Michael Haag. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004, 368 pages, $35.


Courtesy
Yale University Press

Of all modern cities in the Mediterranean, Alexandria is the one most frequently regarded as the model of a “cosmopolitan” city. Our era of globalization and multiculturalism has served to reinvigorate the longstanding interest in cosmopolitan Alexandria. Michael Haag contributed to this trend initially with a volume of spectacular illustrations and now has written a literary history of Alexandria during its cosmopolitan heyday as seen through the lives of three writers in whose work the city figured prominently in different ways. They are Constantine Cavafy, who was born in Alexandria in 1863 and died there in 1933, E. M. Forster, who spent several years in Alexandria around the time of the First World War, and Lawrence Durrell, who lived in the city during the 1940s.

Haag has poured all his genuine affection and knowledge of Alexandria in this work. It is really two or three books wrapped in one, for it includes biographies of the three writers and several minor characters, discussion of the respective literary output of the three, descriptions of the city, and detailed explanations of the major historical events that shaped Alexandria and Egypt. Impossible at it may sound, these different histories are brought together seamlessly in a smoothly flowing prose. That’s just as well, as it feels at times that Haag is pouring out the entire contents of his research notes. Some readers may find the biographies of the minor characters or the extensive historical accounts distracting, but it is testimony to Haag’s storytelling ability that these digressions do not seriously undermine the narrative’s momentum.

The city certainly comes alive in Haag’s vivid descriptions, as the reader is immersed in the atmosphere of the streets, the neighborhoods, the beaches, and the sea that are so crucial in understanding life in twentieth-century Alexandria. Many of its important denizens come to life as well, and aside from the three main protagonists, whom we get to know very well, one or two lesser-known persons receive some deserved historical recognition. Among them is the American judge, Jasper Yates Brinton, who experienced the political vicissitudes of the colonized city with the dignity of a true gentleman from Quaker Philadelphia.

The range and depth of this account rest on a great deal of research. The footnotes list numerous secondary sources, published and unpublished correspondence and private papers, as well as personal communications that Haas managed to acquire. He thanks just over 100 persons in his acknowledgments, but one has to search the footnotes to discern whose memories or privately held documents became part of his story and who provided merely anecdotal or background evidence. Nonetheless, Haag clearly engaged in much patient detective work tracking people down and persuading them to share their knowledge. 

A photograph on the inside of the book’s cover that shows Haag with Eve Durrell née Cohen, Durrell’s second wife, standing on top of the famous Cecil Hotel in Alexandria, suggests that she, of all informants, played a large part in helping him construct his narrative. This is borne out in the final third of the book, in which Haag moves away from Cavafy and Forster to focus on Durrell.

Indeed, one wonders whether access to Eve as well as other sources helped Haag decide that Durrell was as important as Cavafy and Forster in understanding Alexandria. At first glance, this seems rather obvious. Durrell’s best-known work, The Alexandria Quartet (four books entitled Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, published between 1957 and 1960) was set, as the collective title suggests, in Alexandria. The Quartet is a celebration of the loose and torrid lifestyle of the city’s foreign elite and contributed to glamorizing Alexandrian cosmopolitanism in the minds of the reading public in the West.

Durrell, nonetheless, does not measure up to Cavafy and Forster in the eyes of fellow writers, critics, or the public. Cavafy was ahead of his time in many ways, and it took a while for the literary establishment in Athens to notice the Alexandrian poet. It was even later, in 1919, after he had published the poems evoking Alexandria’s history, that Forster introduced Cavafy’s work to the English-speaking world. Since then, several major writers, including W. H. Auden, are on record as expressing their intellectual debt to Cavafy’s work. The first English translation of the Cavafy canon appeared in 1951; since then, the poet’s work has been translated into most of the world’s languages and his reputation has increased steadily.

Forster’s A Passage to India, which appeared in 1924, is ranked by many as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. It found favor among liberal moralists such as Lionel Trilling, who wrote that it was not only about India but also about “all of human life.” As with Forster’s other acclaimed work, Howards End, however, it can also be read as an indictment of Britain’s class system and, of course, as a critique of British imperialism and its racist foundations.

In contrast, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet drew diametrically opposed reactions: some critics believed he deserved the Nobel Prize, others were as unenthusiastic as Alfred Kazin, who wrote in 1962 that, “Mr. Durrell seems to me fundamentally a writer concerned with pleasing his own imagination, not with making deeper contact with the world through his imagination.” The distanced dreamlike world of Alexandria’s cosmopolitan bourgeoisie was not as appealing to many readers as it was to the Quartet’s author. Durrell’s biographer, Ian McNiven, noted ironically that Durrell seemed inconvenienced whenever “…the world situation kept intruding.” For many, Durrell’s strengths lie in his series of spectacular travel books, not the Quartet.

The gap between the Quartet and reality is not merely a matter of poetic license if we are to consider this work as representing life in Alexandria. Durrell’s Alexandria is autobiographical, not historical, as in Cavafy’s poetry or Forster’s prose, which refer to the ancient city. Durrell experienced Alexandria in a very narrow way. Cavafy and Forster, however—their privileged status notwithstanding—did not identify with the assumptions of British and European superiority over the Egyptians, which created an apartheid-like division between foreigners (or those of foreign origin) and local Egyptians. Their ideal Alexandria lay in the historical past, not the colonial present. Moreover, their homosexuality set them at an “angle” to Alexandria’s colonial universe (to echo Forster’s famous description of Cavafy as a “Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”). And, of course, it brought them into contact with young Egyptian men and their world, if only briefly in Cavafy’s case, but in a more engaged way for Forster, whose affair with bus conductor Mohamed El Adl is one of many liaisons Haag describes with grace and sensitivity.

Durrell, however, worked as an apparatchik in the British colonial power structure and apparently came into contact exclusively with the social elites of the foreign communities, not the petite bourgeoisie that was fairly large in the case of the Greeks, Armenians, and Italians. Accordingly, the Quartet evokes an Alexandria defined exclusively by its social elite at a time when, as Haag shows, Egyptian nationalist sentiments were on the rise. Another Alexandrian writer, Stratis Tsirkas, has shown in his Akyvernites Politeies (Drifting Cities) that Alexandria’s cosmopolitanism can be evoked through the foreign petite bourgeoisie and the Egyptians, as well as the haute bourgeoisie. (See my “The Political Tsirkas,” December 18, 2002, as well as Part 1 and Part 2 of Stelios Vasilakis’s “Stratis Triskas’s Anti-Orientalism,” December 18, 2002, and February 17, 2003, greekworks.com.)

Durrell’s myopia has been deplored by a range of historians writing on twentieth-century Alexandria in ways that echo Kazin’s stern criticism: “Alexandria…its mingling of so many races and nations, gives a sensitive civil servant like Mr. Durrell a chance to relish the sweetness of the primitive and the corrupt, to eat his fill of the honeyed air, without ever getting any closer to the actualities of real political life and real Near Eastern dirt than he ever needs to.” And it is about to get worse for Durrell. In a forthcoming volume on “cosmopolitan Alexandria” edited by Deborah Starr, Robert Vitalis of the University of Pennsylvania cites several examples of overtly racist depictions of Egyptians in the Quartet.

To be sure, Haag knows enough so as not to adopt a starry-eyed attitude toward Durrell, the third part of his Alexandria “tercet,” and he is brutally frank about the misogyny and narcissism that suffuse Durrell’s correspondence with Henry Miller. Yet Haag also tries to explain Durrell’s mindset by citing his insecurity, anti-rationalism, and dalliance with metaphysical worldviews. Still, in the final analysis, Haag has done a better job than Durrell in evoking Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past, even though he has burdened his account with the author of the Alexandria Quartet.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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