Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra by Peter Stothard – review

When half of the book has nothing to do with the subject of its title, and yet none of the words are redundant, you have to salute a remarkable achievement

If you have read Peter Stothard’s last book, On the Spartacus Road, you will know not to expect anything in the way of a conventional history. That book, as much about his cancer as the rebellious slave, was half digression; and so is this. You will learn something about Cleopatra and Alexandria, unless you are an expert on these subjects, but you will also learn what it was like to be a grammar-school boy growing up in the 1950s, at Oxford in the 1960s, working for the not-exactly-impenetrably-pseudonymous “Big Oil UK” in the 1970s, and at the Times in the 1980s.

That is, you will learn something about these things, but only tangentially; what you will learn, and again only obliquely, is what it was like to be Peter Stothard. I say “obliquely” because he is, after all, English, and what he gives away of himself he does so in prose that is feline, captivating, but also strangely distant, as if a mist has descended between himself and the events he describes.

Which is only proper: that mist is time, and it would have been dishonest of him to have written as if these events were fresh and immediate. Towards the end, it turns out that many of his memories have been reconstituted with his old school and university friend, Maurice, who died of cancer – and Stothard’s acknowledgment of Maurice’s help within the body of the text gives this book an air of trustworthiness. Not that I would expect anything other than the highest standards from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Alexandria, where Stothard finds himself at the beginning of 2011, also had its glories, all vanished now: its library, its lighthouse, its queen. Stothard haunts its cafes, the Hotel Metropole, its bars and restaurants. His government-supplied guides Mahmoud (Muslim) and Socratis (Coptic Christian) – “gentle quarellers” as he endearingly calls them – are by turns hectoring, helpful, generous and vaguely alarming; this can perhaps be attributed to nervousness as Egypt shakes from a suicide bomb outside a Christian church just before Stothard’s arrival, and the first stirrings in Egypt of its own version of the Arab spring. It cannot have been the best time to be a government employee.

Stothard is in Alexandria to finish a project that had begun at school when he was between the ages of nine and 12: to write about the life of Cleopatra. “This is precisely the eighth time I have begun to write this book,” he announces at the beginning. He was encouraged in his previous efforts by his friend Maurice, and by a woman referred to only as V, spiky and sardonically leftwing since their schooldays, who was on the other side of the ideological divide during the dispute that shut the Times titles down for long months in 1979. Another surprising help along the way was Marmaduke Hussey, of whom we are given a rather pleasing pen portrait.

The stories of Stothard and Cleopatra are interleaved, with no attempt to graft one factitiously on to the other; the concern here is to make sure that each sentence is poised and precise. There is, for example, the description of a man stealing dust jackets and illustrations from a book, or, in Stothard’s words, “transferring … from public ownership to his own”. Do you see what I mean by “feline”? There is not a word in here that is redundant, which is remarkable when half the words are not about the subject in the title at all. It is a wonderful achievement, and I hope it is not Stothard’s own valediction. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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