I have very much enjoyed Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra. (I wrote a little about it here.) Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and a former editor of The London Times, has written a brilliant memoir about his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra.
I can see the structure more clearly now that I’ve finished the book: not only is he writing about Cleopatra, but also about the parallels between Cleopatra’s Alexandria in the first century B.C., and the Alexandria of 2011 when the chaos of the Arab Spring begins.
Some of the same photos and art appear and reappear in the book, presumably as part of the arrangement of the text (unless I am becoming Carrie in a manic stage in “Homeland.”). George Scholz’s “Seated Nude with Plaster Bust” appears three times, and captures Stothard’s image of Cleopatra more closely than the other art.
Stothard had gone to Alexandria in 2011 to finish his book; he arrived on what happened to be the eve of the Arab Spring. He had made seven attempts to write about Cleopatra, beginning when he was nine in Essex (“Professor Rame and the Egyptian Queen”) and most recently in the 1980s when he was a business reporter for The London Times. And he writes so charmingly about his time at Oxford, his work for an in-house Big Oil magazine, and his beginnings as a business journalist at the Times ( mid-’80s?) that the book is worth reading just for that.
He has survived cancer, written two “diary” books, and is no longer a working journalist (except in the literary sense). He does not want to report on the bombings and riots of the Arab Spring. He kept his focus on Cleopatra. Although there are few artefacts of Cleopatra’s Alexandria, and little is known about her, he does not allow himself to be distracted from his goal. And he absorbs the atmosphere of the city.
His friends from childhood and Oxford, Maurice, a gay writer in advertising who is dying of cancer, and V, the rebellious, questioning woman with whom he saw the movie Cleopatra in the ’60s when they were teenagers, have kept him focused on Cleopatra. When Stothard visits Maurice when he is dying, Maurice asks about Cleopatra.
So what did happen to Cleopatra in the end? He asked the question again. I was feeling defensive. It was absurd that I had never finished my book. I began a defence of how Big Oil, Mrs. Thatcher, the 1986 print revolution for the press, the editing of The Times and The Times Literary Supplement…and other books about Tony Blair and Spartacus, had all found a higher priority.
This is strangely touching. He knows he has accomplished a lot, but there is still this vulnerability with a friend who has always known him: maybe this is not what he should have done? He should have been writing a scholarly biography and editing a newspaper? But it turns out Maurice isn’t interested in the book. He wants to know about Cleopatra’s suicide (presumably not by an asp, probably a fast-working poison).
Stothard writes about the image of Cleopatra in literature and the arts: Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the Elizabeth Taylor movie, H. Rider Haggard’s historical novel, Cleopatra, a Dutch painting. He says Plutarch’s portrayal of Marc Antony (which I haven’t read, because I have the wrong book by Plutarch) is the most reliable. He also includes a version of Horace’s Cleopatra ode, Nunc est bibendum (“Now is the time for drinking…”) and I’m not sure whose translation this is: I assume it is Stothard’s, but perhaps not.)
James Holladay, an ancient history teacher at Oxford, advises him to concentrate on middlemen.
Bureaucratic power was always essential. Never forget that. Look at the men in the middle ranks. remember their names: Hirtius, Plancus, Celllius, Canidius. Study them closely. Don’t give up when the going gets tough. Nil desperandum, as Horace says. Read the poem in which he says it.”
Stothard is fascinating especially about Plancus, who changed sides, and “was the closest man to Antony and then abandoned him.” He tells us about Cleopatra after the Battle of Actium. She tries to change the story, and to convince people there was no Battle of Actium. Of course it catches up with her.
There is a rich texture to his language, and a frequent lyricism: sometimes I could almost scan the prose rhythms (possibly Carrie in “Homeland” again) when he is in Khat Rashid for a few day, out of the way of the terrorists in Alexandria.
Look harder, till the eyes hurt. In the vacant dark the site of the sometime lighthouse is shining too, many miles and two thousand years away. The sky is the color of bruises, a punched cheek, a prayer-beaten forehead, an eye becoming black. This is not where I wanted to spend the night. But it is a fine place to look back at Alexandria and consider the last hours of Marc Antony, the time when he knew he had lost, when he was abandoned by the city’s gods. Any biography of Cleopatra is now in its final stage.
He also eerily discovers at the new Alexandrian library an Egyptian dialogue in French, Mort ou Amour, “in which a historian in an Alexandrian hotel room struggles to write a book about Cleopatra. The dramatic hero does most of the things that I have done here since I arrived ruefully recalling past efforts, weighing fact against fiction, realism against romance, ‘la politique ou le coeur’ as motivation for peace and war.”
It made me oddly anxious, and I thought, This must not be real. But the author does exist: I looked him up. Stothard dismisses it as a coincidence but is it?
This work of literary nonfiction is a great jumble of history, travel, biography, memoir, and literature, and it should please a diverse audience: historians, classicists, general readers, and memoir lovers. ( I fall into the last three categories.) I have seldom read a nonfiction book so fast. I read 300 page one day.
What a great book. A classic? One of my favorite books this year. And, by the way–I can do recommendations well as the Amazon computer–if you liked Stothard’s book, you will like his other book, Spartacus Road, and Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev.