Finishing Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Alexandria peter stothardI 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.

Georg Scholz, "Seated nude with plaster bust."

Georg Scholz, “Seated nude with plaster bust.”

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.

Peter stothard smiling in front of bookcase

Peter Stothard

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.

Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Peter Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and a former editor of The London Times, has written a brilliant memoir, Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, centered on his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra.

Alexandria peter stothardStothard traveled to Alexandria in 2011 when an ice storm prevented his flight to South Africa. He wanted to finish a book about Cleopatra; he had made seven attempts to write about her over the last 50 years.  He rents a room at the Metropole Hotel in Alexandria.  It is so small that he stands up to write in his notebook.

He looks over the  yellowed old papers he has brought with him and explains “the first efforts [were] of an Essex schoolboy; the latest from the 1980s from a classicist finding some sort of success as a journalist.  Between these beginnings and ends, which show uneven patterns of progress, there are pages written in Oxford between 1969 and 1971 and at an oil company desk in 1976, and in the Calthorpe Arms, a crepuscular pub beside what were the offices of The Times.”

Much of his writing about Cleopatra is lost, but he feels confident that he can fill in the lacunae by writing a diary in Alexandria.  Much of the history of Cleopatra has been lost, too, though recently something new has been found, the ginestho papyrus.  Cleopatra had written, ginestho , “Let it happen,” in Greek, approving Mark Antony’s general’s export of 300 tonnes of wheat  and 130,000 litres of wine without taxation.

Stothard arrived in Alexandria on the eve of the Arab Spring.  There is a bombing, and everyone is jittery.  He spends time with two Egyptians, who befriend him, take him sightseeing, decide what he can and can’t see, and speculate about the terrorists.

Stothard writes about what is happening in Egypt, but doesn’t report on it.  He brilliantly zeroes in on bits of his life that are connected to Cleopatra.

Much of the book is a memoir of his classical education and his working life as a journalist.

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

He grew up in Essex, the son of a radar engineer:   Stothard adds ironically that his father was “a designer of military machines that made us safe.”   There were only five books in the house, one of them the Loeb edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, Books VII-XII. (This is the only book he has brought with him to Alexandria.)  Stothard’s first attempt to write about Cleopatra was when he was nine,  a story, “Professor Rame and the Egyptian Queen.”

He studied Greek and Latin in the ’60s at Brentwood School in Essex, and then studied classics at Oxford.  Many of his teachers at Brentwood were war veterans, some unstable.  Miss Leake, the headmistress of his first school, idealized Brentwood: she thought the teachers were “earnest, slender, slightly socialist young men who visited her from time to time, asking if she had anyone who might excel at soccer or Cicero.  This was an honest mistake.  Behind Brentwood’s Martyr’s Memorial many eccentric instructors lay hidden including Mr. G, an ex-soldier of cement-mixer voice and stature, a survivor of a war which had been unkinder, it seemed, than the one experience by my father and his floating radar engineers.”

Stothard got a great education at Brentwood, but the students also paid a price for some teachers’ post-traumatic stress disorder.  One teacher  beat them with a rubber hose.  One of Stothard’s  lifelong friends, Maurice, had to sit cramped under the teacher’s desk with another boy for some infraction of the rules; a friend at another school, an outspoken girl called V, thought the punishments so horrifying that they ought to revolt.  Yet Peter and his friend take the punishments for granted.  It is a part of their boys’ school world.  (One hopes such schools have improved since the ’60s, but most men I know who have gone to boys’ schools have told such stories).

Stothard also writes about Oxford, and I thought of Brideshead Revisited, which Stothard mentions in passing. It is the late ’60s and early ’70s, so less glamorous, presumably, than Waugh’s Oxford, but there are many fascinating, eccentric characters, and  his old friend Maurice, who turns out to be gay, asks him to write a play about Cleopatra in which Maurice can play all the parts. (Cleopatra is to be deconstructed.)  They end up instead putting on a short version of Aristophanes’ The Frogs.

Stothard’s writing is both fast-paced and lyrical, his voice tough and often humorous, and it often reads like fiction, which is the highest compliment I can pay.  I still have 100 pages to go:  his hilarious description of his work for an in-house oil magazine reminds me a bit of the office scenes in William Cooper’s Scenes from Metropolitan Life.

I will write more about this book later, because there is much more.  I, too, had a classical education, and am thrilled by his unique perspective on history and the classics.

Spartacus Road A Journey Through Ancient ItalyIn April I read his remarkable book, Spartacus Road:  A Personal Journey through Ancient Italy.  In it he fuses journalism, history, memoir, travel, biography, and reflections on the classics as he travels the Spartacus Road, the route Spartacus and his slave army traveled when they escaped from the gladiator school near Capua.

A great writer:  this is literary nonfiction.