Book review: Alexandria: The Last Nights Of Cleopatra by Peter Stothard

Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 Cleopatra  figures in Stothard's artful and eclectic study of the queen. Picture: Getty
Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 Cleopatra figures in Stothard's artful and eclectic study of the queen. Picture: Getty
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An eighth try at a life of the Queen of the Nile brilliantly mixes history and autobiography

Alexandria: The Last Nights Of Cleopatra by Peter Stothard

Granta Books, 384 pp, £25

Sir Peter Stothard, former editor of the Times and current editor of the Times Literary Supplement, seems to have cornered the market with an innovative form of non-fiction combining Classical history, travelogue, memoir, askance political analysis and literary criticism. His previous book, On The Spartacus Road, followed in the footsteps of the gladiator-turned-revolutionary, interleaved with Stothard’s attempts to understand the pancreatic cancer which very nearly killed him (and which he named Nero). Alexandria is similarly oblique. For 23 days at the beginning of 2011, Stothard decamped, almost by accident, to the Egyptian city in order to “complete a book about Cleopatra. With me were the remains of seven previous attempts. This time there had to be an end”.

The book is cunningly structured around the seven abandoned versions of his Cleopatra: from a childhood story about a time-travelling professor; to a review of the 1963 Mankiewicz film with Elizabeth Taylor; to a college friend’s hope that he might write a play version in the style of American director and Peter Brook collaborator Charles Marowitz; to the Oxford don who told him to concentrate on the supporting cast who rarely figure in the artistic versions – figures such as Hirtius, the “Continuator” of Caesar’s histories, the double-dealing Plancus, the louche Dellius, the poet Gallus and Alexandrian army commander, Mark Antony’s general Canidius, about whom a bureaucratic document contains a single word – ginestho, let it be done – written in Cleopatra’s own hand. There is even an abortive version concerning Cleopatra’s Needle, written when Stothard was working for what he terms “Big Oil” in the 1970s. Each former foray against the story of Cleopatra necessarily brings to mind the circumstances of its composition, subtly and seamlessly merging autobiography with the narratives.

Thus the reader is treated (and they are treats) to reminiscences of an Essex childhood ankle-deep in clay and under the shadow of Marconi towers; a private schooling with suitably memorable and eccentric teachers; Trinity College, Oxford, and a Sixties mix of idealism and cynicism, reprised with a degree of affectionate embarrassment and forgiveness; and the newspaper world on the cusp between hot metal and plastic PCs. All of this is wrapped around an account of being in a down-at-heel hotel in contemporary Alexandria for three weeks, and Stothard’s conversations with Mahmoud and Socratis, two errant guides to a city on the brink of what will come to be known as the “Arab Spring”.

There is a danger with such an intricate form of narrative that the connections between the disparate strands appear forced or expedient, and it is a danger that Stothard sure-footedly avoids. Thus, a school incident when perpetrators unknown defaced the library and burnt a copy of the Greek Anthology segues perfectly with the torching of the Alexandrian library during Caesar’s occupation, which is neatly grooved against a visit to the modern library, itself a piece of grandiose nostalgia in the age of Google. Some of the coincidences are the stuff that real life is made of: Stothard recalls that he had a copy of volume two of the Loeb edition of Virgil’s Aeneid at home as a schoolboy, and that his first encounter with the poem was not the famous arma virumque cano, but the Book VII account of the funeral of Caieta, the nurse of Aeneas. This initially leads to a discussion of the epigraphy, elegy and writing – “Biographers want the dead but they have only the living”. But it returns in an account of a meeting with Sir Marmaduke Hussey at Brooks’s Club: Hussey – “Duke” here – lost a leg at Anzio, having seen the tomb of Plancus as he sailed towards the battle; and the mausoleum of Plancus stands where Virgil placed the grave of Caieta.

If I have any quibble with the book, it is based on wanting to spend more time with Stothard; to hear him on topics not discussed in the book. Readers with less of a background in the Classics might be slightly perplexed at what “Alexandrian” means: we are used to philosophical Athens, political Rome and even the shade of the old enemy Carthage, but Alexandria is a mixture of all three, with culture and luxury. Alexandria was a crucible of the avant-garde, and it is disappointing Stothard does not dwell more on Callimachus, the deputy librarian and a poet whose obliquity and innovation linked Greek and Latin (odd, since Stothard himself has Callimachean moments: how do you tell an old story in a new way? And Stothard’s obsession with lists links to Callimachus’ (mostly lost) work, the Pinakes or “Lists”, a bibliographical survey of the Alexandrian Library). Shakespeare, of course, gets mentioned; but not Dryden’s adaptation, All For Love, which established Alexandria as a gothic, ghost-haunted counterpart to Rome. I am unsurprised, since nobody nowadays seems to rate him, that Shaw’s Caesar And Cleopatra is absent: it might have been subtitled All For Politics, and would make an interesting comparison to a curiosity that comes Stothard’s way, Ahmed Shawqi’s The Downfall of Cleopatra, where she is an anti-imperialist heroine.

But these are quibbles. Others can praise Stothard’s journalistic precision (“an argument between the almost naked and the over-dressed will normally favour the latter”; “does some part of Egypt’s tourism department employ drivers who dress like their car seats?”) but what impressed me more is the Classical self-knowledge. When he writes “like so many others who have learnt Latin and Greek, I read as a child what I barely understood and have understood as an adult what I barely now can read”. The book is full of such won wisdom; and although not ostensibly there to report on the first stirrings of political change in Egypt, his glancing observations tell us more about a paranoid, fractious state than countless more column inches.

Readers after a Cleopatra biography have plenty to choose from: Adrian Goldsworthy, Stacy Schiff, Joyce Tyldesley, Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Only Stothard’s also offers “the Queen of England as well as Egypt, a hero of Anzio, a cancer-stricken editor, a Hollywood actor, strange men on stilts, Margaret Thatcher at the height of her powers in the Miners’ Strike (even though I never wrote that first biography), a lost escapologist (£350 for the evening), a thousand bottles of free Bollinger champage and a Dutch master’s painting” – and all of that shot through with a supremely humane intelligence.