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

On page 67 of Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, Peter Stothard acknowledges what the reader knew some 60 pages earlier. ‘This is becoming a book about me. That is not what I intended.’

Based on the cover, one might assume this to be a conventional history of Cleopatra; born 69 or 70 BC, the last pharaoh of Egypt, the woman who murdered and seduced to advance her political ambitions. Theatrical motifs from her life are scored into our collective unconscious. It is said that at 21 years old, she was smuggled past Ptolemy’s guards in a carpet and unveiled to Julius Caesar, then over 50, and became his mistress. She dissolved a pearl in a cup of wine and drank it to vex her other famous lover, Mark Antony, in a bet over who could feast the most extravagantly. And her grand finale, a spectacular suicide involving (if Shakespeare and the Victorian painters are to be believed) a basket of figs and an asp. There have been countless depictions of her story rendered in art and print, and yet since the age of nine, Stothard has wanted to make his own version.

This book is partly about Cleopatra and partly about the author watching himself trying to write about her. For this is Cleopatra the eighth, as in, ‘precisely the eighth time’ Stothard has attempted this biography. ‘I never intended to write so much here about my own life,’ he reiterates later in the book, getting a twinge of writers’ doubt over past promises unfulfilled:

‘But I do select every memory by how much it connects to those promises. It seems random. But there is a reason, a pattern and, in the end maybe, a picture too.’

Yes. I can confirm there is a lucid and rewarding whole.

This is a history book because I now know more about Cleopatra’s life and times than I did before. It is also a writer’s journal, a record of false starts when one has a project in mind that eats away at you if don’t get it down on the page. It is travel writing, about Stothard’s days in Alexandria in January 2011 and the prelude to the Arab Spring. And it is memoir, recalling the author’s intellectual awakening and most especially two friends, Maurice and V, who, though not so very close to Stothard in the usual sense, both challenged, frustrated and inspired him.

Peter Stothard is the editor of the TLS. He was the editor of The Times from 1992 to 2002, chronicled Tony Blair’s war from inside the goldfish bowl, is a survivor of cancer and a classicist. These accomplishments make it difficult somehow to reconcile this as the author of Alexandria, an object which represents childhood wish fulfilment. The prose is as clear and elegant as you would expect, but the tone is surprising. Alexandria is meditative, sentimental, written from the heart, not from a journalistic imperative.

One of themes in this book is how written language, the most indelible method we have of recording human thought from one century to another, is fragile. Names of the ancient Egyptian dead, cut in stone to guarantee immortality, were later chiselled out by enemies to obliterate souls in the afterlife. The burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria is another motif Stothard evokes when he describes going to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a vast, modern complex built to recapture the spirit of the original. (Of course, Stothard does what any procrastinating author might be tempted to do: he looks himself up.) Even his writing, many hundreds of thousands of words over the course of a career, is vulnerable. ‘Most have sunk deservedly deep beneath the library sea,’ he says.

Words have permanence when they’re not lost or destroyed.

Sometimes a mere fragment survives from classical antiquity for scholars to pore over. There is, Stothard explains, one example of Cleopatra’s handwriting discovered recently on a papyrus used as post-mortem packing material. It is a tax exemption for one of Mark Antony’s generals drafted by a secretary upon which Cleopatra writes in Greek, ‘ginestho,’ meaning, ‘let it be done,’ ‘make it happen,’ a single queenly command passed down through the ages.

In Alexandria, Stothard concentrates on the ephemera of his Cleopatra, different incarnations rough-written, partially typed, bits copied or sellotaped together. He arranges them in his hotel room and his mind. He’s drawn into spaces of the past, schoolrooms, college bedrooms, red tents, drab offices, while giving the reader a sense of this as unfinished business as though the decades spent on news and politics were an interruption.

It is possible, perhaps, to read too much into a bereavement or health scare as the motivation for making work. Books have a spirit of their own. Sometimes authors don’t realise what they’re writing until they’ve written it, and this memoir is unusual because it lays that process bare. The people on the page, whether they lived long ago or are alive and well today, are captured as an impression – a reaction – a mood. It’s a way for the author to understand these relationships. Stothard has succeeded in writing his book about Cleopatra, yet her presence in our memories was already assured. It is the people history probably wouldn’t remember, his friends, his teachers, his colleagues, his guides, that he has done a real service to. This is writing from kindness.

Alexandria – The Last Nights of Cleopatra by Peter Stothard

Published in the UK by Granta, June 2013

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