Alexandria by Peter Stothard: A wander through places where the thoughts of the dead live on

The loose-knittedness of <em>Alexandria</em> encourages Jack Hornerism. For me, the richest plums in the pudding are the digressions on Stothard’s background.

Alexandria: the Last Nights of Cleopatra
Peter Stothard
Granta Books, 402pp, £25

Call them mortuary memoirs. Granta Books, Alexandria’s publisher, had a success in 2004 with The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray (unstated subtitle – Smoking Kills But Not for a Little While Yet). They’ve pulled it off again. There is a persistent aimlessness in which ideas circle round a nucleus. What nucleus? The one that Henry James called the “distinguished thing”. Death.

Alexandria is dedicated to Stothard’s lifelong (while it lasted) and recently deceased friend “Maurice”. Tantalising initials are as far towards any surname we get. Peter and Maurice were bosom pals at school, room-mates at Oxford. As classicists, they shared a fascination with Cleopatra. It was only at university that a girlfriend, “V”, pointed out to Peter that Maurice was gay. In his innocence, he had missed such Keatsian clues as when his pal presented an invitingly bare thigh with “A thing of beauty . . .” inscribed on it.

Maurice went on to be something big in the pet-food industry. Stothard was the most successful editor of the Times in modern times and is now editor of the TLS. Both Stothard and Maurice developed pancreatic cancer at the same time. Something in their school milk, they speculate. The cruel disease killed Maurice but spared Stothard.

Maurice’s death, in 2010, inspired a spasm of mourning recklessness. A winter trip in January 2011 to South Africa was buggered up by airline problems. Stothard took off instead, by himself, for Alexandria. There he lodged in a seedy, once grand hotel. There is a striking vignette of him, in Room 114, unshaven, regarding a wound left, one deduces, by the surgeon’s curing knife. He tours the city in the company of a couple of local Virgils who know their history well enough to take an Oxford viva in it. Egypt is shaking with the fore-tremors of the Arab spring.

Stothard has brought with him seven attempts – from early childhood onwards – to write a life of Cleopatra. He more or less does it. He is as interested in Cleopatra’s death as her life. He pooh-poohs all that asp and basket of figs nonsense. A businesswoman like her (Margaret Thatcher is alluded to) would surely find more efficient ways to die.

Death hovers darkly over the book. There is a ghastly description of being a leader writer at the Times as “CDH” (Charles Douglas-Home), in his mid-forties, dies slowly, gallantly and painfully of cancer, issuing his editorial instructions by “squawk box”, his voice blurred by morphine.

The loose-knittedness of Alexandria encourages Jack Hornerism. For me, the richest plums in the pudding are the digressions on Stothard’s background. It is similar to my own. He was Essex-born, “respectable” lower class, raised in a virtually bookless house, grammar-school and first-generation university- educated. I’m 12 years older and have been less successful in every one of our life parallelisms. I, too, however, am a “Person With Cancer” (prostate). And I like to think I recognise the mood in which this book was conceived. You feel a kind of morituri, with no one to salute. You’re in “remission” – which should, for many, be called “intermission”. As the man in the movie says, “I’ll be back.” Or perhaps not. The scythe may strike elsewhere on the body (or, most horribly, the mind). Or the person standing next to you.

Why Alexandria? Ostensibly to get that damned elusive Cleopatra book written. But the underlying reason, one suspects, was that the Egyptians, whose classic text is The Book of the Dead, laboured against biological fact to keep the dead alive – with their paraphernalia of mummies, pyramids, sarcophagi and sphinxes. And, above all, with libraries. Stothard muses at length about the Library of Alexandria. Its huge collection, he suggests, has framed our modern mind by cataloguing, listing and “rationalising” the preserved relics of the human mind. Libraries are places where the thoughts of the dead live on. There are 18 million books in the British Library, 99 per cent of them, I would hazard, by now dead authors. Wear black the next time you join the morning queue stretching back, nowadays, to the Euston Road.

One of my favourite allegories of cultural life is that of the artist Chris Ofili, who went to Zimbabwe to look at elephants. He never saw one but on his safari he came across mounds of elephant dung. He packed his suitcase with the stuff and flew back (“Anything to declare, sir?”) to England, where he created such works of art as Painting with Shit on it. Peter Stothard has brought back from his quixotic North African jaunt the materials of a very fine book indeed. No shit.

Alexandria, 1994. (Photo: Getty Images)
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump