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)
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear