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)
A still from Genius
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Thomas Wolfe biopic Genius is a hackneyed portrait of the great white male

Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically reproducing the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays.

You can learn everything you need to know about the film Genius, starring Jude Law as the volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his weary editor, Maxwell Perkins, from its opening five minutes.

An overly desaturated shot of Twenties New York reveals a hoard of hardworking men trudging solidly through the ratrace of city life. But what’s this? One man is set apart, lingering on a street corner and staring up at the words “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the building across the street. He smokes and stares, so we know he is like other men – yet different, more thoughtful.

Meanwhile, alone in an office, another man is reading Hemingway. He is interrupted by an enormous pile of papers that lands with a thud on his desk. This manuscript has been rejected by every other editor in the city (a sign of true, misunderstood literary genius). Is it any good, the reading man asks Manuscript Delivery Man? “Good? No! But it’s unique.”

Our reading man opens page one of the manuscript. “… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door…” His interest is piqued – here is a man who knows the earthy prose of a true male genius. We are treated to cinema's most captivating delight: a reading montage. The reading man barely glances up from his paper as he jumps aboard a leaving steam train. “… Of a stone, a leaf, a door…” The train races through the countryside. “And of all the forgotten faces…” The reading man trudges up a country path, still engrossed.

“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” The reading man enters his home. He spares a fleeting glance for a woman (His wife? It is hardly relevant) in a sitting room surrounded by pieces of womanly fabric and several other ladies. Nameless girls (His daughters? They are beside the point) run delicately from room to room, giggling. Over dinner, he looks up at them occasionally to smile blandly at their delightful artlessness, but he cannot enter into trivial conversation – immersed as he is in the world of the story. “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?”

Our reader reads overnight, down the country path, on the same train in the morning light. “He stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch,” he reads. “He was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left.” He finishes the manuscript and sighs with the deep satisfaction of a man who is, finally, understood.

Cut to black. The word “GENIUS” appears on screen.

As an exploration of our problematic understanding of the word, Genius the movie is more revealing than any satire. It’s a script that could have been written by Mallory Ortberg. But its conception of genius as white, male, American, self-absorbed, indulgent, obsessed with its own individuality, and unable to comprehend its mediocrity, is presented without irony or self-awareness.

The movie continues in this general vein: Perkins and Wolfe strike up a friendship as well as a professional relationship and spend long hours together drinking whiskey, talking with what they consider to be great wisdom about how love is a lighting bolt!! and repeatedly crossing out words (as cinematically thrilling as you might expect). We meet other “geniuses” aside from Perkins and Wolfe: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We ponder upon the real nature of genius – is it writing “wrenched from the gut”? Temperate editing? Or the genius of knowing your fellow man? There are writing montages, editing montages, and lots of close-ups of typewriting, crumpled papers, and streaks of red pencil. Hold on to your hats, kids, cause this is going to be a wild ride!

Women, black people, and the homeless are all used as vague backdrops onto which these conversations play out – but never fully considered as real, human people, people who Wolfe might find worthy for his next book, an investigation into America – all of it! In one scene, Wolfe and Perkins walk past a queue for a soup kitchen, prompting Wolfe to launch into a rant about the state of the country. “My work is frivolous!” he cries on a rooftop. But Perkins assures him of his enormous emotional contribution to society, and Wolfe soon seems to forget the men named on IMDB only as “Dock Worker / Homeless Man”. They stand arm-in-arm, smiling sagely out over a struggling city neither seem to know very well. Strings swell approvingly.

In another, we head to a jazz club with Wolfe and Perkins, so Perkins can experience the musical inspiration behind Wolfe’s experimental prose. The writers decide to best depict this with Wolfe throwing around words like “savage” while badly explaining the concept of jazz to anyone who’ll listen, before making grim sexual advances towards three women simultaneously: “Jazz Club Woman 1”, “Jazz Dancer” and “Jazz Club Customer”. It is not deemed necessary to give anyone other than Wolfe and Perkins any dialogue.

The film makes a less than half-hearted attempt to engage with the question of female creativity through Wolfe and Perkins’ partners. Wolfe’s girlfriend, the married Alice Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) is portrayed as Wolfe’s earliest and most steadfast champion: financially, emotionally and creatively supporting his literary endeavours. She is a set designer, and after Wolfe finds fame, he refuses to recognise her job as a creative or necessary pursuit, refusing to come to her plays.

As Wolfe becomes disinterested in her, Bernstein’s character changes at lightning speed scene to scene, one minute vindictively pointing a gun at her replacement, Perkins, the next swallowing handfuls of pills, supposedly as an act of attention-seeking, the next vowing she feels nothing for Wolfe at all. By the end of the film, she is reduced to muttering trite statements about how Wolfe was the sole thing that made her feel truly alive. We meet Zelda Fitzgerald, but only after she has been all but overcome by mental illness: she, too, is a hysterical prop used to warn the central men of the dangers of their obsession with their work.

Perkins’ wife is also a female artist side-lined. In one strange scene, we see her describe her playwriting, only to be talked over by Wolfe, who declares drama an “anaemic form” and returns to the topic of his novel, while Perkins’ daughters giggle at him in awe. We never hear of Louise’s work (or, indeed, anything about her that is not related to her husband and children) again. Perkins’ children, too, are only seen as interesting when they’re talking about their father or Wolfe.

These vague diversions do little to actually analyse the discriminatory way in which genius is conceived, be it in the Thirties or 2016. Here, genius is something white men do as their wives and daughters grow increasingly bitter. The homeless man standing out in the cold, or the black sex worker in a jazz club could have nothing of interest to add. In only allowing Wolfe and Perkins (and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) to speak for themselves, Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically perpetuating the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.