Book review: Imagining Alexandria, By Louis De Bernières Alexandria: the last nights of Cleopatra, By Peter Stothard

Via poetry and memoir, writers reinvent the metropolis of myth, dream and spin

Now merely a secondary scene of Egypt's dismaying strife, the city of Alexandria has seduced and scrambled Western minds at least since (if you credit the tale) Julius Caesar in 48BC unrolled his gift of a carpet to find inside the 21-year-old pharaoh-queen, Cleopatra VII Philopator. As befits a metropolis of linguists, storytellers, interpreters – spin doctors, in effect – lovers of the idea of Alexandria tend to shuttle between fact and dream, history and myth.

Meanwhile, solid truth lies buried deep as its royal palaces in harbour mud. For modern readers, that Alexandrian blend of fable, enigma and nostalgia now usually entials the figure of the poet CV Cavafy (1863-1933), whom his friend EM Forster indelibly described as "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe".

Cavafy's "slight angle" – that tender, ironic and melancholic perspective on present passions (for handsome young men, in his case, but universal in their resonance) and ancient myths and glories - governs the first volume of poems by the author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The Greek Alexandrian poet, whom De Bernierès calls his "spiritual food for many years now", shadows both the substance of these gentle, wistful reflections on the transience of love and the ravages of time, and their style.

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Sometimes they more or less quote directly. "As you have ruined your life, here within these walls/ You have ruined it everywhere…" ("Another House") lifts both theme and phrase from Cavafy's "The City". Elsewhere, more local deities shade the tone of poems with English rather than Mediterranean motifs: Kipling, Larkin, Hardy. De Bernières captures with quiet assurance that Cavafy music of resigned, sensual sadness as lovers depart, gods retreat and dynasties collapse ("Do not be bitter, no world lasts forever"), even if you wish he had dared more than a heartfelt pastiche.

In his memoir of a lifetime's preoccupation with Cleopatra and her fate in history and legend, Peter Stothard purports to have little time for neo-Alexandrian literati and their effete "nostalgia… for the sexual invention and cosmopolitan beauty" of a city of illusion. Man of business and sceptical scholar, the youthful classicist turned editor of The Times and (now) the TLS scorns the pursuit of the "souls of poets dead and gone". Instead, he arrives in Alexandria at the start of 2011 to finish – at long last – a book on Cleopatra, at the eighth attempt.

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Previous drafts, pieced together from a chaos of notes in his shabby room at the Hotel Metropole, have accompanied him through an Essex childhood on an estate of Cold War radar technicians, studies at Brentwood School and Oxford, and a career in journalism undertaken just as Rupert Murdoch (his employer, though quite as invisible here as CP Cavafy) began to change forever the terms of the trade. As he puts it while glossing the ode by Horace (Laudabunt alii) which he translates, strikingly well, at the finale, "We must look at what is omitted as well as what is there".

Yet despite its impatience with romantic fancies of the queen and her lover-allies Caesar and Mark Antony; despite (or because of) the insistence that classical learning and good journalism alike should focus on the hidden underside of any story, his book becomes a very Alexandrian (indeed, Cavafy-esque) performance. The Arab Spring, which in weeks would topple Mubarak, brews offstage. But we scarcely hear a rumble. His Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern pair of guides – the Muslim Mahmoud; the Coptic Socratis – amuse, obfuscate and sometimes threaten. In Alexandrian fashion, "the oblique, the tangential" creeps up on the main event. Just as much the disputed facts about Cleopatra, so his memories of childhood and youth – tinged by the loss of his sly, mercurial, camply mischievous schoolfriend Maurice – mingle and re-form.

Like the Alexandrian scholars, Stothard enjoys "turning stories inside out and back to front". Convinced that "the sideshow is the main show", he lavishes his ironies and obliquities on the marginal terrain of life: both his own, and those of history's middle-ranking fixers and dealers. Their tainted exemplar is the side-switching Lucius Munatius Plancus, who betrayed Antony and Cleopatra (and for whom Horace wrote that barbed ode). As Stothard's Oxford mentor says, "Just watch the office men, the trimmers". He does so.

Like the tales it has to tell, this book's genre slips attractively in and out of focus: by turns, a scholarly quest; an offbeat travelogue; a postwar meritocrat's apologia. "Alexandrians", to Stothard, "captivated the Romans with techniques of twisting, reshaping not merely possessing". In the end, protean Cleopatra and her city will escape his grasp, but the story of their flight proves consistently bewitching and (in its more elegiac aspects) very moving too. As the absent-present Cavafy expressed it in "Ithaka", that ever-receding destination "gave you the marvellous journey/ Without her you would not have set out".

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