Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy

Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy

by Jane Lagoudis Pinchin


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Few places have shaped as many sensibilities as the exotic, mythical city of Alexandria. Jane Lagoudis Pinchin's gracefully written book describes the profound influence exerted by the spirit of Alexandria and the Alexandrian poet, C. P Cavafy, on F,. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell.

Originally published in 1977.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691616599
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #2470
Pages: 262
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Alexandria Still

Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy

By Jane Lagoudis Pinchin


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06283-9



... the important determinant of any culture is after all — the spirit of place. Just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy, a Greece will always give you the same type of culture — will express itself through the human being just as it does through its wild flowers. ... Yes, human beings are expressions of their landscape ... I think that not enough attention is paid to [the sense of place] ... as a purely literary criterion. What makes "big" books is surely as much to do with their site as their characters and incidents. ... They are tuned in to the sense of place. You could not transplant them without totally damaging their ambience and mood; ... this has nothing I think to do with the manners and habits of the human beings who populate them; for they exist in nature, as a function of place.

(SP, 156-163)

Lawrence Durrell is right, of course. And one feels foolish when mentioning Homer, Dickens, or Tolstoy as proof of what he says. Most "big" books are thoroughly grounded as, perhaps less obviously, are most "big" poems. Ireland shapes Yeats as much as it does Joyce. Curiously, Twain and Eliot were equally moved by that "great brown god" the Mississippi. And for all his weddings of Imagination and Reality, Wallace Stevens places "A Dish of Peaches in Russia" and Crispin in Carolina. After the free-flying human condition, we, like Durrell, like Forster and Cavafy before him, seem only to touch it when turning a corner onto the windy corniche in, say, Alexandria.

Few places have had as passionate a character. Few have shaped as many sensibilities; for, like a handful of other world-cities, Alexandria was the center of cultural, political, and religious life for many long centuries. Contemporary readers often think of antiquity in terms of Athens and then Rome, losing a sense of Greater Greece and its core Alexandria. But perhaps this loss is not out of keeping with the spirit of that exotic city.

Alexandria produced many strange figures: Alexander, who gave the city its name but was drawn to a remoter east; Theocritos, Euclid, Callimachus; its philosophers and theologians, Plotinus, Hypatia, the rivals Athanasios and Arios; conquerors and leaders, Ptolemy Sotir, Amr, Mohammed Ali; and of course Cleopatra and her Antony, that Roman Alexandrian who heard the music of the god Hercules, fading as the god left the city, and recognized it as an omen of his own defeat.

But Alexandria, with its rich past, is at present out of the world's eye, noted, if at all, as a town where Egyptian presidents on occasion entertain heads of state. The contemporary city might have been easy to forget, except that the spirit of this particular place shaped the fiction of three major twentieth-century writers and through them the imaginations of us all.

For the modern city produced one of Alexandria's strangest figures: C. P. Cavafy, the Greek poet who made her a mythical land, linking an outpost of contemporary European culture to its Hellenistic past. Thanks to the incredible energy of E. M. Forster and of fine scholars and translators who followed, Cavafy's work is now becoming well-known to an English-speaking audience. New translations of the collected poems, a new biography, and a new book-length study of the Cavafian imagination will all be available in English within the course of this year.

Less widely known, and the subject of this study, is the profound influence the spirit of Alexandria and of the city's poet had on two English-speaking writers — E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell — whom world war brought to Alexandria, where they confronted the city's history and ambience, the legendary Cavafy, and themselves. Both wrote about the poet and Alexandria and, in different ways, sought what Cavafy had sought: to capture the spirit of an extraordinary place.

E. M. Forster came to Egypt during the First World War, and it is here that Cavafy's and Alexandria's influence on the contemporary English-speaking world had its start. For Forster, Alexandria was a passage to India, a bridge, a link, teaching him to come to terms with history and with love. As we shall see, the direction of Forster's fiction changed as a result; it finally encompassed loss.

The Second World War found Lawrence Durrell almost literally washed upon Alexandrian shores. Durrell could not, like Forster, know Cavafy, but he still felt the Greek poet's presence — an unseen mentor — and, like Forster, wrote about young Englishmen and older, wiser Easterners, and about The City, for Durrell a metaphor for modern life, the battleground upon which man, the artist, must struggle to survive. He too uses Cavafy as his guide, although only at times can he follow his mentor's whispers of defeat. Clearly, as it had for others before him, Alexandria triggered the best in Durrell's imagination.

In attempting to discover the influence of Cavafy and Alexandria on these English Alexandrians, we begin with our own examination of the city's history and landscape, knowing from the start what the Alexandria Quartet would have us see: that there are more than four sides to any story. Although momentarily digressing twice, to angle our vision at Macedonia and Selefkia and later at Byzantium — because these places were for many, including Cavafy and Durrell, extensions of the Alexandrian spirit — we will follow Alexandria's history chronologically: from its formation and its periods of Ptolemaic splendor through Roman and Moslem conquests, finally, to the city that sprang from its own ashes two centuries ago, and, now faded, "goes on being Alexandria still."

Our study cannot encompass the city's history; an objective or complete history is of course as illusory as an objective photograph. Durrell's Quartet begins with a note: "The characters in this story ... bear no resemblance to living persons. Only the city is real." (J, 7) "Real," the only word, as Nabokov has said, that requires quotation marks. Durrell's city is a mythic land, as is Forster's and Cavafy's. But Alexandria, her landscape and her peoples, the spirit of place, had, perhaps more than any other city of this century, the power to excite mythic visions, and in order to know those visions fully we must examine the spot on which they grew. Our study cannot encompass the city's history, but it can help the reader hear the sounds of Alexandrian life, the din that surrounded, and shaped, all these writers, so that he can better note the particular strains each chose to stress, the music each of these Antonys claimed as his own.

Even Alexandria's geography is extraordinary. Flying over the Greek Islands toward Cairo, I was astonished to see sudden unrelenting yellow sands. Alexandria is only a short distance from the Libyan Desert, which has had its role in shaping her spirit, but most of the city is surrounded by water. The promontory of Ras-el-Tin, once the island Pharos of which Homer speaks but now connected to the mainland by the accumulation of silt, thrusts its hourglass form into the Mediterranean, an ancient harbor on either side. The city, formed on alluvial soil, is bordered on the south by Lake Mareotis — its harbor connected during Alexandria's earliest history with a canal that led to the "Canopic Mouth" of the Nile and thus to Africa. E. M. Forster captured some of the sense of the city's proximity to and yet detachment from that continent:

There is a certain little bird — I forget its name but its destiny is to accompany the rhinoceros about and to perform for him various duties that he is too unwieldy to perform for himself. Well, coastal Egypt is just such a little bird, perched lively and alert upon the hide of that huge pachyderm Africa. It may not be an eagle or a swan. But unlike the rhinoceros, its host, it can flit through the blue air. And now and then it sings.

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Alexandria ad Ægyptum. Like her poet, she has always been adjacent to Egypt, never quite part of that land.

Among the happy advantages of the city, the greatest is the fact that this is the only place in all Ægypt which is by nature well situated with reference to both things — both to commerce by sea, on account of the good harbours, and to commerce by land, because the river easily conveys and brings together everything into a place so situated — the greatest emporium in the inhabited world.

Thus the Roman visitor Strabo described Alexandria after the fall of Cleopatra. Harbors providing access to three continents. A link to Macedonia and Greece and the riches of the African Nile. A base leading to Asia and conquest of the Persian Empire. In 331 B.C., having conquered Syria and Egypt, Alexander ordered the construction of a city on this strategic spot where only the small town of Rhakotis stood, housing fishermen, goatherds, and coast guards.

The flat enclosed land didn't inspire the architectural inventiveness of an ethereal, spiraling Pergamum. But the city's planning did become a part of the mythology of Alexandria. Plutarch tells us that, lacking chalk, the builders marked out streets with barley meal — which the birds promptly ate. Disturbed, Alexander consulted his seers, who assured him that this was a good omen, indicating abundance. Alexandria would be "nursing mother for men of every nation." Greek, Jew, Egyptian, Armenian, Italian, Syrian, French, English — with names that take on the repetitive magic of litany in Durrell's city — clearly proved the prophecy true over and over again.

Alexander was to have little else to do with his city. Journeying from it into the desert, he met the prophet Ammon, who addressed Alexander as a god, equivocally. And like a young god, Alexander dreamed of conquering Asia, and of bringing harmony to the world. "That way lies madness," E. M. Forster was to write of these dreams of India. (PP, 27) More than eight years later Alexander's body was brought back to Alexandria, but he never saw the city again.

Out of Alexander's conquests, after much struggling over the spoils, three great dynasties emerged — separate but linked by language and culture. The leaders of each shared the idea that, above all else, they were Greeks, these Macedonians, Selefkians, and Ptolemies.

Greater Greece

With their capital at Pella, the Macedonian heirs of Antigonos Gonatas spent generations fighting to maintain control of much of the Greek mainland. Defending Hellenism from Roman as well as from Northern and Celtic forces, they often discovered that Greece preferred Roman to Macedonian rule. Final defeat came with the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C.,a battle, like many Cavafy focused upon, through which Roman power controlled a large part of the Hellenic world.

In Asia the division of Alexander's empire went to a long line of men called Selefkos or Antiochos. These generally weak kings controlled a huge area — from Afghanistan to the Straits, from the Pontus to Syria — which began to erode almost immediately. Feeling themselves Greek, they wanted to live near the Mediterranean, and as a consequence Syria became the real center of their empire, with Antioch on the Orontes their capital. The great Persian kings had ruled from an Iranian center which was better suited for keeping their vast kingdom united. By the first century before Christ the Selefkid empire had dwindled to include only Syria.

Still Antioch, like Alexandria, remained an important city until the Arab conquest in A.D. 638. Antioch had a population of nearly 250,000 in the fourth century A.D. and a reputation — shared or caused by the neighboring resort Daphne — as a beautifully and infamously dissolute city. She was, at the same time, an important center of Christianity — the setting for some of the early works of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas — famous for her conflict with the Emperor Julian the Apostate and as the place from which the fifth century hermit Simeon Stylite came. A remarkable city, a city in which — particularly in the later poems — many Cavafian characters find their home, Antioch was, in temperament and in fate, closest to Alexandria in the Hellenic world.

Alexandria was of course the capital of the third part of Alexander's world: the Ptolemaic Empire.

Egypt is the very home of the goddess; for all that exists and is produced in the world is in Egypt; wealth, wrestling grounds, might, peace, renown, shows, philosophers, money, young men, the domain of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the king a good one, the museum, wine, all good things one can desire, women more in number....

Through the Active voice of an old matchmaker, the poet Herodas creates a feeling for abundant Alexandria in the days of Ptolemy II, Philadelphos (285-247 B.C.).

Philadelphos' most noteworthy accomplishment was, as Forster puts it, "domestic." Like the Egyptian god Osiris, he married his sister. "It was the pride of race carried to an extreme degree." (A, 16) Durrell sees the union as more basic — sexuality carried to an extreme degree, to root-knowledge — the incestuous spirit that haunts his city and its citizens. This mating, certainly alien to Greek practice, became a precedent for a long chain of Ptolemies, Arsinoes, and Cleopatras. The line was to decline — Athenaios describes Cleopatra's unpopular father as "not a man but a flute player and a juggler" — but the first three Ptolemies built an outstanding, if over-planned, city, holding sway in courts that were celebrated throughout the world.

Ptolemaic Alexandria

The architectural sites of Alexandria included the Pharos, that huge ancient lighthouse built by Sortratos of Knidos and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Soma, the temple-tomb, was said to have housed the golden coffin of Alexander and was, for Durrell, the axis from which the ancient city radiated, "like the arms of a starfish." (C, 55) In the southwest corner of the city the first Ptolemy placed another temple, dedicated to the new god Serapis, a fine truly Alexandrian creation, combining features of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis with the Greek deities Zeus, Pluto, and Aesculapius, the god of healing, and thus embodying what Forster, in particular, saw as the essential character of the city, its ability to act as a bridge between cultures and ideas.

Pharos, the Soma, the temple to Serapis: all are clearly linked in our visions with the Mouseion and its Library, justifiably the best-known wonder of Ptolemaic Alexandria. By 250 B.C. the Library contained 400,000 volumes, including Aristotle's collection; the chief librarian ruled as the most important official in the Mouseion, a vast center of learning 10 Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, trans. Charles Burton Gulick (London: Wm. Heinemann, 1928), n, 433. in which scholars could write, do research, or teach under the patronage of the state.

As is perhaps obvious, the intellectual climate did not produce memorable historians or philosophers. But mathematics and natural science fared well, as did literary scholarship. Editing became important: the Alexandrians sifted through the variants that had come down through an oral tradition to give the Greek world definitive editions of its major writers. This was an age in which poet-grammarians often taught royal princes in return for courtly patronage. But Hellenistic Alexandria lacked the freedom and conflict alive in the fifth-century city-state.

The effects on literature were telling. Poetry was no longer recited to large groups as a vivid part of national life, and drama declined in importance.

I hate your hackneyed epic; have no taste
For roads where crowds hither and thither haste.
Loathe vagrant loves; and from the public springs
I drink not; I detest all common things.

Even through the translation, Callimachus' epigram gives one some sense of the mood of his period, a mood that brings to mind Cavafy who, though seldom loathing vagrant loves, hated the ordinary and the overblown. Scholasticism, elegance, often ennui, dominated the short, precious poems of the Alexandrians with extraordinary attention paid to technique — to genre and its associated dialect — to literary and scientific allusions, emphasizing art for its own sake, and the use of old forms in startling, original ways.


Excerpted from Alexandria Still by Jane Lagoudis Pinchin. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Table of Contents, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • List of Abbreviations, pg. xi
  • CHAPTER 1. THE CITY, pg. 1
  • INDEX, pg. 239

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