Peter Stothard is haunted. Or perhaps enchanted?
The expansively accomplished British journalist (among his credits: He was the editor of The Times from 1992 to 2002, and remains the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, gigs that earned him a knighthood) tells us in the opening pages that "Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra" is his eighth attempt to write a definitive book on Cleopatra. Seven times he's tried and failed. She is the elusive muse he's been chasing since childhood, never able to capture until now.
To suggest that "Alexandria" is a biography of Cleopatra sells short this complex work. This is a multifaceted creature: a personal memoir, an Egyptian travelogue and a deep analysis of contemporary Western culture's complex relationship with the last pharaoh of Egypt, the queen Cleopatra, who died in 30 B.C.
Stothard finds himself stranded in Alexandria in early 2011 for several weeks, on the cusp of the Arab Spring.
The Alexandria Stothard renders bears little resemblance to the classical portrait of the great city. There is no Lighthouse, no Great Library, not even a Nile crocodile at the mouth of the river: "Monotheism stopped the gods and the Aswan dam stopped the crocs. There is no adult specimen in this dusty aquarium beside the site of the ancient lighthouse, only a single fifteen-inch baby, with glowing slit-eyes, nose upturned and tiny toes outspread, the sole representative of the species."
But the ghost of Cleopatra wafts like a mist over contemporary Alexandria. Stothard, while exploring hidden corners of the city, considers all the Cleopatras he's encountered, from Plutarch's to Elizabeth Taylor's. These Cleos beguile him, defying synthesis even as Alexandria agitates — just as Stothard leaves the city, Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia, crowds begin to mass in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Dame Taylor reclines on her deathbed.
Is Stothard's book an elegy for ancient Egypt? A pre-emptive fugue for modern Egypt? An intricate biography? A deeply personal memoir of obsession and inspiration? All of these, and for readers open to a genre-defying journey through history and Egypt led by a reflective, impassioned tour guide with a gift for precise and emotional prose, “Alexandria' is a rich experience.