[ilds] where the ghost of that rascal durrell lurks. . . .

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Tue Mar 17 07:24:56 PDT 2009

Book Review: City of Longing: A Love Story by Victoria Thompson
Written by JS Breukelaar
Published March 17, 2009


> 'Where do exiles begin their stories,' asks the central character in 
> City of Longing, 'those birds of passage, forever on the wing, 
> carrying their sense of impermanence like a cowl of grief?'
> Where indeed. In timeless fashion, Isabelle begins with a letter. The 
> letter is from an admirer, a fellow exile from Alexandria living in 
> London. For, like Victoria Thompson’s 1998 memoir, Losing Alexandria, 
> her second novel is about going home and discovering a la Gertrude 
> Stein, that there is no there, there.
> Isabelle, a not-so-fictional character based not so loosely on 
> Thompson herself, is languishing in Bondi, ‘lost in that Down Under 
> continent where she had tumbled in perpetual exile.’ At first Isabelle 
> wants to dismiss the letter as fan mail. After all, she is used to 
> admirers. Isabelle, like Victoria Thompson herself, is a former model, 
> dancer, and a great beauty. She is basking in the success of her 
> bestseller Losing Alexandria. This is one of many self-reflexive 
> moments that suggest there is more to this so-called novel than meets 
> the eye, a tantalising truth beating at the edges of the book like a 
> bird trapped in a kitchen -literally dying to get out.
> Isabelle — a fan of Chopin, Byron, and the poet Cavafy — is seduced by 
> the admirer’s melancholy: ‘We may never meet, but I wish we had.’ She 
> answers his letter, and in doing so seals her fate. A passionate 
> long-distance love blossoms between the mysterious Olivier and the 
> damaged Isabelle with unforeseen consequences for both.
> Olivier reads and rereads Isabelle’s book and in it finds a link to a 
> kindred spirit and also to his own past: the imprisonment and tragic 
> death of his Zionist mother, and to Alexandria itself - troubled city 
> of dark alleys and unsavoury secrets. On the other side of the globe, 
> Isabelle, sequestered in an unhappy marriage, falls for a mind as 
> keen, and a soul as keening as her own.
> Thompson has the chops to keep this story from softening into the 
> sentimental mush suggested by its premise. Apart from the occasional 
> lapse into meandering if informative riffs on animal rights or the 
> evils of modern medicine, City of Longing is rigorously researched and 
> teasingly paced. Its gratification is strategically delayed as to seem 
> almost hallucinatory. But reader beware. This is no dream. In spite of 
> the bewitching detours along the way — E. M Forster’s infatuation with 
> the inimitable Cavafy, Lawrence Durrell’s tragic and destructive 
> relationship with his daughter, Mary Shelley’s lovelorn creation, and 
> above all Antony and Cleopatra — reality bites hard.
> Question arise. For a start, there are practical considerations - will 
> Olivier and Isabelle ever meet, and how? But there are also questions 
> of identity. Who, after all is Olivier Valeur? He becomes secretive, 
> telling her that there are some things that can only be told face to 
> face. She is shocked to discover that he is rich, very rich. He makes 
> arrangements, books the Concord and rooms at The Four Seasons. He 
> promises to take her back to Alexandria. In a remarkable passage, he 
> dreams aloud:
> Think about it, what fun we could have ... I will take you to Delice 
> and Atheneos and to the Cecil Hotel where the ghosts of Justine, 
> Mountolive, Clea and that rascal Durrell must lurk. We will walk 
> through the streets of Alexandria and say, this is where Cleopatra 
> built her temple to her lover, and her Alexander is supposed to have 
> been buried. Over there is where Cavafy brought his Greek boys to the 
> shabby cheap room he kept in the old house above a taverna. I’ll take 
> you to the soukh and we’ll become wildly intoxicated with the perfume 
> of spicy cinnamon, clove, myrrh, frankincense, jonquil and jasmine. 
> Then we will drive to the desert and keep on driving until we vanish 
> into a mirage.
> The melancholy, mysterious lover Olivier — dreaming his dreams and 
> chasing mirages — is typical of the modern exile. One notable absence 
> from Thompson’s lonely hearts’ club is the late scholar Edward Said, 
> whose reflections on exile and Diaspora have brought this ageless 
> plight into the modern context. According to Said, the contemporary 
> exile suffers a loss, not only of place, but also of faith in being 
> able to make a new world to rule out of the ruins of the old. To 
> compensate, he or she creates a realm that more closely resembles 
> fiction than reality (the so-called New World a case in point). Such 
> is it with the lovers in City of Longing whose New Worlds are 
> separated by oceans - his world of the rich and famous in London, hers 
> of activism and reform ‘Down Under’.
> Still other questions arise. If Isabelle is real, or based on Thompson 
> herself, what does that make Olivier? Is he a fantasy brought to life 
> by her own desires, a ‘Dear Reader’ stitched together, like 
> Frankenstein’s creature, by the intensity of solitude and longing? One 
> suspects that there is more to it than that. Thompson plants 
> tantalising clues. Olivier has two grown children - an emerging writer 
> and a well-known photographer. He has had his portrait painted by both 
> Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. He is a great philanthropist, a 
> brilliant scholar. One wonders what kind of book this would have been 
> had Thompson decided, as she did in Losing Alexandria, to name names. 
> After all, the chapters in the latter dealing with her brother-in-law, 
> Jack Thompson, as well as Patrick White are riveting, and one gets the 
> impression that City of Longing has similar dirt to dish.
> But Thompson has attempted to write a very different book, one that 
> stands on its own without the Judas-kiss of celebrity, and for the 
> most part she has succeeded. City of Longing is an exquisitely woven 
> tale of love and loss, and if Thompson is playing her cards close to 
> her chest, one can only hope that she is also keeping her beloved 
> Cavafy’s words close to her heart: ‘Above all, don’t fool yourself, 
> don’t say/ it was a dream...’ 

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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