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

W. L. Godshalk godshawl at email.uc.edu
Thu Mar 19 09:35:33 PDT 2009

thank you, sir

good stuff

At 10:24 AM 3/17/2009, you wrote:

>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
>ILDS mailing list
>ILDS at lists.uvic.ca

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