CITY OF LONGING
Reviewed by Jane Camens
‘I have waited all my life for someone who could respond exactly as you do,’ Olivier Valeur tells Isabelle, the protagonist of Victoria Thompson’s novel, City of Longing.
Isabelle lives on the other side of the world to Olivier, an obscenely wealthy banker, who has read her memoir – ‘a book about a place and time which had become irretrievably lost’. Like Thompson’s own earlier memoir, Losing Alexandria, Isabelle’s memoir recalled the charmed world of British and European expatriates in cosmopolitan Alexandria before the overthrow of King Farouk.
‘You have breathed the same air, smelled the same smell of chestnuts being roasted on the Corniche,’ Olivier says during one of the many phone calls he makes to Isabelle in Sydney from his house in the south of France.
Through their letters and phone calls to each other, which become an obsession, they revive the city and its scents, enabling each other to breathe again the spice of their lost youths. Their memories are informed by literature they’ve also breathed into themselves: the poetry of Cavafy, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Shakespeare’s allusions to Cleopatra, as well as E.M.Forster’s references to the city where they were lived.
Eventually, they devise a plan to meet each other.
City of Longing rekindles much of Thompson’s earlier book, but in this novel she couches her longing for Alexandria in a love story. Olivier and Isabelle’s love is sparked on seeing the reflection of part of themselves in each other, in this case, Alexandria. Isabelle, a psychotherapist, is not as canny about examining her own involvement in this fantastical relationship as she is quick to judge Olivier when presented with evidence that his values do not exactly reflect her own. Her desire to find part of her lost self in him enables her to overlook and forgive aspects of Olivier’s lifestyle that she is less able to tolerate in others.
City of Longing immerses the reader in the exotic lost world of Alexandria of a past era. It also deals with a present world of extravagance, longing, and life choices that need re-examining. It also hints at a future when longing ceases: understanding of the Buddhist dictum that longing is the source of all suffering.
Like most good fiction, City of Longing takes readers on a journey into ‘other’ worlds. Those most like likely to enjoy this book will be able to nod at a shared experience of literary adventures and possibly also recognise in themselves Isabelle’s longing for something – a place or person – lost and never able to be regained.
City of Longing is also in part a lesson in life: that in the end we must come to terms with moving on and take responsibility for who we have become and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Jane Camens is a writer whose stories set in Macau under Portuguese colonial rule have won international acclaim. She runs Asia-Pacific Writers (www.apwriters.com)
Reviewed by Patricia Anderson
Editor of Australian Art Review.
From: The Australian November 26, 2011
Alexandrian elegance a faded currency
VICTORIA Thompson’s first novel, Losing Alexandria, published in 1998, was on the local bestseller lists for weeks.
It remembered a childhood in a colourful, culturally layered place (distance always magnifies enchantment), recalled from a faraway country, a “desert of the mind and the soul”. Alas, reader, this was Australia.
Thompson’s memories of Alexandria are the propellant for her second novel, The City of Longing, whose narrator, Isabelle, is intrigued and finally intoxicated by a man named Olivier Valeur. He has read her Alexandrian memoir, experienced it as a “communion of a lifetime’s wait” and writes to her from his offices in London’s Mayfair. He is wealthy, travelled, urbane, well-connected and his childhood was scarred by unstable years in Alexandria.
As a character he appears to have stepped straight out of a Louis Begley novel: the middle-aged man, replete yet hollowed-out. She is young, conscious of the effect of her good looks on men, married first to an older poet, then to a mountaineer. “Same thing,” she says. “They both have their head in the clouds.” She works as a therapist.
The reader knows what is coming next: the kaleidoscopic pattern of opportunities pursued or abandoned. They begin the slow erotic dance of revelation, advancing and retreating, through their shared interest in certain poets, writers and philosophers (C. P. Cavafy, Lawrence Durrell, Kierkegaard and so forth). The only tic that mars the narrative is the formulaic use of daisy chains of celebrated literary figures as a fire-starter for Thompson’s own revelations. She could have done perfectly well without them.
Olivier sends a video cassette of a documentary about his mother, which also introduces Isabelle to him: how he looks, how he sounds. He was “a neat man, unlike the portrait by Lucian Freud, with the loose and crumpled suit”.
The tape witnesses the post-war period when Egypt was in turmoil. There is espionage, intrigue and betrayal. His mother, who divorced his father when he was four, is involved in this and is arrested as an Israeli spy and incarcerated. Her son only glimpsed her behind barred windows from a cobblestone courtyard.
When she is finally released, they travel to Jerusalem, where his mother’s Alexandrian elegance and sophistication is faded currency in a new, harshly ascetic environment.
When Olivier graduates from university in Israel he travels to the US, where he ultimately hears of his mother’s brain tumour and death. The reader has no idea where all these revelations are leading. There are also intimations of his ill health.
As the correspondence becomes more expansive and intimacies incrementally increase, Olivier invites Isabelle to meet him. Various destinations (Tokyo, Chile, New York) are tried and rejected. He wonders if they should meet at his chateau in France. Then, inexplicably, he changes his mind. She is spun off her axis. And this is where the reader may reluctantly decide that this is merely an ageing man hoping to relive some half-remembered past through correspondence, then losing his nerve.
The reader is also prompted to ask questions: How well can we know someone we have never met? What are the limitations of correspondence? How well does it substitute for the real-life encounter? Is it possible that some relationships blossom more effectively with distance and can be sustained for longer? Does it encourage idealisation and private fantasies that may be rendered null and void by a real-life encounter? (Patrick White was known to have maintained correspondence for years with some but shrank at the idea of a physical meeting.)
In the final count, every city is a city of longing.
When Isabelle finally undertakes a convoluted journey, moving like an automaton through Paris, London, Tangier, Morocco and arriving at a chalet – “a mountain mausoleum” – above St Moritz, where she is discovered in a febrile state by a young lawyer, the reader is confronted with her revelation:
“We hide certain traumatic events in our lives and unless we resolve them, they resurface, perhaps years later, either in disease or sabotaging our chances [of] happiness.”
Reviewed by JS Breukelaar
City of Longing: A Love Story by Victoria Thompson
‘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, actress 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 Concorde 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 here 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 artist. 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…’