Book Review: City of Longing: A Love Story by Victoria Thompson
Author: JS Breukelaar
Published: 18 August, 2011 BC (Blogcritics) Books
‘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…’