They all fell in love with Alexandria. They fell for the strange and evocative city, the romantic city, the sensual city, the city of mystery, of secret seductions, of riddles, of silences and of irresistible decadence. Alexandria the mistress you can never forget.
– Chapter 3, City of Lovers
In powerfully resonant scenes Victoria Thompson fuses history, mythology and autobiography to create a portrait of an unforgettable city and one of its rebellious daughters. A world few of us know, and fewer still have lived.
Losing Alexandria evokes the world of Alexandria, Egypt the way it once was, in this elegant mixture of memoir, history and personal reflection. In the memoir Victoria Thompson vividly recalls the romance and mystique of living in Alexandria when Egypt was a British Protectorate (as in The English Patient), and many of the figures who lived in this famous city: Alexander, Cleopatra, Caesar, Mark Antony. author E.M. Forster and the poet Cavafy. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet served as one of the major inspirations of the book. “He helped me lift the veil on things glimpsed and half understood in my childhood, and encouraged me to push aside the boundaries and step into forbidden territory.” Although she paints a romantic image of Alexandria, a place where writers found inspiration, soldiers broke from war, and exotic groups of people congregated, she also writes about the dark side of sex, the alleys and child brothels. She confronts Cavafy and Durrell in a couple of surprising, imagined scenes.
The book shifts in time and place between Alexandria and Australia, offering colourful and interesting juxtapositions. For instance, Victoria attended a British convent run by Irish nuns in Alexandria, a stark contrast to the bush school she found herself attending in Australia. But her life journey did not end with exile. She writes of her eventful life as an actress, then psychotherapist, coming close to dying in the Himalayas, attending film festivals in Cannes and Venice with her film maker husband (and nearly dying in Venice), staying in Savannah, Georgia, with her film actor brother-in-law filming with Clint Eastwood, and discovering a tragic love story between a close relative and a young soldier-poet, when she visits a cousin in Gloucestershire, England.
Quotes from reviews
“Losing Alexandria seems destined to take its place among the classics of writing about Egypt. Her recollections are so precise, so poignant, and so evocative they bear comparison with Lawrence Durrell or Naguib Mahfouz. As a memoir I found it both moving and informative.” – Peter Cowie, author, critic
“What a triumph!. To the words charmed, surprised, intrigued, I have to add wonderful, fascinating, courageous. It was an absorbing read and I could not put it down.” David Zweck, film producer/director
“Pain is a constant thread in Losing Alexandria, although the book is also lusciously sensuous and has its moments of gossip and fun.” – Jane Sullivan, Melbourne Age
“Never in my life have I read a book of such length in one day. But I have done with Victoria Thompson’s memoir. It is a superb piece of literature, and I salute her for what she has achieved. So much nuance, so much pain, so much longing. All qualities that the Levant exudes in abundance. Her book has sent me back to Cavafy whom I have admired for centuries. She has enlivened my life and brought back fond memories. I am entranced. She has captured a world so perfectly. And her style — well, it is airy, elegant and utterly honest. This is a major work. I absolutely loved her dialogues in the chapter City of Plague. She captured Cleopatra, Cavafy and Lawrence Durrell so well. An original touch, I thought. I bow down at her feet. Once again, I reiterate: this book is a major work. ” — James Cowan, author
“Losing Alexandria is a joy to read—a rich, evocative autobiography which moves back and forth through time, with a colourful casts of characters, real and historical. This is a wonderful story of exotic places, famous people and extravagant experiences. Must read.” – Sue Wannan, Bookshelf
“This is a delicious memoir—a judicious mixture of sights, sounds, tastes and experience.”– Ann Skea, Australian Book Review
Fact, myth and memory are interwoven in Losing Alexandria. I wish to acknowledge information and inspiration drawn from E.M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and Guide (Michael Haag, 1982). I thank Mr Haag for his generous permission to reproduce material from this book. Just as Lawrence Durrell wrote the Alexandria Quartet with Forster’s book open beside him, I have found it invaluable.
In his introduction, Michel Haag writes that Foster’s Alexandria is a guide to memory, and that the Alexandria Quartet is more or less the novel of the guide.
I could not have written my book without Forster, Durrell and C.P. Cavafy—these sublime masters of language, place and memory. Durrell’s words and images rekindled my own feelings and memories of the city I, too, feel so ambivalent about. He helped me lift the veil on things glimpsed and half understood in my childhood. Reading Durrell also encouraged me to push aside the boundaries and step into forbidden territory.
The poems by Cavafy are translations by Edmund Keeley from Cavafy’s Alexandria (Princeton University Press, 1996). My thanks to Mr Keeley for permission to use his translations.
I found David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life (Random House, 1991) inspirational as well.
I have used phrases and sentences from Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Proust, Tolstoy, Socrates, Mahfouz, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, Penelope Lively and Daphne Merkin of the New Yorker. Wherever possible, I have mentioned the author in the text but in some cases to do so would have appeared clumsy or disruptive to the flow of the story. I have used italics where they are not my own words.
Many other books helped my memory or expand my knowledge of Alexandria: Through the Dark Labyrinth by Gordon Bowker (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996); Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence (Faber & Faber, 1963); E.M. Forster: A life by P.N. Furbank (Secker and Warburg,1977; A Genius for Living: A Biography of Frieda Lawrence by Janet Byrne (Bloomsbury, 1995); Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995); Keith Douglas: A Study by William Scammell (Faber and Faber, 1988), and Keith Douglas: The Complete Poems (Oxford University Press, 1990).
PLEASE NOTE: “Losing Alexandria” is out of print and is only available through the library system in Australia, as far as I know. I did try to self-publish it but that wasn’t a good experience. Hopefully, a publisher will discover it and there will be a new publication. (I have revised it and there’s a new chapter about the Arab Spring, the Jasmine Revolution).