Keith Miller's Reviews > Alexandria: A History and a Guide

Alexandria by E.M. Forster
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Apr 02, 09

bookshelves: alexandria, egypt

Called the best guidebook ever written, Forster's homage to Alexandria is at once informative, evocative, and nostalgic. The first half of the book is a series of vignettes on various moments and characters in the city's history. Forster immersed himself in the literature of ancient Alexandria and Greece, and it is this intimate acquaintance with the thought of the old city that gives the historical section its depth. Using a style that, though terse, always has time for a story or interesting quote, he covers the ancient library and mouseion, the Alexandrian contributions to science, the Christian and Arab periods. In the celebrated section "The Spiritual City," he outlines the religious heritage of Alexandria, demonstrating how Christianity as we know it today was largely formed in this city. Durrell drew heavily on this section for the gnostic theme that runs through the Quartet. The historical section concludes with a translation of Cavafy's "The God Abandons Antony," the first Cavafy poem to appear in print in English, and Forster considered the primary achievement of his guidebook to be the introduction of Cavafy to the English-speaking world.[return:]Each historical section is linked to sections in the guide, and Forster claimed that "the 'sights' of Alexandria are in themselves not interesting, but they fascinate when we approach them through the past." Forster spent much time on trams in Alexandria, and the great love of his life, Mohammed el Adl, was a tram conductor on the Bacos route. It is fitting, then, that the tramlines should provide the web holding the guidebook together. Forster takes us through the city by tram, pointing out interesting buildings and sites to left and right. The guide also contains maps of the ancient and modern city, and plans of the Greco-Roman Museum and the Wadi Natrun monasteries.[return:]The book had a difficult birth: Forster's Alexandrian publisher suffered a fire in which they thought the books had been burned. After recouping insurance compensation, they discovered that they had in fact survived. They then decided to burn the books deliberately. In 1935, members of the Royal Archaeological Society of Alexandria decided to reprint the book. Forster put some work into revisions, but this second edition did not sell well, and it was only after the book was published in the US that it achieved moderate sales.

More than any other guidebook, Forster's comes across as a labor of love. Lawrence Durrell wrote of the guidebook that Forster "must have been deeply happy, perhaps deeply in love . . . Paradoxically, if that is the word, the book is also saturated with the feeling of loneliness, that of a cultivated man talking to himself, walking by himself."
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