Open cities are the mothers of open societies, and their existence is especially essential to literature - which is why, I suppose, we cherish our illusions about them, and forgive them so many of their sins. In the case of Alexandria, that prototype cosmopolis and melter of antitheses, we can hardly be blamed. Antony and Cleopatra, Cavafy, E M Forster, Lawrence Durrell ... there is a formidably distinguished list of foreign celebrants and from them we have taken an indelible image of the place. It is languorous, subtle, perverse, eternally fin de siècle; failure haunts it, yet a failure of such richness that it is a kind of victory.
- John Fowles, introduction to
Naguib Mahfouz' Miramar
|The Tauris Parke Paperback 2014|
reprint of Forster's Alexandria.
|John Fowles' copy of the 1982|
Michael Haag Ltd edition.
The cover is by my friend Colin Elgie.
Durrell imagined that he had already written an introduction to Forster's Alexandria but could find no trace of it, so he wrote to The Times Literary Supplement where his letter appeared on 22 August 1980. Not only had he written it, he said, but 'I saw and handled a copy with my preface. The little note even earned the approval of Forster, for he gave me a kindly passing mention as a "late lover of the city"'.
|Durrell's letter to the TLS.|
Not only cross, but I had given up on Durrell and had written to John Fowles, author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. He had written a wonderful introduction to The American University in Cairo Press' translation of Naguib Mahfouz' Miramar, his novel set in Alexandria.
Mahfouz was directly influenced by Durrell when writing Miramar and opens with lines that could have been written by Durrell himself: 'Alexandria. At last. Alexandria, Lady of the Dew. Bloom of white nimbus. Bosom of radiance, wet with sky-water. Core of nostalgia steeped in honey and tears'.
|The original AUC Press edition of Miramar.|
But then I heard from John Fowles who admitted that despite his introduction to Miramar and having visited Cairo he had never been to Alexandria. He suggested I try Edmund Keeley or Philip Sherrard, the translators of Cavafy, or that I approach John Rodenbeck, who had been Fowles' host in Cairo. Rodenbeck was professor of comparative literature at The American University there and the director of The AUC Press; he had excellent contacts and knew a fair bit about the literary dimension of Alexandria himself.
Meanwhile there was silence in the letters columns of the TLS. Then in September a rare books dealer replied to Durrell's letter, telling him that no such introduction by him existed, at which point Durrell wrote me a charming apology for 'the wild goose chase', saying 'I must have dreamed it'. And he immediately agreed to write the introduction to Forster's Alexandria.
Durrell's introduction turned out to be a beautiful piece of writing, one of the best short pieces Durrell ever wrote. Forster and Durrell made a classic combination, and Durrell himself was immensely proud, I know, to have contributed to my edition, the first British edition, of A History and a Guide.
|Durrell's original typescript of his introduction.|
|Fowles' signature on the frontispiece.|
|The inside front cover and half title page showing the quote from Fowles and his signature.|
|John Fowles' letter to me after my publication of Forster's Alexandria with Durrell's introduction.|