Tuesday, 28 January 2014

'Open cities are the mothers of open societies': John Fowles, Lawrence Durrell, E M Forster and Alexandria


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 si├Ęcle; 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.
Two events have set me to recollecting the British publishing history of E M Forster's Alexandria: A History and a Guide and how it came to include an introduction by Lawrence Durrell.  One event is the publication today, 28 January 2014, of the Tauris Parke Paperbacks reprint of Forster's book. The other is a copy of my own Michael Haag Ltd edition of Forster's Alexandria which once belonged to John Fowles that I came upon in a rare and antiquarian bookshop.  

John Fowles' copy of the 1982
Michael Haag Ltd edition.
The cover is by my friend Colin Elgie.
I published the first British edition of Forster's Alexandria in 1982. I had approached John Fowles to write the introduction; Lawrence Durrell was the more natural choice, particularly because he had quoted from Forster's History and Guide in his Alexandria Quartet, but I was having difficulties with Durrell.

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.
In fact I was pretty cross with Durrell and told him if he did not want to write the introduction he should just say so, and not give me a cock and bull story.  And so his letter to the TLS continues that the disappearance of his preface was so complete that the publisher, that is myself, who was asking him to write the introduction, was 'coming to believe that I am romancing' - which was putting it mildly.

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.
Fowles' introduction to Miramar begins with the lines I have quoted at the top of this post, and then he adds, 'What we have conspicuously lacked ... is a view from the inside, from modern Egypt herself', and he welcomes Mahfouz' Miramar for providing it - and for continuing the tradition of writing about a city that when Mahfouz published his novel in Arabic in 1967 still had some afterglow, some memory, of having been an open city, those mothers of open societies.

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.
When my edition of Forster's book was published I sent a hardback copy to Fowles.  On the flap of the dust jacket, and on the inside cover of the paperback version, I included his wonderful description of Alexandria and its importance to literature and free thought.  What happened to his copy I do not know.  But recently, as I have said, I spotted a paperback edition bearing his signature of ownership and dated 2004; that is the one I have now bought, not that I collect books, but it seemed that this copy of Alexandria had made itself known to me in order to return home.

Fowles' signature on the frontispiece.
The inside front cover and half title page showing the quote from Fowles and his signature.
Fowles replied to my letter and the copy of the book.  'I am delighted that Durrell did in fact write the introduction in the end.  I could not have hoped to equal that.'

John Fowles' letter to me after my publication of Forster's Alexandria with Durrell's introduction.
But I wish Fowles' introduction to Mahfouz' Miramar was still in print; as far as I know it is not. His words about open cities being the mothers of open societies say everything about Alexandria, the city that was home to Cavafy, Forster and Durrell, its afterglow, its memory, all but gone now.