Sunday, 27 December 2015

A Cultural Guide to Palmyra

Dressing fashionably for the desert journey to Palmyra.
Palmyra and Islamic State have been in the news a lot recently.  Which can be testing for one's cultural awareness. But thanks to Zippy the Pinhead, who has made a visit to the ancient city in the centre of the Syrian desert, all is now clear. 

Zippy and his companion prepare themselves for a cultural visit to the desert.

A procession of women veil themselves for a ritual
at the Temple of Bel. 

Zippy looks for the procession of women at the Temple of Bel but discovers that they, along with the entire temple, have been blown up.
Zippy reports that there is really not much you need to know about Palmyra as most of the cultural bits are not there anymore.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Animals Talk on Christmas Eve

They talk.
Once upon a time I was told that on Christmas Eve rivers flow as wine, trees blossom into fruit, mountains open and reveal precious jewels and that the ringing of bells can be heard from the bottom of the sea. 

I was also told that on Christmas Eve animals can talk.  They talk to one another and have much to say.  Animals always talk to one another but humans do not hear them or do not understand.  But on Christmas Eve when animals talk we can hear and understand.  

I do not know about the rivers and the wine and the mountains and the jewels and the blossoming trees and the bells ringing at the bottom of the sea but I do know about the animals.  I have heard them talk on Christmas Eve.  These two in particular, the ones in this photograph.  Not that they say much, but they say a few simple words and that is enough. 

To hear them talk you just have to be there.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Winter Solstice Sky in London

Church Row on the eve of the winter solstice.
Usually the winter solstice falls on 21 December, but this year the exact moment - that is the moment when the night is shortest and the day longest - fell at about four o'clock in the morning on 22 December. 

So this photograph (another one taken with my mobile phone) was taken on the eve of the solstice, at 4.30pm yesterday afternoon, looking along Church Row towards St John's Hampstead Parish Church which is at least as good for its dead as for its living.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Tenth-Century Egyptian Nativity

Close up of the tenth-century Nativity at Deir el Suriani.  The inscription is in Syriac, a version of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on the same date as the Orthodox churches of Greece, Russia and elsewhere, on 7 January.  I have several times travelled through Egypt visiting Coptic monasteries - in Upper Egypt, along the Red Sea and in the Western Desert at the Wadi Natrun.  These are some photographs appropriate to the season now upon us that I took at Deir el Suriani, the Monastery of the Syrians, at the Wadi Natrun, halfway along the Desert Road between Cairo and Alexandria.

Deir el Suriani in the Western Desert.
Christian asceticism first most widely flourished at a place once known as Scetis or Scete, now the Wadi Natrun, its monasteries standing as citadels of the Coptic faith through all the adversities of the past 1700 years. After years of decline, all four monasteries (St Macarius, St Bishoi, the Syrians and Baramous) are now thriving monastic communties.
The place called Scete is set in a vast desert, and the way to it is to be found or shown by no track and no landmarks of earth, but one journeys by the signs and courses of the stars. Water is hard to find. Here are men made perfect in holiness, for so terrible a spot could be endured by none save those of austere resolve and supreme constancy.
          - A pilgrim’s account in the late fourth century Historia Monachorum
As you approach, the monasteries give the impression of enormous arks for the faithful sailing in a desert sea. But their high walls were raised only in the ninth century to protect them from Bedouin raids. The monasteries were founded much earlier.

The Church of al-Adra in Deir el Suriani.
During the great Roman persecutions of Christians in Egypt, beginning in 202 under Septimius Severus, continuing in 250 under Decius, and reaching its most awful climax under Diocletian from 303, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were martyred for their faith.

A few sought refuge in the desert, but it was only after Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313 when the need to flee had passed, that the great exodus began. Martyrdom had offered a direct route to God; now the way would be found in the desert. In an astonishing act of anarchy, Egyptians in their thousands, rejecting any interference by the hierarchy of state or church, deserted the towns and cultivation for the barren wilderness with the aim of shedding all worldly possessions and distinctions, wishing if possible even to shed their sense of self, the better to unite with God. 

Through them Christianity explored another dimension, as they strove to embody eternity in their lives. St Antony said, ‘Let no one who hath renounced the world think that he hath given up some great thing. The whole earth set over against heaven’s infinite is scant and poor.’ That quiet voice from the Egyptian desert, which said that each living moment carried its eternal freight, was to have as profound an impact on the Western imagination as all the Greek sophistication of Alexandrian thought.

It is Deir el Suriani, the Monastery of the Syrians that most suggests a desert ship, its undulating ochre walls riding a wave of sand. Domes, towers and crosses make the superstructure, and palms wag within like prizes bound for Kew Gardens.

The tenth-century Annunciation fresco at al-Adra
in Deir el Suriani.
You pass through this northern wall by a small doorway into a forecourt, then left into the courtyard before the church of the Virgin, al-Adra, remarkable for its frescoes in the semidomes of the choir.

The tenth-century frescos in the south semidome, where the theme is the Annunciation and the Nativity, are the finest still to be seen in situ in a Coptic church in Egypt, the colours as striking as in an illuminated manuscript. 

Gabriel is shown approaching Mary who stands within the doorway of a building. The Virgin is then shown reclining on a couch, the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, though in an unusual feature his legs are bare. Joseph is seated pensively below, while around are angels, shepherds and the Three Kings.

The fresco in full of the Nativity in the semidome of al-Adra Church in Deir el Suriani in the Wadi Natrun.
The monastery has a particular attachment to the Virgin Mary; originally it was founded in her name as the Theotokos, the Mother of God. But the death and resurrection of Jesus is also marked; at the west end of the church is an ebony reliquary containing the hair of Mary Magdalene.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Mary Magdalene and the Shroud of Jesus

The volcano rising behind Madelena.
The island of Pico in the Azores is named for its mountain, its peak, which is a towering volcano, the highest mountain in Portugal, except that the Azores are nowhere near Portugal, they are almost halfway across the Atlantic.  But that is by the by.

The capital of Pico is Madalena.  And in the middle of the town, overlooking the sea, is the Igreja de Santa Maria Madalena, the Church of Mary Magdalene, built in the sixteenth century and rebuilt in the nineteenth century.

I was looking round the church and noticed something odd about the statue of Mary Magdalene which stands by the altar.

Devotional card showing Santa Maria Madalena.
This devotional card which I picked up at the church illustrates what I mean.  Mary Magdalene is clutching a cloth to her breast. The cloth is the shroud of Jesus.  She has been to the tomb but has found it empty.  Only the cloth remains.

This is what Peter saw when he went into the tomb, he 'seeth the linen clothes lie.  And the napkin that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself'', says the gospel of John 20:6-7.

Piero della Francesca has Mary Magdalene in a familiar pose, 
holding a big anointing jar. 
But in John's gospel Mary Magdalene does not enter the tomb.  She does enter the tomb however in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and though none of them mention the linen clothes we can suppose that Mary Magdalene saw them there and perhaps picked them up and clutched them to her breast as portrayed by this statue of her in the church.

There is nothing odd about any of that.  It is what you would expect.

Except that this is the only time I have seen Mary Magdalene clutching the shroud of Jesus.  Maybe there are plenty of examples and I have just missed them.  But what I do see ad infinitum is Mary Magdalene holding the jar of anointing oils. This painting at Arezzo by Piero della Francesca is typical.  

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus on the third day.  The jar announces the expectation that she will find him at the tomb.

But the shroud says something else.  It says that she has found the tomb empty.  

This is a shocking moment.  It is not a moment conveyed by the anointing jar.  But it is conveyed by the shroud.  The tomb is empty and the body is gone.  No explanation is offered.  In the original version of the gospel of Mark which ended at 16:8 there is no resurrection appearance.  Verses 16:9-20 were added very much later.  Originally there is only the empty tomb.  

That is why this statue of Mary Magdalene struck me as unusual and odd.  It directs our attention to that moment when there was nothing there.

Late Winter Afternoon in London

I took this photograph at about 4.30 this afternoon while walking through Hampstead Green. I used the camera in my mobile phone - which is the great virtue of mobile phones.  I never phone anyone and nobody phones me but mobile phones give you a small convenient camera that allows you to take photographs on a whim. 

Nessim Hosnani in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet

A present for me from Jonathan Dawson.
A while back I had a correspondence with Jonathan Dawson of Tangier.  In the middle of that he went to Egypt, as I believe he does from time to time.  From Alexandria he sent me an email saying he had a present for me, something he had picked up in a second hand bookshop.  Some weeks later a copy of English Public Schools by Rex Warner, of all people, arrived in the post.

Winchester College as illustrated in Rex Warner's English Public Schools.
English Public Schools turns out to be a short book with many illustrations, colour and line, and text which gives a brief history of ... well, of English public schools.  It was published in 1945 by William Collins of London as part of a series called 'The British People in Pictures'.  I suppose this was a follow-on from the war effort, a book to show ourselves and the world how we are and how we got here, thanks to English public schools. 

A line drawing in the book.
It is a pretty little book and perhaps sold to the parents of children who were in the appropriate public schools (not all of even the best are covered in the book). I doubt it was a bestseller overseas. And yet here it had come from a second hand bookshop in Alexandria. 

And anyway, why on earth had Jonathan Dawson sent me this book?  I supposed he saw it as a curiosity because it was written by Rex Warner, a classicist who had taught in Egypt for a time, had done an introduction to Cavafy's poems, and had translated Xenophon's Persian Expedition, the version that Lawrence Durrell had drawn on when he gave Nessim Hosnani his historical dream in Justine
He saw so clearly the shrine the infantry built to Aphrodite of
the Pigeons on that desolate alluvial coast. They were hungry. The
march had driven them all to extremities, sharpening the vision
of death which inhabits the soldier’s soul until it shone before
them with an unbearable exactness and magnificence. Baggage-
animals dying for lack of fodder and men for lack of water. They
dared not pause at the poisoned spring and wells. The wild asses,
loitering so exasperatingly just out of bowshot, maddened them
with the promise of meat they would never secure as the column
evolved across the sparse vegetation of that thorny coast. They
were supposed to be marching upon the city despite the omens.
The infantry marched in undress though they knew it to be mad-
ness. Their weapons followed them in carts which were always
lagging. The column left behind it the sour smell of unwashed
bodies — sweat and the stale of oxen: Macedonian slingers-of-the-
line farting like goats.
Bookplate showing the the book had been given to the
English Girls' College in Alexandria by Baron George de Menasce.

And then I noticed the bookplate stuck on the front flyleaf.  'English Girls' College, Alexandria, Library', it said.  And 'Presented by'. Presented by Baron George de Menasce, February 1954.  Now George de Menasce was the son of Baron Felix de Menasce; his stepmother was Baronne Rosette de Menasce; and hs niece was Rosette's granddaughter Claude Vincendon, the third wife of Lawrence Durrell. 

Baron George de Menasce.
Durrell met Claude in Cyprus in 1955 while he was writing what would become Justine.  She would help him complete the book; she also told him of her family background  which decided Durrell to transform what he had intended as a single-volume novel into a quartet with the Coptic Hosnani family actually based on Claude's own Jewish family in Alexandria.
In particular Durrell drew on the secret activities of Baron George de Menasce, the man who throughout the war gave wonderful piano concerts and afternoon teas for the British troops in Alexandria, and who was awarded an OBE for his services to Britain.  The man who was also secretly working to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.  The idea for the Palestine conspiracy in The Alexandria Quartet comes from Claude's revelations to Durrell about the clandestine actvities of her uncle George de Menasce - whom Durrell turned into the Coptic leader of the conspiracy, Nessim Hosnani.

The English Girls' College in Alexandria in 1939.  The girls are preparing themselves for English public schoolboys.
I had wondered when George de Menasce got out of Alexandria.  I knew he had been transferring his valuable collection of oriental porcelain to Britain, mostly by giving it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge which I reckon involved a trade-off of some kind - so much for the Fitzwilliam and so much for George.  I knew he was in London in 1956 because Claude went to see him there then; he paid for her children to go to English public schools while she went off to live with Durrell in the South of France.  And now I know that Baron George de Menasce was still in Alexandria in 1954.  The world there looked like it would go on in the same way forever and ever.  Within a few years it was gone.  And so was George.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Mother of Stupidity

Metaphor can be the mother of invention.  More often it is the mother of stupidity as Zippy the Pinhead has found out.

For more about my friend Zippy the Pinhead see here.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Beyond the Limit with Mustapha Marrouchi, Edward Said and Lawrence Durrell

Beyond the limit.
I am told that Mustapha Marrouchi is highly thought of among those who like a bit of theory.  Marrouchi is Algerian and he writes about Edward Said and postcolonial theory.  As the tag says to a recent article of his (about Paris, see below), 'An internationally renowned literary and cultural critic, Mustapha Marrouchi lives on borderline between the West and Rest. He is the author of half-a-dozen books, including The Fabric of Subcultures'. He has been invited to speak at the Durrell School in Corfu where, I gather, he made a great impression.  So what is there not to like? 

Not that it should matter in the world of postcolonial theory and relative values but it also turns out that Marrouchi, recently fired from his position as a professor of English literature at an American university, is a plagiariser on a grand, indeed an imperialist, scale.  Twenty-three of twenty-six works turn out to be based on material stolen from other writers, including John Updike, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said (yes, he not only writes about Said but he steals from Said what he writes).  Has he stolen from Lawrence Durrell?  I wish somebody would say.

What I find especially endearing is that he would barely change a word except to convert British spelling to American.  As the Las Vegas Review Journal reports, 'The investigation revealed Marrouchi primarily stole from works published in the London Review of Books and would often change just a few words, specifically words with British spellings to American spellings'.

Retraction Watch reports that 'Perhaps most eyebrow-raisingly, Marrouchi plagiarized whole passages from Salman Rushdie’s London Review of Books essay “Imaginary Homelands” in an essay he then sold as a memoir of his own childhood'.  Who needs a childhood when you can steal it from Salman Rushdie? 

The Chronicle of Higher Education gives a sampling of some of Marrouchi's finest moments.

And The Cabinet of Plagiarism makes the point that Marrouchi has been doing this for decades and nobody noticed.  Except occasionally the person who was being plagiarised.  Which suggests, says The Cabinet of Plagiarism, that nobody ever reads postmodernist drivel anyway. 

But Marrouchi is far from finished.  In January this year, after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, Marrouchi wrote an article (in this case the words ring true of the man) saying that murdering people in Paris is what you would expect in a country which allows, for the sake of freedom of speech, cartoons to be drawn of the Prophet Muhammed. 'What else did these cartoonists expect? When you attack the last rampart, the terminus, the citadel of a religion that struggles on a daily basis to shield itself from all sorts of invasions coming from the West: Nike, CNN, BBC, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, you must take responsibility for your actions.'  There you have it!  Twitter and the BBC and the blood flows on the streets of Paris as it did last January and Mustapha Marrouchi wants us to understand that 130 more dead just the other day is the consequence of the intolerable assault of Nike and Facebook on Islam. 

The problem began, says Marrouchi, back in 1987.  'Here, one particular culprit comes to mind, someone who opened the Pandora Box for many to follow. That person is Salman Rushdie. Muslims have never had a break ever since The Satanic Verses came out in 1987. Oddly enough, I have a copy signed by Monsieur Rushdie himself. The team of cartoonists who were killed in Paris were marching in the footsteps of Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Anne Coulter, Niall Ferguson and Co. Their main objective is to insult in the most hideous way Muslims and what they hold dear, very dear.'  That is the very same Salman Rushdie whose childhood memoir of India was thieved by Mustapha Marrouchi and transposed to Algeria. A hideous blasphemer but good enough to steal from. 

And so it goes with theory. As for the practice I gather that the Durrell people in Corfu still stand four square behind Mustapha Marrouchi (even while misspelling his name as Marouchi) Or maybe they have not read the newspapers for a year or so.  And maybe they do not read Marrouchi's books either but just repeat his plagiarised theories.  

For more of this, see here.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Sub Tuum Præsidium

Mother of God
Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν or in Latin Sub tuum præsidium is one of the oldest Christian hymns, certainly the oldest to Mary the mother of Jesus.  It was found in Egypt in Greek on a papyrus dating to about AD 250.

The hymn was used in a Christmas liturgy and is still used in various revised forms and languages in the Coptic, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches and it has been beautifully rendered as Byzantine and Gregorian chants and as Mozart’s K198 Offertorio. 

In the hymn Mary is called the Theotokos, which literally means the God-bearer, but this is invariably and erroneously translated into Latin and other languages, including English, as Mother of God.

Mother of God.
The original Theotokos was Isis, mother of Horus who was the son of Osiris.  The term Theotokos was first used of Mary the mother of Jesus by Origen (whose name means Child of Horus) in 246 and its spread, thanks to Dionysius, patriarch of Alexandria, was all part of a battle to condemn the gnostics who accorded a special position to Mary Magdalene whom they identified with Sophia, that is Wisdom, whom the Egyptians identified in turn with Isis.

In the process of condemning the gnostics the Church defamed Mary Magdalene, turning her into a whore while they themselves identified Mary the mother of Jesus with Isis and raised her to the status of virgin and God-bearer.

And so we sing:
We fly to thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
despise not our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O glorious and blessed Virgin.

Click here for a polyphonic version of the hymn by Dimitri Bortniansky.

Michael Haag's Quest for Mary Magdalene will be published in Britain by Profile Books in March 2016 and in the United States by HarperCollins in May.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A Remarkable New Insight into Cavafy

Cavafy revealed.
I have mentioned Reframing Decadence by Peter Jeffreys in an earlier post.  That was when it was still in proof.  The book has now been published and I have a copy in my hands. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the formation of one of the twentieth century's greatest poets.

Reviews on the back cover.
After reading the book in proof I contributed a review which is reproduced on the back cover and which I repeat below.
Until now Cavafy’s adolescence in England has been buried in obscurity; and much of his creative life in Alexandria has been unexplained.  But now we have a work of literary criticism backed by genealogy and solid ethnography which places the extended Cavafy family at the heart of the artistic avant garde in 1870s London.  Peter Jeffreys reveals the family’s intimacy – both as patrons and lovers – with leading painters and poets.  The precocious young Cavafy was raised in a milieu that gave shape to his poet’s technique and sensibility, that encouraged him to be sexually bold and shameless, and that directed his art for the rest of his life.  Linking aestheticism in England to the decadence of Cavafy’s poetry, Jeffreys has done more than follow a literary thread; he has shown how Cavafy was literally a child of these movements. With this new advance, Jeffreys is well on his way toward a comprehensive literary biography of Constantine Cavafy. 
More about the book can be learnt by going to the website of Cornell University Press.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Tragedy of the Templars in Slovakia

The Tragedy of the Templars will be published in Slovakia in a Czech language edition by Slovart Publishers who are already publishing The Templars: History and Myth - otherwise known as Templari: Fakta a mytus.

The Slovak Coat of Arms.  The double-barred cross was introduced to Slovakia by Byzantine missionaries in the ninth century.  It also found its way westwards where it takes the form of the Cross of Lorraine - which by permission of the Patriarch of Jerusalem was carried into the crusades by the Knights Templar.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Liverpool: A Day in the Life

Halloween along Penny Lane.
Recently I was in Liverpool.  I did a lot of walking around, for example across The Mystery and along Penny Lane and also between Wavertree and the docks.

Cakes and teas.
Liverpool was once a great city but the basis of its prosperity collapsed during the latter part of the twentieth century.  Recently however the city has been attempting to remake itself.

View from the Mersey of the Three Graces: the Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building.
Along the Mersey and across from the Albert Dock I came upon the new Museum of Liverpool and went inside to learn something of city's history and way of life.

The Museum of Liverpool is the modern white building at the extreme right.
It turned out to be a Mickey Mouse museum, big on emptiness, low on content, aggressively propagandistic.

I noticed this sign.  Not that it was attached to an exhibit.  The museum is good at signs that tell you what is wrong with the world.  That is all you need to know; any exhibit or argument or demonstration or background or context would only detract from the propagandistic purposes of the idealogues who run the museum whose qualifications appear to be ignorance and idiocy.

All you need to know.
The excuse for this sign, I take it, is to explain that Liverpool has long had an immigrant population.  But only in the bottom paragraph does it allude to this.  The first paragraph tells us that Britain had an empire against which the Indian subcontinent rebelled. The second paragraph tells us that the Partition of India into a secular India and a Muslim Pakistan was the work of 'British politicians who decided to "partition" the country', forcing vast numbers of people to move and causing millions of deaths.

Fears and hatreds did indeed cause vast numbers of Muslims and Hindus to flee for their lives and millions did die.  But it was not British politicians who decided to partition the country; the demand for partition came almost at the last minute from Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim leader who went on to become the first president of Pakistan.  It is a bit more complicated than that, as this recent article by William Dalrymple makes clear, but as Dalrymple says the overwhelming drive came from Jinnah; Britain oversaw the division only because it was demanded by Indians themselves.

Anyway, I came away from the Museum of Liverpool feeling that the city was determined to regard everyone as a victim, including itself.  If the museum is the best the city can do then Liverpool is not about to regenerate itself very soon.

The Mystery.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Templari: Fakta a Mytus

The Templars: History and Myth has been been translated into Czech and published in Slovakia and is selling very well.  A reprint is underway.

The Czech-language edition published in hardback by Slovart in Slovakia.
The Templars established themselves in Prague, capital of today's Czech Republic, where there is a story of the Headless Templar who still haunts the city's streets.

Text and illustations in the Czech-language Slovak edition.
And the Templars are also said to have crossed over into what is now Slovakia.

Back cover of new translation published in Bratislava.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Saint-Raphael and London and the War

Saint-Raphael in the South of France 1938.
Some while ago I did a post about a postcard sent from Saint-Raphael in the South of France in 1939, two months before the outbreak of the Second World War.  This has led a friend to send me another postcard sent from Saint-Raphael, this time in 1938.  So now I have two views of Saint-Raphael before the war, this one less chic than the first; it looks like something of a workaday port, though it does possess several fine sandy beaches.  

But as I said in my earlier post, old postcards make me curious.  They are small pieces of the past, ostraka you might say, or shrapnel, and they almost always have something interesting to say.  

Operation Dragoon in the South of France 15 August 1944.
It turns out that the commune of Saint-Raphael was the landing place for Napoleon Bonaparte and his forces when they arrived by ship from Egypt in 1799 prior to his coup d'état in Paris. Saint-Raphael also played a significant role in the Second World War.  

On 15 August 1944 it was the landing place for Operation Dragoon, the American, British and French attack against the Germans who until then still occupied southern France.  Little is heard about Operation Dragoon as it has been overshadowed by the larger landings at Normandy two months earlier.  Nor was it popular with the British; Winston Churchill wanted to land in the Balkans in order to deny as much of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union.  But by 1944 the Americans were sending more troops than the British into the war against Germany and the decision to go ahead with an attack in southern France fell to American generals, not Churchill, who according to an apocryphal story complained he was dragooned into the operation, hence its name.

American soldiers coming ashore in Operation Dragoon.
Stiff German resistance was expected but in the event the German defences quickly collapsed.  So sudden was the Allied victory that the planners had not provided enough petrol to make a rapid advance thus allowing the bulk of the German army to retreat into the Vosges mountains far to the north.  What ultimate strategic benefit Operation Dragoon had is not clear to me but it certainly made the French feel good.  Within two weeks all of France as far north as Grenoble was free; on 28 August Free French forces liberated Marseille and Avignon.

British paratroopers dropped behind German lines
from gliders towed by American C-47s.
But back to the postcard. As you see on the reverse it was sent by 'Mummy' to 'My Sweet', her daughter Melissa Benton at 19 Norfolk Crescent, London W2. Mummy is responding to a letter just received from her daughter, a letter dictated by her daughter to her secretary. Mummy was travelling with Papa and had bought the picture postcard at Saint-Raphael but they had kept moving east, into fascist Italy, and she eventually sent it from Ventimiglia.

I have never been to Ventimiglia and the only thing I know about it comes from a letter by E M Forster written in 1917 from Alexandria in Egypt while he was there during the First World War.

'As an escape from the war Alexandria is matchless: or rather escapes', Forster wrote to Robert Trevelyan in August 1917. 'The Syrians dance. The Bedouins lay eggs. The French give lectures on Kultur to the French. The Italians build il nostro Consolato, nostro Consolato nuovo, ricco, grandioso, forte come il nostro Cadorna, profondo come il nostro mare, alto come il nostro cielo che muove l'altre stelle, e tutto vicino al terminus Ramleh Tramways. The English have witnessed "Candida" or "Vice Detected"'.

But Forster's preferred escape was the Greek, 'for the Greeks are the only community here that attempt to understand what they are talking about, and to be with them is to reenter, however imperfectly, the Academic world. They are the only important people east of Ventimiglia --: dirty, dishonest, unaristocratic, roving, and warped by Hellenic and Byzantine dreams -- but they do effervesce intellectually, they do have creative desires, and one comes round to them in the end'. Of the Greeks he singled out Cavafy: 'with much help I have read one or two [of his poems] and thought them beautiful'.

All that is another story, however; back to the postcard of Saint-Raphael sent from Ventimiglia to 19 Norfolk Crescent in London. 

Postcard from Mummy.
I have had a look at Norfolk Crescent on Google Street View; it possesses a rim of unattractive houses clearly built after the war. I wondered what had happened to the houses that had stood there in the time of Mummy and Papa and My Sweet.

It is said of London that the greatest damage done to it has been by town planners, greater than anything done by Hitler, and that is true. Urban planners should be shot at birth.  Nevertheless it is true that the German bombing of London did great damage and I thought I should check to see if Norfolk Crescent was a victim.  There is an excellent website for this where you can see where the bombs fell.

And sure enough Norfolk Crescent was blown to smithereens one night by a high explosive German bomb.

Norfolk Crescent off Edgware Road is at the upper left. Marble Arch is at bottom centre; Selfridges is on Oxford Street which runs off to the right.
Maybe Mummy and Papa Benton were at home that night. Maybe their daughter Melissa was there too. Maybe they were all killed by that German bomb. I have tried to find out but have learnt nothing. All I have, as usual, is the postcard.

19 Norfolk Crescent London W2. The bomb fell during the week of 7-14 October 1940.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Mary Magdalene: the Sensual and the Spiritual

I have been seeing a lot of Mary Magdalene lately.  In writing my book The Quest for Mary Magdalene I have been looking for what can be discovered of the real woman, the historical figure, such as might be found of her in the few but highly significant references to her in the gospels.  But that has been only part of the quest, for Mary Magdalene is most of all a woman whose identity has been formed in later centuries by the Church to suit its changing ideology and also by the popular imagination.

Sebastiano del Piombo self-portrait 1518.
At any rate I have been seeing a lot of Mary Magdalene lately, looking at thousands of images of her.  And in doing so I have discovered a painter I had not known before, Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547).  He was Venetian but was much in Rome where Michelangelo worked with him hand in glove, Michelangelo admiring Sebastiano's command of colour; in several paintings, according to Vasari, Michelangelo provides the line and Sebastiano provides the brilliant Venetian sense of colouring.

But I like Sebastiano's line as well.  His figures are at once monumental and contained, sensual and spiritual.

He began life as a musician, mostly a solo player on the lute, then turned to painting.  His first work that drew wide attention turns out to be the one including Mary Magdalene that I have shown in a previous post that was done for the church of San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice.

Another Mary Magdalene is the one below, a detail of the deposition of Jesus' body from the cross.  Painted in 1516 it is now at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.  Once again Mary Magdalene has a contained and powerful feminine presence, a sensitivity and a knowing.

Sebastiano is not much noted these days, an oversight that I intend to correct for myself by looking more into his life and work. 

The Deposition by Sebastiano del Piombo.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet: From One Volume to Four

The following is a talk I gave at the International Lawrence Durrell Society conference at Victoria, British Columbia, in 2006.  It explains how Durrell intended to write a single-volume work set in Alexandria and how it turned into a quartet.  

My photograph taken in 1996 of the tower atop the Villa Ambron where Durrell wrote Prospero's Cell and the first few pages of The Alexandria Quartet.

The Alexandria Quartet: From One Volume to Four

Lawrence Durrell made a number of corrections to Justine following its first publication early in 1957.  Most famously there was the misprint on page 136 in this description of Melissa: ‘She will throw back her dress to unroll her stocking and show you the dark cicatrice above the tree, lodged between the twin dimples of the suspender’.  ‘Tree’ was changed to ‘knee’ in October that year, but not before it had played havoc with the French translation of Justine.

A year later, in November 1958, Durrell made another set of corrections and alterations.  The most interesting was in the Workpoints at the very back of the book among a series of impressions of the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, where we find for example:  ‘Ushabti … little serving figures which are supposed to work for the mummy in the underworld.’  ‘Lioness Holding a Golden flower.’  ‘Aurelia beseeching Petesuchos the crocodile god.’  To this last remark Durrell added a single word, so that it now read: ‘Aurelia beseeching Petesuchos the crocodile god.  Narouz’.    

By this time, November 1958, the first three volumes of The Alexandria Quartet had been published, and Narouz had emerged as a major figure.  At the Carnival Ball, the climactic scene in Balthazar, it is Narouz who drives the hat pin into the skull of Toto de Brunel thinking he is murdering Justine.  And in Mountolive the climactic scene is the death of Narouz.  Yet until Durrell added the name Narouz to the Workpoints of Justine, there was no mention of him at all in the first volume of the Quartet.  

In fact looking through Justine not only will you find no mention of Nessim’s brother Narouz, but you will find no mention either of Nessim’s mother Leila nor of Nessim’s father Faltaus nor of Nessim’s family estate at Karm Abu Girg.  There is a good reason for this.  At the time Durrell was writing Justine he was not looking ahead to the structure or the plot or the characters of the remaining volumes of the Quartet for the simple reason that he had no intention of writing a quartet.

Yet afterwards Durrell would say that he had always intended to write a quartet of books about Alexandria.  For example in a 1970 NBC television interview with Edwin Newman, Durrell said, ‘I had planned four books’.  He also said as much in his interviews with Jean Fanchette in Two Cities in 1959 and with Marc Alyn in The Big Supposer in 1972.  But this was untrue.  

The first indication Durrell gave of wanting to write more than a single volume came a few months after Justine was accepted for publication when he wrote to Faber and Faber in mid-July 1956, ‘In the back of my mind I want to do a series, I don't know how many, of novels in the style of Justine about Alexandria, using the same people in different combinations'.  Indeed up until at least a month before the publication of Justine in January 1957 Durrell’s ideas were so unformed that he wrote to Henry Miller saying he was thinking of writing five Alexandrian novels.  

Coloured drawing by Greek artist Andrea Georgiadis of the Hotel Cecil on the Corniche.
What had decided Durrell to go beyond writing just one Alexandria novel?  He revealed something of the truth when he wrote at the beginning of the second volume, Balthazar, 'A single chance factor has altered everything, has turned me back upon my tracks.  Justine, Melissa, Clea. There were so few of us really — you would have thought them easily disposed of in a single book, would you not? So would I, so did I’. 

In the novel, of course, that factor is Balthazar, whose Interlinear reinterprets the events described by Darley in Justine.  But in reality that single chance factor was Claude Vincendon who arrived in Durrell’s life with an Interlinear of her own.
Very little has been known or written about Claude Vincendon’s origins.  In his biography of Durrell, Gordon Bowker says only that Claude was ‘the daughter of a French banker and a Jewish mother’, while Ian MacNiven, in his biography, does not go beyond saying that her mother was ‘a Menasce, a family prominent in Egyptian banking’.  Even Durrell’s daughters and his closest friends, some of whom became close friends of Claude, knew next to nothing about her background.  Neither Durrell nor Claude herself talked about her past; it remained something private between them.  

Claude and Durrell met in the summer of 1955 when she applied for a position at the French section of the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation and was hired by Durrell, who was the Public Information Director.  Durrell had fallen into 'a bad patch of distress and apathy' after the departure of his wife Eve and their daughter Sappho.  But Claude inspired him not only to finish Justine but to expand what till then he had intended as only a single novel into a quartet, its span the interwar years and the Second World War in Alexandria, bringing something to it of her own memories of the city as well as characters and stories from her family history.  

My photograph of the view from Athineos on the Corniche across the Eastern Harbour to Fort Kaitbey, site of Alexandria's ancient lighthouse the Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
For all its ancient glory, Alexandria had been reduced to a miserable village of five thousand inhabitants when Napoleon landed near by in 1798. What brought Alexandria back to life was the construction of the Mahmoudiya Canal in 1820 by Mohammed Ali, an ambitious and Westernising Ottoman adventurer from northern Greece who made himself master of the country after Nelson forced Napoleon's withdrawal. The canal, which linked the Nile with the city's Western Harbour, gave Alexandria access to the reorganised potential of the Egyptian hinterland and brought Egypt again face to face with the sea. With the aim of attracting foreign capital and expertise, Mohammed Ali also granted land for settlement to the Greek, English, French, Armenian and other communities in the centre of his new city, whose Western Harbour he enlarged, making it the largest in the Mediterranean. Within a century Alexandria's population grew to nearly half a million, about what it had been in Cleopatra's time, and many foreigners, mostly Greeks and Italians, but also Jews, Syro-Lebanese and others had planted their family roots there, so that all of what is now central Alexandria and the coast eastwards towards Montazah became a cosmopolitan town. 
This was the world to which the Menasces, who were Sephardi Jews, belonged. The family came to Egypt via Aleppo, the great entrepot city of northern Syria, where spices, fabrics, precious metals and gems brought on the backs of camels from the East were traded for European manufactures. Both there and in Cairo, where the Menasces settled in the eighteenth century, Jews played a major role as merchants and moneylenders, virtually controlling the markets and concentrating the entire caravan trade in their hands.  

Baron Yaqub Levi de Menasce
Claude’s great great grandfather, Yaqub Levi Menasce, was born in 1807 in the Haret el Yahud, Cairo's Jewish quarter, immediately west of Khan el Khalili, the famous bazaar in the heart of the city, from where he rose to become the private banker of the Khedive Ismail.  One of the earliest businessmen in Egypt to recognise the opportunities offered by European trade, he founded the international banking house of J L Menasce and Sons. The 'de' was added in 1876 when he obtained Hungarian citizenship together with the title of baron of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for promoting trade between the Adriatic and the Levant. In 1871 he moved from Cairo to Alexandria, where he founded a new synagogue, built a Jewish school and established a Jewish cemetery.
The banking firm of J L Menasce passed to Yaqub's four grandsons, among them Claude’s grandfather Baron Felix de Menasce.  The brothers were sent to Europe for their education and to manage the bank’s various overseas branches before returning to Alexandria.  In Egypt they acquired extensive lands for the cultivation of sugar and cotton, and they constructed water works and railways – indeed together with three other Jewish families, the Menasces were responsible for building almost the entire railway system of Egypt. 

Baron Felix de Menasce with his daughters Claire and Denise and his son Jean.
Alexandria in the 1920s and 1930s was culturally the most brilliant and sophisticated city in the Mediterranean, though its true brilliance was to be found not so much at its opera or theatres but in its great houses, where families presented exhibitions, lectures, concerts and theatrical entertainments. Celebrated among these was the great rambling house of the Baron Felix de Menasce and his flamboyant wife Rosette.  Here his older son George de Menace gave weekly piano concerts, often accompanied by like-minded friends, and also displayed his remarkable collections of late Roman ware, Roman and Syrian glass, Mogul jewelled jade, Jaipur enamel, Persian jewels, coloured diamonds, jewelled watches and automata, eighteenth century gold snuff boxes, Greek island and Turkish embroideries, fine paintings, rare carpets and Fabérgé. His greatest passion, however, apart from music, was for Chinese works of art, especially porcelain, in which he built up a collection that was perhaps the finest and most extensive in private hands anywhere in the world.  

Siegfried Sassoon, Lord David Cecil and Jean de Menasce in a snapshot taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell.
Here too Felix de Menasce’s younger son Jean would stay with his family on his returns from Europe where he would speak of his friendships with a wide variety of literary figures.  Among them was Constantine Cavafy, whose work he promoted while he was at Oxford, publishing four translations in Oxford Outlook in 1924, and also T S Eliot, who called him ‘my best translator’: Jean did The Waste Land and later Ash Wednesday, East Coker and other of Eliot’s works into French.  

After leaving Oxford Jean went to the Sorbonne to study oriental languages and under the influence of the philosopher Jacques Maritain converted to Roman Catholicism, became a Dominican, and published several valuable works on Persian inscriptions.

Claire de Menasce in costume
 for a 1931 review.
Felix and his wife Rosette's two daughters lived in the house as well, Denise until she married a barrister and Claire for several years after her marriage to Jacques Vincendon, who was made secretary general of the Land Bank of Egypt by Felix who was director. Claire Vincendon's passion was the theatre, which was how most other people got to know her; she acted in and designed costumes for the entertainments she staged for guests at the great rambling house on the corner of the Rue Rassafa and the Rue Menasce, where her daughter Claude was born in 1925.   
In fact Durrell had had a glimpse of Claude’s world.  Though they never met in Alexandria, he would sometimes go to the Menasce house to attend the renowned open-house musical afternoons put on every Sunday and Tuesday during the war by her uncle George de Menasce, each attended by as many as two hundred soldiers and other guests, followed by a lavish tea with pastries from Baudrot or Pastroudis. Indeed the Menasce house was only a five minute walk away from the Villa Ambron where Durrell lived and had his tower.  

Aldo Ambron was an architect, an engineer and a financier who sat as a director on several companies along with other captains of Alexandria’s thriving business community and who for the most part were members of the city’s most prominent Jewish dynasties, among them Baron Felix de Menasce.  In fact it was Aldo Ambron Abramo Isaac, to give him his full name, who in a eulogy in the press led the tributes to Felix de Menasce when died in 1943 after paralysis had confined him for nearly a decade to a wheelchair in the great house just along the Rue Rasafa.

Aldo Ambron on the left.
Durrell wrote of Alexandria being a plangently Greek city, but the Alexandria of his experience was at least as much Jewish, and moving into the Ambron villa brought him to the heart of Alexandria’s haute juiverie.  And the most fervent believers in cosmopolitanism were Alexandria’s Jews for the simple reason that unlike the Greeks, the Italians and all the rest, they had no country to call their own. 

Among the people Durrell got to know in Alexandria was Gaston Zananiri, a man of letters and a champion of cosmopolitanism.  Zananiri also gave lectures on Cavafy, whom he first met when he was just twenty-two in 1926.  Cavafy and Zananiri would frequent the tavernas and the cabarets. ‘He used to go spend the nights there and look at the young lads. And when he returned home he used to scribble notes about his impressions. You will see in some of his poems where he says old men lean on their memories'.  
Zananiri would come to visit Cavafy in the Rue Lepsius where towards twilight they would sit on the balcony overlooking the gardens of the Greek Hospital and talk of Alexandria not again but still.  'For me Alexandria was a universe. Alexandria hadn't changed. though Alexandria is two thousand years old, it's still Alexandria. There is something of the past which returns every moment'.  And about cosmopolitanism Zananiri said, 'my idea has always been the world, ecumenism'. On his father's side his family were Syrian Greek Catholics who had settled in Alexandria in 1610, while his mother was Jewish from Hungary.  'I'm a mixture, as Alexandria was a Jewish, Greek and Syrian city'. 

Zananiri may well have been a partial model for Durrell’s Balthazar, whom he described as a 'close friend of the old poet, and of him he spoke with such warmth and penetration that what he had to say always moved me', a description fitting Zananiri, also the observation that Balthazar 'spoke as if a different sort of time obtained here'. And when Durrell wrote in Justine of the boys who stir and turn to watch every stranger 'in those little cafés where Balthazar went so often with the old poet of the city', Durrell was clearly recollecting Zananiri's stories of his nighttime adventures with Cavafy.

I spent three days talking with Gaston Zananiri in Paris in 1996 shortly before his death, all of it captured on tape.  Zananiri was a friend of Durrell's and Cavafy's and of the Menasce family.
But Zananiri also played another role in Durrell’s impressions of Alexandria. Zananiri would say to Durrell, 'You ask me what I am? I am an Alexandrian. Alexandria is not Egypt, Alexandria is not Africa. When you are in Alexandria you are on the Mediterranean'.  Durrell had been reading Zananiri's Egypt and the Equilibrium of the Levant in the Middle Ages published in 1936 and The Mediterranean Spirit in the Near East which appeared in 1939. Both books were contributions to the discussion in intellectual and political circles about where Egypt's future lay at a time when the question was still being asked who the Egyptians were and how their heritage should be defined. 

The answer would be critical, as those excluded from the definition could eventually lose their political rights and possibly their property, their homes and their country too.  Zananiri’s hope for Egypt's future, his cultural and his political hope, was that it should follow the diverse yet inclusive Mediterranean model of cosmopolitan Alexandria. 

At first Durrell was enthusiastic, but he also knew that in the salons and cafés of Alexandria almost everyone, Greeks, Jews, Syro-Lebanese, had a story to tell of wanderings and survival, of Byzantiums fallen, of Smyrnas doomed. 'Durrell suggested that I write a book’, said Zananiri, ‘about the situation of the foreign communities who had brought new life to Alexandria. He suggested a history, The Problems of Egypt.'

Throughout history, Zananiri wrote, Egyptians had played a role in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East and were themselves an essentially Mediterranean people, like the Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Greeks, Italians and Maltese, many of whom – Muslims, Christians and Jews – had settled in Egypt.  

The Christians and Jews in particular had acted as a link between West and East and had largely inspired the social and economic development of Egypt and other countries of the Near East.  Muslims from the Balkans, Turkey and Arab countries had been assimilated, but for the same process to take place for Jews and Christians they had to be free of the official discrimination and obstacles that prevented them from acquiring Egyptian nationality.  Meanwhile they were fearful of the nationalistic mood of the authorities and also the trend towards pan-Islamism, which if ‘transposed into a political movement’, wrote Zananiri, ‘can easily become a sort of Oriental fascism’.

Durrell had Zananiri’s typescript of The Problems of Egypt sent to Curtis Brown, his literary agents in London.  They passed it on to Faber and Faber who returned it to Zananiri in Alexandria.  It was never published. 

An detachment of Indian troops marches along the Rue Fuad on United Nations Day, 14 June 1943.  On the left is Baudrot, a bar and restaurant on the corner with the Rue Cherif Pasha; Durrell worked at the British Information Office nearby and frequented Baudrot at lunchtime and after work.
Meanwhile, recalled Durrell’s friend Gwyn Williams, who was head of the English department at Alexandria University, there was no mistaking that 'Alexandria during the years 1942-45 was a city of causes that were being lost, even though militarily it was successfully defended'.  Instead of being linked to the Mediterranean it was being 'rolled towards the sea'.  Seeing no future before them, many cosmopolitan Alexandrians left the city after the war.  Durrell’s Jewish girlfriend Eve Cohen nearly did not make it: the Egyptian government told her that she was not a citizen and could not be granted a passport; no matter that her family had lived in Egypt for generations, she was declared a stateless person in her own country.  Claude Vincendon had French nationality through her father and left Egypt in 1946.  Gaston Zananiri abandoned his Mediterranean dream and in 1952 left the country which had been inhabited by his family for three hundred and fifty years.

Durrell and Claude in Provence in 1957 where he writes what he first calls Justine II which becomes Balthazar, the second volume of the Quartet.
In Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea, the last three volumes of The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell pursues the theme, absent from Justine, of the uncertain prospects of the minorities and foreigners in Egypt and of the Palestine conspiracy that drives the passions of the Coptic banker Nessim Hosnani and his Jewish wife Justine. '"Yes, Justine, Palestine. If only the Jews can win their freedom, we can all be at ease. It is the only hope for us, the dispossessed foreigners."  He uttered the word with a slight twist of bitterness.' But that was only after Durrell met Claude Vincendon on Cyprus — Claude, the granddaughter of Felix de Menasce and the niece of George. 

Delivering her Interlinear, Claude told Durrell how in March 1918, four months after the Balfour Declaration, Chaim Weizmann, leader of the World Zionist Organisation and the eventual first president of Israel, sailed into Alexandria harbour and was cheered through the streets by a large and enthusiastic crowd of Jewish refugees who had been thrown out of Palestine by the Turks and Germans, and how he was greeted by numbers of Alexandrian notables led by Baron Felix de Menasce.  Weizmann and his wife became lifelong friends of Felix and Rosette, and whenever Weizmann returned to Alexandria he invariably was their guest.

Princess Toussoun whose father in law Omar Toussoun was known as the Prince of Alexandria; Mrs Aly Yehia Pasha, wife of the wealthiest Egyptian cotton broker and financier; Gina Bachauer, the famous Greek concert pianist and friend of the Menasces; and Baroness Rosette de Menasce in Alexandria 1948.
Felix de Menasce went to Jerusalem that summer where he was present as Weizmann laid the foundation stone for the Hebrew University, while back in Alexandria he helped found and became the first chairman of the Alexandria Pro-Palestina Committee whose purpose was to encourage and finance settlement in Palestine.  He made large donations to the Jerusalem hospital, bought land atop Mount Carmel, represented Egypt at the London Zionist conference in 1920 and at the Twelfth Zionist Congress in 1921 at Carlsbad, and became a member of the council of the Jewish Agency, which succeeded the Zionist Commission and acted as a kind of autonomous Jewish government for Palestine.

Felix’s sons pursued his interests.  Jean de Menasce, in addition to his published work on Persian inscriptions, wrote a book on Hassidism whose teachings originally were a popularised form of the Jewish mystical tradition known as the cabala, was an active Zionist both before and after his conversion to Catholicism, and worked for Weizmann at the Zionist Organisation’s Geneva bureau.
Like his father, George de Menasce was a banker and financier, and also an ardent Zionist and a close friend of Chaim Weizmann.  A mild-seeming man in appearance and behaviour, he was nevertheless prepared to defy the British to ensure the creation of a Jewish state.  In 1939, faced with the peril of a German war and not wanting to alienate the Arabs in the Middle East, the British had limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to seventy-five thousand over the next five years with no further immigration allowed without Palestinian Arab consent.  

But at the very time that Durrell was attending the musical afternoons at the Menasce house in Alexandria, George de Menasce was secretly raising money from a select list of Alexandrian Jewish millionaires on behalf of Mossad Le'Aliya, the underground organisation responsible for illegal immigration into Palestine. This was in contrast to the appeal to the Jewish community in Alexandria in December 1942 to donate funds care of Robert Rolo, the non-Zionist president of the community, to further the British war effort as the surest way of delivering the world from Hitler's tyranny.

Associated with illegal immigration was the gathering of intelligence about the British and the Egyptians, and the theft from British warehouses of weapons and munitions confiscated from the retreating Germans which were then smuggled across Sinai to be used against the British and the Arabs in Palestine. British intelligence was watching George de Menasce, but they failed to pick up his activities at the time, and indeed for his open-house musical afternoons and other generous services to the troops he was awarded an OBE. 

The smashed-up entrance to the Villa Ambron.
 In the mid-1950s when Claude began living with Lawrence Durrell and as he was writing The Alexandria Quartet, Claude was herself writing a series of novels, one dedicated to her uncle George and which bore a prefatory remark: 'In common with other story-tellers, I have used true and fictitious ingredients. None of the characters is a portrait of any one person ... but some reflect facets of several personalities'.   

This was a nod towards the Quartet, in which Durrell was now drawing on Claude's knowledge of the city as he wrote about the Coptic Hosnani family — the crippled father, the beautiful mother, and the two Hosnani sons, one a financier, the other a religious mystic — and the cause in which their lives became involved, a Jewish Palestine that would stand as an ally with the Copts against growing Muslim power in Egypt. Except that inside Durrell's mind the models for the Hosnanis were not Copts: they were the brilliant flowering of cosmopolitan Alexandria; they were Jewish and their name was Menasce.  

For more information on cosmopolitan Alexandria see my books Alexandria: City of Memory and Vintage Alexandria.