Tuesday, 15 December 2015

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.