With relatively few monuments to show for its ancient lineage, Alexandria’s past is found in its faded coffee houses, minutiae such as old nameplates, the reminiscences of aged Arabs and Greeks, and in its literary dimension. The English novelist E.M. Forster (author of A Room with a View and A Passage to India) wrote the first guidebook to Alexandria (where he had his first sexual relationship, with an Egyptian tram-conductor, while serving as a nurse during World War I), but reckoned that the best thing he did was to publicize the work of the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy – odes to nostalgia, excess, loss and futility.
Cavafy was the model for the character Balthazar in The Alexandria Quartet, written by a deracinated Briton, Lawrence Durrell (1912–90). This verbose tetralogy of novels, relating the same events from the perspective of four characters living out the Ancient Greek myths in Alexandria before, during and after World War II, was widely acclaimed in the 1960s for its “relativity In space and time”, but is little read today. Durrell based the character of Justine on his Alexandrian Jewish lover Eve Cohen, a survivor of childhood incest. The plot twist that once shocked readers seemed far more sinister after their daughter Sappho hanged herself in 1985, leaving letters hinting at incest with Durrell, blighting his posthumous reputation.
Durrell had little time for Egyptians and his novels are not well regarded in Egypt, where people prefer the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Miramar as an evocation of post-colonial Alexandria from an Egyptian standpoint.