Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, By Peter Stothard

Paperback review

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:02


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Peter Stothard


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Alexandria is both more and less than an account of Cleopatra’s last nights. It is a disguised autobiography, a travelogue filled with grainy images, a book about trying to write a book. It is, in sum, an all-thumbs aggregate of every big trend in nonfiction narrative since the early 1990s. The book alternates between the ancient world of Cleopatra, the coming of age of Peter Stothard, and the time, in early 2011, when Stothard travelled to Egypt to finish this book, on the eighth attempt. He is good on antiquity. His focus on Rome’s bureaucrats suggests an interesting Great Middleman theory of history. His take on 1960s Oxford, 1970s big oil and 1980s Fleet Street is less engaging, decorated with deferential portraits of powerful reactionaries with an interest in the classics. Stothard relies on effected coincidences to tie this narrative to contemporary Egypt. A less incidental consideration of the Arab Spring about to flare up outside his hotel might have revealed a more profound historical relationship between the two.