I used to be Robert, too. Twenty years ago. I’m coming from twenty years away. I won’t interrupt, I just want to watch, I won’t interfere, God forbid. I just want to tell the story of one summer, a Mediterranean summer, an Alexandrian summer.
So Alexandrian Summer starts and finishes, with the writer returning to see his own ten-year old self, Robby, on the balcony of the old apartment taking down car licence numberplates. And at the end of the story, rain begins to fall on Robby, and he leaves his notebook discarded on the balcony:
The summer was washed off the streets. Winter came to Alexandria.
In between is a story as flexible as a silken rope, moving with the slightly-drugged hedonistic ease of summer days in cosmopolitan Alexandria at the height of the season. But we’re on the cusp of the Officer’s Revolution that ended the leisured, settled life of the Jews of Alexandria. Funny, sophisticated and knowing as it is, the book is full of the sad consciousness of a dying way of life and a future far from Alexandria.
The Hamdi-Alis, Joseph and Emilie and their two sons David and Victor, come from Cairo to spend the summer in Alexandria with Robby, his parents and his sister Anabella. Robby is soon enticed by Victor into sexual games while David pursues the unresponsive Anabella, hardly able to comprehend that she isn’t interested in such an Adonis as he knows himself to be. In Anabella, Goren beautifully captures the ecstatic irresponsibility of being young and uncommitted. But under its apparently meandering surface the story is building towards a confrontation; it’s the racing season and David, a prize-winning jockey is up against the local hero Al-Tal’ooni: he, David, the Jew, against the dark desert man. Handsome and sought-after as he is, David already carries the seeds of failure within him – it’s no stretch of the imagination to imagine him in ten years or so, the fair hair thinning, the waist spreading, the unrealistic dreams evaporated. This is as good as it will get – the heights of the summer season and the brief heroism of the racetrack. And weighed against this insubstantial young man is the tragic figure of his father Joseph, who gave up his Muslim faith and family for love of a Jewish woman and is now realising the price he paid. For him the question of whether David will win or lose against Al-Tal’ooni becomes an existential one that goes to his essence, his flesh…beyond winning or losing a race at the Alexandria Sporting Club.
Meanwhile the sheltered, powerless women play endless card games, gossiping and matchmaking in a lazy mix of French, Ladino, Arabic, Turkish and English; the Arab servants play a pragmatic game of give-and-take with their Jewish employers; and the Copts, Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Greek Orthodox, as Andre Aciman says in his introduction jostled each other without scruple…the tussling was amicable enough and never deadly. But no one was fooled for long.
Different as it is in style and scope, there are echoes of the doomed glamour of Death in Venice. I was reminded too of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy and of Orhan Pahmuk’s The Museum of Innocence, both of which present a similarly rich and loving picture of the writer’s home city and its cultural life, and of the intimacies, bonds and unspoken laws of family nestled within it.
Alexandrian Summer was first published in Hebrew in 1978. It’s a classic of diaspora literature. New Vessel Press has done us a great favour in bringing out this English version.
Alexandrian Summer Yitzhak Gormezan Goren tr Yardenne Greenspan (New Vessel Press 2015).