A Decade in Books: 2018

In early 2018 G. and I moved to Egypt, where were planning to stay for five or six months, although we were flexible and our future was, to put it casually, uncertain. We rented a flat on the sixteenth floor of a concrete apartment tower in Zamalek, an upscale neighbourhood located at the tip of an island in the Nile, with Cairo on one side and Giza on the other. G. worked on her thesis and visited museums while I entertained a vaguely formed idea to write journalism. I had a completed novel about Alexander the Great’s successors on my computer hard drive. It grew hotter and hotter as the weeks passed, and the AC units in our apartment started to break down one by one, until I spent most of my time in my underwear, either sitting at the ornate dining table sending out pitches to agents and editors, or lying on the sofa, my skin sticking to the dark green leather, reading books.

I read a lot in 2018 because I had time. Naturally, I read books about Egypt, many of which I wrote about in 2018 on this very blog. I discovered Robert Solé and Waguih Ghali and read about the history of Cairo and a novel about the 2011 revolution. I also read books I brought with me to Egypt and which had nothing to do with the country, for example the first books in two acclaimed trilogies, one science fiction and the other fantasy: N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Cixian Liu’s The Three Body Problem. I loved both of those books and read the sequels over the next couple of years.

To a degree living abroad means reading whatever you can get your hands on. There’s something charming about the serendipity of buying and reading what’s on offer locally. In Cairo I frequented the Zamalek branch of a bookstore called Diwan, which is well stocked in English-language books. That’s where I picked up, once I had read through the pile of books I had brought with me, LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven (surprising and moving) and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (earth shattering) and, of all things, Daniel Deronda. Ever since I read Middlemarch when I was twenty years old I’ve had this vague idea of… well, first of all rereading Middlemarch, but also of working my way through all of Eliot’s novels. I’m not sure if I felt that was such a good plan anymore after slogging through Daniel Deronda, but then hanging out in my dusty hot apartment in Cairo without a job was perhaps the only time I’ll ever have in my life to actually read that loose baggy monster without giving it up, or without it taking me months. There are books like that (The Red & the Black comes to mind) where it’s just nice to be able to say that you read them. I can’t say I’m completely put off from Eliot, though; I’d like to pick up The Mill on the Floss someday.

In May my parents came to visit us and we showed them around Cairo before going to Upper Egypt to stay in Aswan and Luxor and see all the beautiful sights. I had heard Lisa Halliday talk on the New York Times Book Review podcast, so I had her book delivered to my parent’s house before their trip so they could bring it to me. I vividly remember devouring Asymmetry on the poolside at the the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan — which happens to be one of the most beautiful pools I have ever been in. It was a bit too hot but it was a stunning place to read, with the aquamarine pool and the palm trees, the glint of the Nile, the feluccas sailing smoothly past, the rounded rocks and ruins of Elephantine island, and the desert beyond. That view is seared into my mind.

That summer G. and I returned to Quebec for a few months to get our lives in order before setting off to Paris in the fall, where G. had obtained a research fellowship. Our plans were more certain! Looking forward to our move to Paris, a city I had been to a couple of times when I was younger but didn’t really know that well, I reread Parisian favourites like Hemingway and Laurence Cossé, and I read Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance and A Tale of Two Cities and Hilary Mantel’s great hefty novel about the French Revolution (read as another attempt to help wait for her last book in her Cromwell trilogy), A Place of Greater Safety. But the book I remember the most from that summer, a summer spent in Quebec at family cottages and seeing lots of animals like baby foxes and loons and deer and tadpoles, was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book about waiting, and watching, about gathering information about the world around you and spending a long time pondering it. It’s a beautiful book and it moved me deeply, in the truest sense of the word: it moved something in me, it shifted the way I think and feel and read and write.

In September we moved to Paris and, to our surprise, we fell in love with our neighbourhood, with the city. We hadn’t expected to be so charmed. I found a job within a month or two but in the meantime I had a few precious weeks of free time left to read great European novelists. I swallowed up books by Rachel Cusk and Patrick Modiano and W. G. Sebald. I reread The Ambassadors, one of the best novels ever written about Paris, which I had discovered 8 years earlier in a seminar on Henry James at the University of Bristol, and found just that little bit more dull the second time around. And I got to writing seriously again: I started a new novel set in different key periods in the 20th century, so I read about the 1919 Peace Conference and about how France and Britain divided up the Middle East in the wake of World War I. I picked up Colm Toibin’s beautiful novel Brooklyn in a used bookstore on the Left Bank (there is such a joy to buying and reading books that you’ve heard about for years and that you already know that you will enjoy). And then, when I did have a job and the weather cooled and autumn was dwindling to short, dark days, I read Elif Batuman’s extraordinary, loose, messy, hilarious novel The Idiot in the Metro on the way to and from work. And I finished the year almost as I had started it, reading Robert Solé, and dreaming about a hot dusty city baking under the sun.

Reading List: 2018

Laurent Binet, La septième fonction du language

Robert Solé, Une soirée au Caire

N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

Oman Robert Hamilton, The City Always Wins

Amin Maalouf, Un fauteuil sur la Seine

Sebastian Barry, Days Without End

Diaries of Waguih Ghali: Volume 1 1964-1966

Joe M. McDermott, The Fortress at the End of Time

Emmanuel Carrère, D’autres vies que la mienne

Waguih Ghali, Beer in the Snooker Club

Salima Ikram, Ancient Egypt: An Introduction

Diaries of Waguih Ghali, Volume 2 1966-1968

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

Robert Solé, Le Tarbouche

The Essential Tawfiq Al-Hakim

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven

Maurice Leblanc, La comtesse de Cagliostro

Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest

Alberto Manguel, Packing my Library

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Laurence Cossé, Au bon roman

Natalie Morrill, The Ghost Keeper

Laurent Gaudé, Le tigre bleu de l’Euphrate

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Frank L. Holt, The Treasures of Alexander the Great

Geoff Dyer, Paris Trance

Robert Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks

Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Rachel Cusk, Outline

James Barr, A Line in the Sand

W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Rachel Cusk, Transit

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder

Craig Brown, Ma’am Darling

Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919

Laurence Cossé, Nuit sur la neige

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn

Henry James, The Ambassadors

Patrick Modiano, Un pedigree

Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Robert Solé, Le sémaphore d’Alexandrie

Something Important Has Been Lost: The Diaries of Waguih Ghali

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, Volume 1: 1964-66. Edited by May Hawas. American University in Cairo Press, 2016.

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, Volume 2: 1966-68. Edited by May Hawas. American University in Cairo Press, 2017.

On December 26th 1968, the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, author of one acclaimed novel titled Beer in the Snooker Club, committed suicide in the flat of his editor and friend, Diana Athill. For the previous four years, Ghali had been keeping a diary, whose last entry he addressed to her: “I am leaving you my Diary, luv—well edited, it would be a good piece of literature.”

Almost twenty years later, in 1986, Athill published After a Funeral, which recounted her friendship with Ghali, whom she called Didi in her book. After a Funeral follows the push and pull in their relationship, and the inexorable decline in Ghali’s mental health. Ghali lived in Athill’s flat, but his visa didn’t allow him to work, so he didn’t have a regular income and couldn’t pay her rent. His efforts to make money by writing were stifled by his depression. Whatever money he managed to make he spent on gambling and alcohol.

The Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif published a scathing review of After a Funeral in the London Review of Books when it came out. She revealed Didi’s true identity and celebrated Ghali’s novel, which was then out of print. As for Athill’s book, Soueif ends her review by dryly stating: “He would have probably liked it better if she had edited his diaries.”

Readers would have to wait thirty more years before that happened, partly because the diaries were lost. The notebooks were misplaced when Athill moved to a retirement home in 2010, and Ghali scholars who wanted to access them for their research thought them lost forever. But it turned out that Deborah Starr, a professor at Cornell, had photocopied all 700 or so pages of the diaries ten years before on a research trip to London. The photocopies were digitized and are now part of a Ghali archive on the Cornell University website, along with some manuscripts and a stash of letters from, to, or about Ghali, including one from Philip Roth, who wrote Athill in 1963 to put her and Ghali in touch with Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop at Iowa (Roth, who was obviously a fan, even agreed to pay for Ghali’s transportation fees with a “long term loan of $100”).

It was the Egyptian academic May Hawas who finally edited Ghali’s diaries, which were published in two volumes by the American University in Cairo Press in 2016 and 2017.

*

In the first volume, which covers the period from 1964 to 1966, Ghali is working for a British military base in Rheydt, West Germany. He attempts to write a novel, short stories, and a play, and he visits London for a brief interlude (“London…London…LONDON. My town, my city, the only place on earth to which I belong, my spiritual abode, my love, the great love of my love. No sooner have I been there, than I have started to worry about leaving it…”). Ghali dislikes Germany and his job with the army, and spends much of his time dreaming of moving away.

Volume 2 picks up with Ghali finally living in London, in Diana Athill’s flat. It follows Ghali’s tortuous descent into poorer mental health, as well his fraying relationship with Athill. A trip to Yugoslavia, which Athill also recounts in After a Funeral, is a turning point in their relationship. In one of the most interesting sections of this second volume, Ghali goes on a reporting trip to Israel following the Six-Day War, which made Ghali feel “disgusted, more humiliated and insulted,” specifically by Nasser’s declaration that Egypt lost because Israel had the support of Britain and the United States. Ghali writes pieces for the Times, and gives a few lectures upon his return to London. During one of these lectures, in May 1968, someone calling himself “a representative of the Egyptian government” rises and declares that Ghali “is not Egyptian. He has defected to Israel.” For the rest of the year, Ghali feels progressively worse, until he overdoses on sleeping pills on Boxing Day.

Both volumes of the Diaries are united by recurring themes: drinking, gambling, difficulties with writing, and sex. Ghali appears to have been popular with women, although they were a source of anguish as well as pleasure, depending on the woman and depending on the moment in their relationship. At the start of a new affair, he remarks: “It is this business of love again, you see. There must be some insufficiency in me to provoke in me those terrible yearnings for someone I cannot possess. I repeat cannot possess, because I never yearn for someone whom I know would love me back.” When a woman is interested in him, he begins to despise her. When she dismisses him, he becomes obsessed. Although he recognizes the pattern himself, he is unable to escape it. The reader gets dragged along.

It’s surprising how little current events or politics make it into the Diaries considering the momentous events that took place while Ghali was keeping them. For instance, he never mentions anything about Martin Luther King, or the events of May 68. Politics do crop up, inevitably, around the Israel trip. Ghali recounts that, at one of the lectures he gives at the Israel Student’s Union in London after his trip to Israel, he tells the audience that “the Israelis were feeling themselves superior to the Arabs… racially so, and this was a surprise to me, as well as making peace with their neighbours impossible.” Members of the audience stand to give “anti-Arab tirades.” Ghali is “astonished to see that most, or nearly all of them, were rather ignorant, bigoted and…reactionary. All those who spoke supported America’s policy in Vietnam, didn’t care two hoots about black South Africans.”

Ghali appears to have been strongly attuned to racism, and he was equally alarmed by some of the casual racism he witnessed in post-war Germany, which he saw as shocking remnants of Nazism, sometimes hiding in plain sight. His incisive, albeit sometimes overly critical, portrait of 1960s small-town Western Germany is one of the most interesting aspects of the first volume of his Diaries.

There is a scene in Beer in the Snooker Club, in which the main character, Ram, comes to blows with his patronizing cousin Mounir, who has just returned from studying in America: “He didn’t know there was any racial discrimination in America. He had never heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, he did not know what ‘un-American activities’ was. No, he did not believe there were poor Puerto Ricans or poor anyone else in America. Who was Paul Robeson? Red Indians without full citizenship? What was I talking about? I must be mad. All he knew was that he had spent three years in America, had picked up their pet phrases and had been given a degree.”

Thinking about the letter Roth wrote about Ghali in 1963, about the $100 he offered, one could imagine an alternate version of Ghali’s life in which he goes to America and joins the Civil Rights movement.

*

Hawas, in her introduction to Ghali’s Diaries, writes that, for Ghali, “In some way, the diaries replace the novel as another creative genre, like the short story or novel or poem, simply another way, in his words, that a writer could ‘create something.’” For a writer struggling to write, keeping a diary can be a low-pressure short cut, a way of producing something, of seeing blank pages fill. Ghali himself becomes aware of how important his diary is as he is writing it; he often goes back and re-reads older entries commenting on his past mental state. At one point, he remarks, “The strange thing about this Diary is that I find it so imperative to write everything I did or that has happened to me—as though if I didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen, or, rather still (because, after all, there are things I wish didn’t happen) if I didn’t write it down something important has been lost.”

Although the Diaries have been expertly edited by May Hawas, with an excellent introduction, interesting interviews, and useful notes, I’m not sure they are as good a piece of literature as Ghali hoped they would be. While fans or scholars of Ghali will enjoy learning more about him as a person, they can also be a tedious read as they were most often written by Ghali at his worst. “Going mad, as I seem to be going,” he writes in his very first entry, dated May 24th, 1964, “perhaps it’d be better to keep my Diary […] if only for a streak of sanity.” Later on, he notes that the diaries “emanated through a death-wish.” One night where he feels particularly serene, he recognizes that “[t]hese Diaries have always been full of miseries and moans.”

Still, there are glimpses of the writer who was able to create the masterpiece of social critique, humour, and empathy that is Beer in the Snooker Club: incisive observations, glimmers of levity, poetic turns. In one bravura entry dated November 3rd, 1967—in fact, just after the comment about “miseries and moans”—Ghali reminisces with great tenderness about a woman he once loved, in Paris, when he was a medical student: “Then she came to Paris, Madam Piquot gave me a room again at 33 Rue des écoles. How lovely it was. What bliss. We just wanted each other. She was shy, always, and I was timid. We would sleep in the afternoon, and that also made her shy. The shutters close with a faint light. And she would say, ‘Toutou, turn around, just go somewhere.’ Do you know, I only saw her naked once.”

In passages like this one, we (or perhaps the rhetorical “you” Ghali employs in that last line) see what may have been the inspiration behind some of love scenes in Beer in the Snooker Club, or else the seeds of a second novel that never was.

At other times he is funny and irreverent—and much of the humour arises from what has occurred in intervening years. Of the man of letters Ian Hamilton, who later married Ghali’s own defender Ahdaf Soueif, he writes: “Not unpleasant, but a nincompoop. How did he ever become editor?” Reading V.S. Naipaul in December 1964, Ghali remarks: “He will, hélas, never be a great writer (not popular, either, complimentary nowadays).—Too engrossed with himself, his feelings, his thoughts which should only be a concern to himself and not expect others to feel.” Ironic, of course, considering the content of the Diaries and his later wish to see them published.

The Diaries may not often show Ghali at his best, both as a writer and as a person, but if they are part of a Ghali renaissance that will lead to new conversations about him and bring more readers to Beer in the Snooker Club, then they will have done something admirable. It was also the editor’s hope that the Diaries would give young writers, especially Egyptian and Anglo-Arab writers, permission to explore, to develop their voice, to write about the places they live in, wherever that may be.

Ghali’s novel is currently in print in English on both sides of the Atlantic, which hasn’t always been the case, and a new French edition was published last year under the title Les Cigarettes égyptiennes (which is better than its original title, Les jeunes pachas, which Ghali mocked as being “pompous”). Beer in the Snooker Club, set in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution of the 1950s, is more relevant than ever, with Egypt re-assessing itself in the aftermath of another revolution that, to some degree, has brought it right back to where it started. Ghali’s characters—zealous, exuberant, disillusioned—have aged well.

Near the end of Beer in the Snooker Club, Ram tells Didi, the rich girl he wants to marry, “‘I want to live with you in a beautiful house with lots of books bound in leather. To take you out to the poshest places. To go for drives in the desert in our car. To caress you and make love to you every night. To buy you the most beautiful clothes, jewels, perfumes in existence…’ and I involuntarily laughed – this tic of mine of suddenly laughing – ‘with your own money of course. Because you are very rich.’”

In Cairo, there is one last traditional bookbinder, whose shop is tucked away behind Al-Azhar mosque. I dropped off my copy of Beer in the Snooker Club there one April day in 2018 and it came back to me a few weeks later, bound in smooth, dark red leather. The author and title are engraved on the spine in neat gold letters. The slim paperback has been turned into a luxurious object; it looks damn fine on a bookshelf. I think Ghali would’ve liked that.

Diana Athill

Diana Athill died last week, aged 101. She had a career as a much celebrated and influential editor in London, and in later life she found fame as a memoirist thanks to a series of thoughtful, honest, beautifully-written books.

I wrote a piece about her a few years ago when her last book, Alive, Alive Oh!, a collection of essays, was published. Check it out over at The Millions.

Athill also has an Egyptian connection, which I will no doubt discuss here in more detail at a later date. Athill was the editor of the celebrated Egyptian author Waguih Ghali, who wrote a single, masterful novel, Beer at the Snooker Club, and committed suicide in Athill’s flat in 1969. Athill’s harrowing memoir, After a Funeral, which was originally published in 1986, recounts her relationship with Ghali.