‘A lecherous old Wog on the outside’

 

In the late 1970s, when I first lived in Cairo, I had lunch most Fridays at the Turf Club. Not of course the original Turf Club, burnt down in the riots of 1952 (a club which “would not have looked out of place in St James’s”), but its nominal successor, which was in a rather ordinary, run-down villa behind the Mougamma’. Some, perhaps, of the furniture was salvaged from the old clubhouse in Adly Pasha Street, drooping leather sofas sprouting horsehair like an old lady’s chin, overstuffed bar-stools, hollowly ticking clocks, a stuffed crocodile that hung dustily over the bar along with a puffer-fish and other odd trophies. But it was, in truth, the smile – more of a moue than a smile – on the Cheshire Cat. It had an odd sort of decrepit grandeur, decent, if predictable, cooking, and cheap Stella beer. It also had two billiard-rooms where we played snooker on Friday afternoons, in one of which I had the closest I’ve ever come to a déjà vu experience. One day in August 1978, I was about to take a shot, lining up a ball on the pocket, when someone walked into the room and announced “The pope is dead.” Mild consternation. Little more than a month later, I was about to take a shot, lining up a ball on the pocket, when someone walked into the room and announced “The pope is dead.” Different pope, of course, but I still remember the strange sense of time bending dizzily, and alarmingly conflated pontiffs.

This was, spiritually if not actually, the Snooker Club which forms the title of Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel, Beer in the Snooker Club – at any rate, I’ve never been able to disentangle in my own mind that delightful, run-down spot I knew in Cairo (long since demolished) from Jameel’s snooker club, where Ghali’s hero Ram and his drinking-companion Font, hung their silver tankards behind the bar, and drank home-made ‘draught Bass’ beneath the puffer-fish. Ghali was a Copt, an exile, an artist, alcoholic, dandy and gourmet. He careered through an ostensibly adult life in Sweden, Germany and London, in a chaos of booze, disastrous love affairs, car-crashes, writer’s block, self-doubt and gambling losses. He produced one good novel and perhaps part of another, as well as a few essays, several of which were published in the Guardian. He was a political radical with expensive taste in suits and wine, an obsession with elegance and at least one foot always in the gutter. Well-read, thoughtful and eloquent, he had, as he put it, the emotions of a schoolgirl: “It’s very complicated to be a lecherous old Wog on the outside, and a Victorian maiden inside,” he told his friend Diana Athill, who wrote of “the terrible vulnerability of ‘a child of seven or eight’ masquerading as a man.”

His one novel, published by André Deutsch in 1964, is the story of a young Copt caught between two cultures – on the one hand a deadly cocktail of Nasserite corruption and brutality with the wealthy decadence of Egypt’s then fulul, its leftover feudal plutocracy: on the other the heady Bohemian intellectual life of London. It reflects an asymmetrical awakening and the hero’s inability to manage the two worlds. Or rather, to manage either of them. Like the author, Ram lives in a mess of politics, sex, gambling and drink. His alter ego, Font, is his conscience, mostly ignored, but preserving a vestige of principle in a sea of failure. The beautiful and aloof Jewish girl Edna, who funds Ram’s and Font’s stay in London, shares a name with one of Ghali’s London conquests, a beautiful Jewish girl he loved, idealised, screwed, scorned and dumped in his usual cycle of failure. In the novel Ghali plays a fugue on his own life. His fictitious Edna is the enigmatic woman, steeped in politics, who loves Ram, as he does her, giving herself but holding herself back, in a long relationship that Ghali himself could not have sustained at all, a long, drawn-out version of the very short moment of partial fulfilment that marked the brief apogee of his every love. The novel ends in a return to Egypt, the brief notion of a more stable, mundane love, drowned at once in booze and gambling.

Wry self-mortification apart, the novel is really a long, plaintive ode to London, to the pubs of Hampstead and the Irish of Kilburn and the thrilling tidal wave of intellectual sustenance that this voracious reader and metic got there. As Ram says, breathlessly,

All this is London, I told myself. All this comes of hearing Father Huddleston speak, of knowing who Rosa Luxemburg was, of seeing Gorki’s trilogy in Hampstead. It comes of David Soper at Speaker’s Corner, of reading Koestler and Alan Paton and Doris Lessing and Orwell and Wells and La Question and even Kenneth Tynan. Of knowing how Franco came to power and who has befriended him since, of Churchill’s hundred million to squash Lenin and then later the telegram; of knowing how Palestine was given to the Jews and why … of the bombing of Damascus and Robert Graves’s Good-bye.

But he was never able to follow it up. An account of the last years of his life, leading up to his suicide in London in 1969, was written by Diana Athill who was both his editor at Deutsch and his most constant friend. It was in her North London flat that he killed himself aged less than 40, and her book, After a Funeral, is the fascinating and touching story of his messed-up life. At his death Ghali left with Athill several exercise books in which he had kept a diary since 1964. The first volume was published in 2016, the second will appear this summer. I picked up the first (An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, 1964-66, edited by May Hawas, AUC Press, Cairo) with a little trepidation, unsure whether I could actually face 200 pages of alcohol-fuelled mental and emotional train-wreck. Do we not already know enough? In fact, the diary is compulsive. It is (or seems to be) scathingly honest in his treatment of himself, and there are episodes that are almost too painful to read (Diana Athill says, though, that he simply didn’t write at all about the things he was most ashamed of). But against all the odds he is likeable, almost a little admirable, and brave in his contorted way.

During these two years he was living in Rheydt, a small town near Dusseldorf, working for the British Army Pay Corps. His life is a chain of awful love-affairs, framed by stupendous quantities of alcohol and catastrophic gambling losses. His diary seems to have taken the place, sometimes actively, of the writing he found very difficult actually to do. The love affairs, three of which dominate this period of his life, follow an identical pattern (as Ram puts it, “It is all right for people to pretend that love breeds love, but it is not so. The seed of love is indifference.”) He meets a girl, plays stand-offish as he enjoys the chase, enjoys a short period of sexual pleasure and a sort of ersatz happiness, and then becomes claustrophobic as soon as his infatuation is reciprocated. It then evaporates. He carries on the relationship out of sense of obligation, unable by this stage to sleep with the girl unless seriously drunk, and appallingly critical of her looks, breath, intelligence, until he breaks it off. He is, in other words, quite incapable of sustaining an adult relationship at all – a fact that becomes clear again in Athill’s account of friendship abused, emotional roller-coasters, endless short-term loves and betrayals. In the background to all this is his cafard, his deep depression which comes and goes, sometimes held at bay by love, or writing, but more often just dulled by drink or cards.

From time to time members of his family appear, with very equivocal results. He is mostly restrained in writing about them, but the aetiology of his disease becomes clearer in Athill’s description of a rich, Coptic family unable to love – unable indeed to take an interest in – a small boy who was not wanted, and was shuffled between relatives, schools and friends.

He had become an inviter of wounds and a potential victim of them because any one of them could reflect the one inflicted on him when, long before he could defend himself, he was not wanted. He couldn’t love if he was loved in return because he could only believe in the fugitive and unloving as a love-object; only know love as the loneliness and pain which he had learned as a child.

As for him, he saw himself with merciless clarity, and the diary is full of heart-breaking insights. At one point he writes, perhaps obliquely accounting for the split, two-part personality that he gives himself in Beer,  and certainly describing the downward path to self-obliteration.

I know exactly what the matter with me is. Nietzche once said, and quite rightly, “If you are aware of yourself, you are not a person.” I am aware of myself very much. Call it self-consciousness, or anything you want. The fact remains that I am not a person. I rely on other people to make a person of me. I try to make a person of myself in other people’s eyes. 

From here his destination was pretty clear. “There is only one perfect ending to everything, and that is death, but there are other good endings as well.” The good endings eluded him, but there is another whole volume of his diaries to read before that, and I am not quite sure I can bear it.

 


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