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An Attraction of Opposites

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In the first issue of Slightly Foxed I wrote about Waguih Ghali’s first and, as it turned out, only novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, a witty, moving and politically explosive account of dissatisfied youth in Cairo that was clearly based on his own experiences.

Ghali was born into a large and prominent Egyptian family (the Ghalis have more recently produced a Secretary-General of the United Nations). When his middle-aged father died soon after Waguih’s birth, his young mother left it to the extended family – particularly her sister and parents – to bring up the child.

Ghali emerged from his privileged upbringing into the new, post-revolutionary Egypt as an angry young man with political convictions that upset just about everyone. While his family complained that Nasser was confiscating their wealth, Ghali criticized the government for not taking more from the rich to give to the poor. Dissent was tolerated, but when he joined the Communist Party he was exiled.

Ghali wrote his novel while living in poverty in Germany. The book was published in 1964 by André Deutsch and, as a result, Ghali met Diana Athill, who worked at Deutsch and is now best known for her autobiography Stet. ‘I was a sucker for oppressed foreigners, and an oppressed foreigner who could shrug off hardship in order to look at things with the humour and perceptiveness shown in his book was one whom I would certainly like.’

Athill did more than like him: she was won over by his charm, his elegance and his situation, which was at that point at least one step away from desperate. In spite of the fact that she was in a happy, long-term relationship and that Ghali was some ten years her junior, she was also a little in love with him. ‘One can make plenty of new acquaintances in middle age,’ Athill commented early on, ‘but it is not often that one sees the possibility of knitting a new person into one’s life as one did in youth.’ F

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In the first issue of Slightly Foxed I wrote about Waguih Ghali’s first and, as it turned out, only novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, a witty, moving and politically explosive account of dissatisfied youth in Cairo that was clearly based on his own experiences.

Ghali was born into a large and prominent Egyptian family (the Ghalis have more recently produced a Secretary-General of the United Nations). When his middle-aged father died soon after Waguih’s birth, his young mother left it to the extended family – particularly her sister and parents – to bring up the child. Ghali emerged from his privileged upbringing into the new, post-revolutionary Egypt as an angry young man with political convictions that upset just about everyone. While his family complained that Nasser was confiscating their wealth, Ghali criticized the government for not taking more from the rich to give to the poor. Dissent was tolerated, but when he joined the Communist Party he was exiled. Ghali wrote his novel while living in poverty in Germany. The book was published in 1964 by André Deutsch and, as a result, Ghali met Diana Athill, who worked at Deutsch and is now best known for her autobiography Stet. ‘I was a sucker for oppressed foreigners, and an oppressed foreigner who could shrug off hardship in order to look at things with the humour and perceptiveness shown in his book was one whom I would certainly like.’ Athill did more than like him: she was won over by his charm, his elegance and his situation, which was at that point at least one step away from desperate. In spite of the fact that she was in a happy, long-term relationship and that Ghali was some ten years her junior, she was also a little in love with him. ‘One can make plenty of new acquaintances in middle age,’ Athill commented early on, ‘but it is not often that one sees the possibility of knitting a new person into one’s life as one did in youth.’ Five years after that initial meeting, Ghali committed suicide in his new friend’s house. After a Funeral is her attempt to record and make sense of what happened. They made an unlikely couple: even according to Athill’s account, there was something fine about her new friend, whom she calls Didi, and who at the worst of times could still come across as something of a ‘prince among men’. Athill, on the other hand, comes across as a wilting English flower. Where she is cautious, Didi is a daredevil; where she is diffident, he is forceful. She practises English restraint while he is ‘addicted to generous emotions’, and where she is secure in home, job and friends, his life has neither certainties nor security. An attraction of opposites, then. Their differences soon become apparent as depression and then alcoholism cloud Didi’s brighter, more attractive characteristics. He moves to London and becomes dependent on her. At first she is happy to help him out of his predicament. Later she understands that there is no way out. Two years after their first meeting, she writes a 26-page portrait of him, which forms the second chapter of this book. It is affectionate, thoughtful and remarkably well observed. More remarkable still is the fact that she stuck with him as his chances in the world turned sour. After a Funeral was first published in 1986, over twenty years after the events it records. We now come to it nearly twenty years after it was written. The way we read some stories, the things we identify in them, can change with time. The passing years can rob them of significance or emotional force, but this one still packs its punches. This might be due to our current familiarity with obsessive behaviour. It might also be due to Athill’s success in conveying her own fears, pains and frustrations over Didi’s descent into what she comes to see as madness, while at the same time standing back and looking coldly at both his behaviour and hers. This remarkable balancing act and the sense of omniscience it suggests charges the book with an immense – at times almost unbearable – tension that is only relieved at the very end when both Diana the character and Diana the narrator grieve for the loss of life and talent and the possibility of love. Didi’s (or rather Ghali’s) subject as a writer was his own life. Had he lived and been able to put some distance between himself and his circumstances, as he managed with Beer in the Snooker Club, he would have found plenty of material to create a magnificent story of exile. Instead it fell to his friend to make use of the diaries he continued to keep right up to the end. They provide this narrative with a chilling authority, for as well as hearing how his behaviour appeared to others, we also find out what he felt about it. Sometimes he is clearly deluded, but at others he is startlingly clear-eyed. Here is where the pathos hits, for what could be worse than a bright, charming, imaginative, talented man looking at his prospects and realizing that suicide is inevitable? Actually there is something worse: when Athill reads his diaries, she draws the same conclusion. But Didi wasn’t always right. He wrote at the end that ‘there is no moral in the story’, but Athill was able to draw one. Dedicating the book to Didi and to ‘people who are going to have children’, she wrote that ‘it was intolerable that a man should be so crippled by things done to him in his defenceless childhood that he had been made, literally and precisely, unendurable to himself ’. He was wrong about something else too. During one particularly vitriolic fit, he described her writing as ‘that bloody mediocre muck’. After a Funeral is both bloody and mucky, but there is nothing close to mediocre here.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Anthony Sattin 2004


About the contributor

As a writer and broadcaster, Anthony Sattin has discovered that, for him at least, all roads lead past Rome and on to Egypt. His latest book, The Gates of Africa, roams eighteenth-century London and North Africa only to end on the Nile.

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