Book Review: Alexandrian Summer

Alexandrian Summer
Yitzhak Gormezano Goren; Yardenne Greenspan, trans.
With an introduction by André Aciman
New Vessel Press, 2015
PPB. 171 pp. $15.99
ISBN: 978-1-939931-20-7

Award-winning novelist and playwright Yitzhak Gormezan Goren’s Alexandrian Summer, a memoiristic novel about the vibrant Jewish Egyptian past, received very strong critical acclaim when it was first published in Israel in 1978. Yet only now has it been published in English, and anyone curious about that rich heritage will likely be grateful.

Goren was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1941 (he immigrated to Israel as a child) and, for anyone who has ever wondered why that city arouses such fierce nostalgia among the tens of thousands who emigrated in the years following Israel’s establishment, this short yet expansive novel offers an indelible answer.

While its richly descriptive language is often as appealingly breezy and insouciant as the seaside promenades where much of its action takes place, the novel ultimately takes us deep into the sorrows and passions, past and present, of two Jewish families just prior to the military coup that toppled King Farouk in 1952. It helps to understand what a polyglot and multicultural environment Alexandria was at the time.

As fellow expat writer André Aciman points out in his introduction, this was “a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-sexual, multi-everything society where Copt, Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox lived tolerably well together and where multilingualism was the order of the day. Everyone was part Levantine, part European, part Egyptian, and one hundred percent hodgepodge, just as everyone’s sentences were spiced with words and expressions lifted from French, Italian, Arabic, Ladino, Turkish, Greek, English, and whatever else came by.”

Compact as it is, Alexandrian Summer goes far in delivering that “multi-everything” to us in unforgettable language that lingers long after the final page. Throughout this riveting family drama, Goren often pauses to capture Alexandria’s singular ambiance.

And today, 36 years after its publication, the impossibility of conceiving such a reality in today’s violently tribal Arab world adds another poignant dimension: “A pleasant breeze blew from the sea. The tumult of bathers sounded from afar: Muslims, Christians and Jews desecrating the Sabbath. On the street, cars honked hysterically. The entire city rumbled and roared; nevertheless a Sabbath serenity was felt all around.”

Yet even at this time, Goren hints, the seeds for future enmity were only dormant, and to be fair, he does not spare us the naked class contempt for the Arabs by the Sephardic Jewish families nor the dangerous xenophobia and hyper-nationalism that erupts when a Jew dares to best a Bedouin “son of the desert” in a horse race; the chilling cry of Maut al yahud! (Death to the Jews), foreshadows the revolution to come.

Though resistant to sentimental nostalgia, Goren provides many moments so appealing that readers will often feel thoroughly seduced by its vanished charms: “An hour of siesta in the midst of an Alexandrian summer, a summer of the early 1950s. An hour in which everybody floats above ground, in which every word is uttered as a whisper, so as not to desecrate the serenity of the moment.”

And yet, even in this idyll, the Jew is always in exile from elsewhere, it seems. For the passage continues: “Only the antique grandfather clock in the darkened hall keeps swinging its pendulum patiently, and every 15 minutes it erupts in sounds from a faraway world, laden with yearning.”

Some readers may already be familiar with two excellent memoirs published in recent years: Andre Aciman’s Out of Egypt and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. Goren’s novel adds splendid new layers and nuances to our appreciation of the story of the Jewish sense of belonging to what was once a tolerant and richly heterogeneous society.

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