Monday, March 6, 2017

Death in my heart

‘There is nothing but death in my heart. It is as though I have been pumped with lead. There is nothing to look forward to at all, at all . . . even financially, I’ve had it this time. I owe my rent, the car tax, the car insurance, I’ve had my pay and it is gone. I have 10 pfgs in the house and no petrol in the car. There is nothing to look forward to at all. I am also going through an acute sense of self-pity again and deadening loneliness.’ This is Waguih Ghali, a self-exiled Egyptian writer, whose deep depression, intensely described in his diaries, led eventually to suicide. A first volume of these diaries has just been published by The American University in Cairo Press.

Ghali was born in 1929 or 1930 (the actual date seems unknown) in Alexandria, Egypt, part of a Coptic family, but his father died when he was young, and his mother remarried. As he grew older, he was considered something a wild youth, careless with money and property. From 1944 to 1947, he was sent to Victoria College, a private institution run like a British public school. Friction with his stepfather, led him to spend more time at the college’s Cairo campus, where he stayed with relatives, particularly his maternal aunt, Ketty. After studying medicine at Cairo University for a while, he transferred to the Sorbonne, Paris, but dropped out, leaving Paris in 1953.

Ghali struggled with symptoms of manic depression throughout his life, and he never found a place to settle for long or work that fulfilled him. He became a sponger, a libertine, too fond of alcohol and casual sex, like others in the sixties, but he was also charming and principled. An antipathy towards the Egyptian government left him reluctant to return to his home country. He lived in London and Sweden in the second half of the 1950s, during which time he wrote several personal essays published in The Guardian, and then moved to Rheydt, West Germany, where he remained from 1960 to 1966. It was in Germany that he finished and published his only novel - Beer in the Snooker Club (André Deutsch, 1964) - which achieved some literary success.

While editing the book for André Deutsch, Diana Athill, one of its editors, became involved with Ghali. Concerned about his welfare in 1966, she arranged for him to move to London and live in her flat. It was not an easy friendship, stormy and full of conflict. One major argument flared up, for example, when Athill happened to read what Ghali had written about her in his diary. In 1967, following the Arab-Israeli war, he visited Israel for six weeks, acting as a free-lance journalist. He filed two articles for the London Times and a piece for the BBC, but, by then, the Egyptian authorities had denied renewal of his passport.

In late 1968, while still living in Athill’s flat, Ghali committed suicide. Some time later, in the mid-1980s, Athill published a memoir about her relationship with Ghali - After a Funeral. Until recently, this was the main source of information on the Egyptian writer. Wikipedia has a brief briography, and there is a more nuanced analysis of Ghali and his novel available in The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English by Nouri Gana which can be previewed at Googlebooks.

However, now more biographical information has become available with the publication, by The American University in Cairo Press, of a first volume of Ghali’s diaries - a second volume is to follow in the summer. The diaries cover, and shed much light on, the last four years of Ghali’s life as well as, through reminiscences, aspects of his youth. The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties 1964-1966 has been meticulously edited by May Hawas of the University of Alexandria. Although Athill had, apparently, inadvertently allowed the original diaries to be lost or destroyed, she had also given permission, much earlier to a researcher, Deborah Starr (now an associate professor at Cornell University) to photocopy the diaries, and it is these photocopies that Hawas has worked on for the new publication.

‘The diaries are an interesting read for their own sake,’ says Hawas in her introduction. ‘In the context of the success of Ghali’s novel and the diversity of its audience, as well as the pathos of the writer’s own life, the diaries also represent for Ghali’s fans a much-awaited second work.’ She goes on to look at how Ghali’s diaries (the published volume and the forthcoming one) reflect the Swinging Sixties (as in her subtitle), and how they illuminate the parasitic nature of his relationship with Athill.

Particularly interesting, however, is her brief analysis of the role that keeping a diary played in Ghali’s life. Hamas notes that in his final diary entry - yet to be published, in the second volume - he explains how and why he is going to commit suicide. She says: ‘Although Ghali starts the diary by explaining that he writes to save himself from going mad, it is in these last sections in particular where he elaborates on the role that the diary has played in his life: how writing it has relieved his feelings, but how it has also displaced effort which otherwise might have been channeled into writing a novel. In his suicide note, Ghali stresses his desire to have his diaries published, spelling out the degree to which his creative energy has been directed toward the diary, even if it was not the novelistic work he had really wanted to produce. 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.” ’

In the first volume of diaries, Hawas also includes a compilation of correspondence between Starr and Athill between 1999 and 2014. In one exchange, Hawas asks Athill, ‘Did Ghali leave you any instructions about what to do with his personal papers after he died?’ Athill replies, ‘Waguih left the bundle in my bedroom with a note saying I should do with it what I saw fit.’ What she saw fit, however, did not apparently include publishing the diaries. Athill is still alive, living in a retirement home, and, all being well, will celebrate her 100th birthday this coming December.

Here are several extracts from The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties 1964-1966. (Ellipses between brackets - [. . .] - indicate where Hawas has cut material; if not between brackets the ellipses are a standardised version of Ghali’s own and variable trailing dots.)

4 June 1964
‘Am at the office. Lovely sunny day. Woke up in an excellent mood. Sang in the car going to work. Perhaps even relieved that that Liselotte thing is finished with. Had a nice walk in the sun to the bank. Bought Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe - in English, unfortunately. But something to read in lieu of depression and thinking. “Thoughts are a disease of the flesh,” said Thomas Hardy.

Will go swimming at noon. Let me live today for today and damn everything else. I’ve got enough to eat, haven’t I? A flat? A car. What do I want? A woman? I’ll go get one from a dancing hall this weekend. Fuck her and throw her. It is the only language they understand. They love that. They’ll love you for it. Leave my bloody anaemic sentimentality and sickliness - Let me be fresh, for Christ’s sake. Am in a good mood today.’

3 December 1964
‘In bed at night. This will be pompous and horrid but nevertheless: been reading An Area of Darkness (Naipaul). 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. The ‘cab’ in Alexandria, whether imaginary or not, is too insignificant to build a philosophy upon, a theory and work. “He was a child, an innocent, a maker; someone for whom the world had never held either glory or pathos; someone for whom there had been no place.” This (page 43) could have emanated from a review (a cheap one, probably) of a work or man, but not a description of a man’s life in a work (Ramon in this case). No, no, ‘l’effort préalablement conçu’ as it were.’

26 September 1965
‘There is nothing but death in my heart. It is as though I have been pumped with lead. There is nothing to look forward to at all, at all . . . even financially, I’ve had it this time. I owe my rent, the car tax, the car insurance, I’ve had my pay and it is gone. I have 10 pfgs in the house and no petrol in the car. There is nothing to look forward to at all. I am also going through an acute sense of self-pity again and deadening loneliness. Hélas, I want to die again. Happiness is denied me, and if, at times and out of cowardliness, I believe in God, I see him only as a cruel sadist. What, if he exists, is he doing to me? Why did he give me my brain and way of thinking and my emotions, and then stifle them all the time, torment me all the time? I have nothing to look forward to and I am dead internally. I don’t want to live anymore. I have suffered too much, suffered too much in spite of at times having tried to accept it, and make my life bearable with small things . . . the other car, the radio in it, the trips to Holland, and an aloofness from life . . . But I get knocked all the time, terribly knocked, and at the moment I can’t support it anymore. The thought of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is unbearable. I walk about in my flat, all in disorder since yesterday . . . vestiges of Brigitta. I walk up and down, sit down, smoke, every minute is a torture as I wait for it to pass, only to bring another more dreadful minute. I have reached the bottom again . . . self-pity, horror at the future, loneliness, and utter despair:

[. . .] Sat., [. . .] 2.30 or so, Brigitta came. I was only expecting her at seven. She wanted to go for a swim. She went for her trunks, and I shaved quickly and picked her up at Marienplatz. I could feel she wasn’t in love with me. The pool was closed, but we scrambled in and had a swim. It was a warm lovely day. The man came and told us we were not allowed in, so [we] went away and came to my place. I was a bit nervous, and although I took her in my arms now and then and kissed her, there wasn’t the real response I know. We both had a shower at my place and I found her very beautiful. [. . .] We sat and talked and then she said, “I really didn’t want to come today.” “I felt that perhaps you didn’t and even that you might not [. . .],” I said. We had drank a bit, and one was frank. It was about 7.30.
“I don’t want to have an affair with you . . . I don’t love you,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. And then I asked, “The affair is ended today?”
“Yes,” [. . .] she said.
It meant I wasn’t going to possess her. Death struck me at once. Lead, tons of it, was poured into me. The idea of food, of eating [. . .], gave me nausea.

“You must be hungry,” I said. “Start making the salad. I shall cook the steak. [. . .] I can’t eat, sweetheart,” I said. “I can’t now because I am a bit dead inside.” She said she understood. At once I switched on my charm. I wasn’t going to moan, to be a bore. I treated her as [a] Queen and called her queen. I laughed, set the table for her . . . put a candle [. . .] on the table. Joked. Served her like a waiter, and as she was eating, I went out in the garden, sat on the steps, and smoked a cigarette, one full of misery and utter despair. She came out and called me in. I went in, laughed, watched her eat (she was tucking it in, alright). Drank a few schnapps with her, then cleared the table while she made coffee. I lay on the sofa and we talked for a while. I had plucked a rose from the garden and she found it beautiful. I told her that anyway I was mad . . . that there was a sort of madness in me. We held hands and then I pulled her and she came in my arms as I lay on the sofa. I told her two short stories of Dostoevsky and one of Gogol’s. Gogol’s story of the poet and the bird which struck her heart in the rose’s thorn [sic] to bloom a rose for the beloved, and the poet throwing the rose away, and Dostoevsky’s story of the clerk who died because he couldn’t believe in his happiness. I had my hands beneath her pullover and tried to undo her soutien.

“No - no, Waguih,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked softly. “It is the last time anyway,” and I undid it and pulled her pullover off and again she tore at my things and pulled them off my head and we caressed passionately and then she took her things off. I told her more stories and we kissed and caressed. Then I took her to bed, and made wonderful love to her. I kissed her breasts and her armpits, and she kissed my chest and neck, and after the first time, we lay relaxed and happy and she murmured she would love to spend a whole night in my arms, then I kissed her body and her breasts and made love to her for many an hour, but suddenly I hated this rubber contraption and tore it away and told her I hated it, and she said, “yes”. . . and I came in her. And it is just the critical time. She worried about it, and I am worried too. I gave her an aspirin to take, pretending it’s another kind of pill . . . just to stop her worrying. What will worrying do?

We kissed and I drove her near home. She will not come again. “For a while,” I told her. “I must get over you.” “Of course,” she said. When I let her out of the car, I gave her the rose which I had tucked in the car . . . and a very small folded paper. “I dropped a tear for you and collected it to give you.” Stupid romantic, but she was touched. I walked with her for a while, and in the corner, kissed her. “Goodbye . . . and God bless you,” I said . . . and it is finished.

I am glad and grateful we made love. It would have been terrible otherwise. Glad I haven’t parted humiliated . . . But it is finished. Ended. A pretty little affair, except that no affair is ‘little’ to me, and I am demolished today. Utterly dead. Writing this has helped a bit . . . What can I look forward to?’

27 September 1965
‘Thanks God [sic] for this Diary again, because, being the way I am I must pour out my heart somewhere or other. But I don’t feel as bad as yesterday this morning. Certainly harder and not as soft and as repulsive as yesterday. [. . . ] What is good with this girl, is that I know it is finished, know I shall not see her anymore, so that eliminates a whole lot of ramifications of pain. And strangely, I don’t really love her this morning anymore, in the sense that it is not love, but something I possessed and have lost. I shall try very very hard not to think of her at all. What frightens me most of all, is the period between 5.30 and 8.30 at home. When I return from work, I dread being alone in my flat and suddenly hate the flat itself and everything in it. I do not know what I shall do about money. The whole picture is terribly hopeless.’

18 October 1965
‘I am beginning to hate this Diary somehow - it has become a ‘person,’ who goes on and on putting up with my complaints and groans . . . and whenever I look at it, see it, it is only a reminder of the utter misery that I am. How the weekend dragged - and dragged. Again utterly dead and empty inside. Sunday swimming and racquets again, then a few beers with Kurt and Zander in the evening. Zander’s mother had invited me to lunch, where I learnt from Zander that Brigitta was with Bubbi on Saturday evening.

As I said, I am just absolutely and utterly empty inside. Thoughts of suicide, the whole hog. Damn.

I think I shall not write this Diary for some time. It depresses me to look at it.’

22 October 1965
‘As I said, the Diary does depress me. Have worked well the last three days on the novel. It is my salvation. I am slowly entering my cocoon, and when I am in it, I am alright. I’ve discovered an isolated pub, which is becoming my local. One or two beers now and then, all alone, dreading any of my acquaintances finding the pub [. . .] But the novel [unfinished at the time of his death] is my salvation.’

16 December 1965
‘I have not been to work since - and I certainly can’t face going. I have handed in my notice for the 15th of January and will play sick as long as possible . . . et après?. . . après ça la deluge, as we know well from experience. But deluge or not, I can’t really worsen very much. I seem to have improved slightly during the last week [. . .].

Here is my day: I go to bed about 2 a.m., having drunk myself to sleepiness. In the morning I force myself to go on sleeping as long as possible. I am usually up at about two in the afternoon. Wash, have two coffees and many cigarettes, then I drive to town for another coffee. I walk about a bit [. . .] and return home. I try and write, but it is nearly impossible. I do write, though, a few pages of a play I am writing together with Kurt Flocken - the same Kurt Flocken of Liselotte days. When I say ‘with’ him I mean I write it in English, then when he comes he takes it down in German (usually my German) . . . For someone who pretends to have literary leanings, he is hopeless. Anyway, my dictating to him is not unpleasant, and it forces me to write a few pages a day because I know he will be coming. After that we go to a pub and drink till 1 or 2 a.m . . . and a new day starts. I ward off the depression with those pills, but have decided to go without them, and without the booze for a few days. [. . .]

Diana Athill’s letters have been short and not too affectionate lately. How well I understand that and sympathise with what I take to be the inevitable revulsion I must now unconsciously cause in her. Those horrible moaning and weeping letters I have inflicted on her for so long. She would have been a monster if she didn’t finally react with some sort of disgust. And then, of course, this lunatic, selfish and absolutely egoistical proposal of mine for her to let me live in her flat for six months or so AT HER OWN COST!! Obviously I was looney to propose such a thing . . . yet. Bless her, she at once wrote to the Home Office to try and get me permission to live in London for six months . . .

Brenda Laring, who strangely turned very affectionate and friendly lately, and concerned about me, hasn’t replied to me last letter . . . a detailed description of my state of despair and fear . . .

But I remember the state I was in as I wrote to Diana suggesting she bring me to England . . . literally begging for her mercy. I remember how I was, how I feared for my sanity . . . how I could foresee that what I was going through is just simply, medically let us say, physiologically . . . unbearable.

As I said, except for this sudden attack this afternoon . . . and coupled with a sudden yearning for Brigitta, I seem to have been steadily improving. And my finances? I have been regularly winning lately. In fact if I add all I have won the last two months, it must add to about DM 200 [. . .]

I have calmed down since that attack (I played patience while it seized me) . . . I am sitting cosily, even the radio on (something I couldn’t bear to listen to until lately). Sometimes I get very hungry and eat a lot, but usually I am on an empty stomach. About my finances, le déluge will start at about the beginning of February I suppose . . .

I have discarded the novel because it started with unrequited love, and it reminds me of B. I have also read Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum and again saw what literature can be . . . what insipid caca’s [sic] most of us write. [. . . ]

My mother has sent me two very affectionate letters . . . No word from Ketty or Samir. I think they would like to be left alone.

There was something I wanted to mention. During the last two years, I have suffered terribly from matters of the heart, and anyone reading this Diary, and reading the affair with Liselotte, and then Brigitta, would laugh . . . This, to me, is one of the cruellest things I am experiencing, the fact that, in essential, it is a laughable matter. What is this ‘love’ I am talking about? Liselotte . . . Brenda . . . Iricka . . . Brigitta . . . all in the space of one year or so? I can see it too, and how cruel and terribly bitter that what is laughable distresses so intolerably. And with those last wise words, will end today’s reportage.’

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