One of Cleopatra’s Nights by Theophile Gautier

I’ve written regularly on the Ramblings about the books produced by Michael Walmer, an independent publisher based down under in Australia. Mike’s books are lovely reprints of interesting lost works, ranging from Australian classics through essays and works of European literature. His newest imprint is one he’s titled Zephyr Books, with the aim to focus on classic novellas, and the first in the series is a gorgeous little story about a night in the life of the most beautiful yet deadly women in history…

French-born Gautier (1811-1872) was a novelist, poet, playwright and journalist, as well as penning art and literary criticism. His work is often bracketed with Romanticism, and was highly thought of by authors as wide-ranging as Pound, Proust, Eliot and Wilde. “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” was published as the title work in a collection of 1882 and at 77 pages probably straddles the line between short story and novella.

Those 77 pages, however, are utterly captivating. The story is, as you might suspect, about one night in the life of the famous Egyptian queen, and as it opens the regal one is suffering from ennui. Bored with the bleak arid landscape of her country, bored with her current lovers, she throws a somewhat petulant hissy fit, wishing for some kind of grand adventure. Little does Cleopatra know that she has an admirer: a lowly young man called Meiamoun, handsome yet poor and obscure, worships her from afar. He follows her around when he can, worshipping from a distance, and dreams only for his queen to know he exists. And on this magical night their trajectories will collide, although what will result remains to be seen.

The story is a simple one, but affectingly told, and much of the appeal comes from Gautier’s wonderfully lush prose. His writing is just gorgeous, vividly conjuring images of the Egyptian night and the hot bare landscape of that country. The story drips atmosphere, and although the style might seem a little overwrought, it actually works beautifully for this book. You can feel the stifling heat of the sandy country; sense the dark night where the temperature barely drops and there is no relief; and visualise the harsh landscape. It is this latter element that was one of the most fascinating to me as I read; I’d never really considered what it would be like to live somewhere with just sand and stone as far as you can see. I guess that living in a country that’s blessed with plenty of rain and greenery, you kind of take that sort of thing for granted…

The wonderfully flamboyant-looking author…

Reading a story of a slave meets a queen, especially when it’s a monarch as cruel and capricious as Cleo, you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting a happy ending. But the work has a kind of beauty in it, pointing out that perhaps a perfect night with the woman you love can be the only point of your life. Certainly this lovely little hardback edition is a thing of beauty in its own right, and an excellent introduction into the work of a intriguing-sounding author. Another winning volume from Mike Walmer!

(Many thanks to Mike for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

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