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Authors: Lawrence Durrell

The Alexandria Quartet

BOOK: The Alexandria Quartet

The Alexandria Quartet

Lawrence Durrell


by Jan Morris

This celebrated tetralogy from the 1950s was defined by its author as “an investigation of modern love”, but has often been regarded by its readers more as an evocation of a city – the Greco-Arab, multi-ethnic Alexandria of its title. Almost infinite variations of love are certainly explored in its 1000-odd pages, and the presence of Alexandria certainly permeates the work, but for myself I think the legendary fascination of the quartet is essentially existential. The work itself is greater than its themes, and casts a spell that is neither precisely emotional nor specifically topographic.

Actually it is neither specific nor precise about almost anything. It was an experimental novel of its day, perhaps related to the work of Durrell's friend Henry Miller, perhaps to
. It was based upon the premise that people and events seem different when considered from different angles and periods, and that they can best be recorded, as Durrell himself put it, stereoscopically. The four volumes concern the same characters, but several narrators tell its complex tales from their several viewpoints, and they write at different times. It is a device, Durrell claimed, amounting to a new concept of reality, reflecting the ideas of Freud and Einstein and a convergence of Western and Eastern Metaphysics.

If that sounds over-blown, well, the Quartet itself is not without pretension, in concept as in performance. As has generally been admitted, it is often ornately over-written, sometimes to an almost comical degree. The high ambition of its
sometimes makes its narratives and characters inexplicably confusing, and its virtuoso use of vocabulary can be trying (pudicity? noetic? fatidic? scry?) But if there are parts of the work that few readers, I suspect, will navigate without skipping, there are many passages of such grand inspiration that reaching them feels like emerging from choppy seas into marvellously clear blue Mediterranean waters.

*                  *                  *

For it is true that the city of Alexandria does colour the entire work. Durrell lived and worked in the city from 1942 to 1945, and he believed strongly in the effect of place upon human temperaments. Alexandria's peculiar Levantine character, as it existed during Durrell's time there, is insistently summoned into these pages. His responses to the place were moulded partly by E.M. Forster's elegant
Alexandria, A History and Guide
, first published in 1922, and more especially by the greatest of Alexandrine poets, Constantin Cavafy – who had died in 1933, but whose drifting presence in the books is almost as haunting as the presence of the city itself.

It was Cavafy who wrote of Alexandria
“There's no new land, my friend, no/ New sea; for the city will follow you, /In the same streets you'll wander endlessly.…
One of this work's narrators goes further still: “man is only an extension of the spirit of place”, says Nessim (I think it is) in
. The several narrators of the Quartet are certainly enslaved by Alexandria's
genii loci
, and readers are likely to be entrapped too, because the work, so opaque is other contexts, is clear enough when it deals with the city. We soon learn the geography of the place, from the handsome Rue Fuad to the meshed Arab backstreets, from the elegance of L'Etoile or the Cecil Hotel to the hashish-cafés of the slums or the sandy approaches to the Western Desert. We see inside the mansions of rich cosmopolitans and diplomats, we visit stifling attic bedrooms, brothels and pleasure pavilions by the sea.

Much of all this is factual. Durrell based much of his fiction upon personal experience, reminiscence and tittle-tattle, which gave the Quartet, for his contemporaries, something of the allure of a
, not least in its sexual allusions. In fact a general sensuality is the most Alexandrine aspect of the Quartet, but it does shows itself, too, in somewhat hazy illustrations of individual sex – “modern love”, as Durrell put it. These “dark blue tides of Eros” are far from pornographic. Sometimes, it is true, we are unsure who is loving whom, and now and then there are homosexual and cross-dressing deviations, but mostly the love elements are straightforward and moving, and really do dominate, as Durrell implied, the devious goings-on of the plot.

Which are full of surprises. Some, I dare say, really are Freudian or Einsteinian in origin, or metaphysically intercultural, but they often seem to me like twists in a skilful thriller, closer to Le Carré than to James Joyce, and sometimes embroiled in melodrama – “the slime of plot and counterplot”, as another of Durrell's characters defines it. He was particularly admired for his descriptive writing, and these books are rich in masterly set-pieces, but he was also a fine story-teller, adept in techniques of suspense and deception. Reader, watch out! Shocks are always around the dusty corner, in the Alexandria Quartet.

*                  *                  *

The four books of the tetralogy originally appeared separately – Justine in 1957, Balthazar and Mountolive in 1958, Clea in 1960. They were immediately recognized as remarkable works of art, but the verdict on the whole work, while always respectful, was mixed. French critics adored it. Americans lapped it up. English reviewers were not so sure. Lawrence Durrell, a lifelong expatriate, never was an admirer of English culture, and his elaborate prose did not greatly appeal to more austere littérateurs like Angus Wilson, who called it floridly vulgar. Its pretensions were mocked, its
avant garde
excesses parodied, and although the books were commercial triumphs, he wrote nothing so publicly successful again.

But the whole thing itself, this immense imaginary construction, has stood the tests of time and taste, and has never been out of print – probably never will be. Half a century after its completion those florid vulgarities, those modernist pretensions, seem no more than incidental to its unique flavour, which lingers in the mind long after its labyrinthine plots (for they are myriad, and muddling) have been forgotten.

The Alexandria Quartet is one of a kind, and as I see it, on the whole a masterpiece.



The characters in this story, the first of a group, are all inventions together with the personality of the narrator, and bear no resemblance to living persons. Only the city is real.

I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that


There are two positions available to us – either crime which renders us happy, or the noose, which prevents us from being unhappy. I ask whether there can be any hesitation, lovely Thérèse, and where will your little mind find an argument able to combat that one?




these memorials of her native city


he sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes.…

I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child — Melissa's child. I do not know why I use the word ‘escape'. The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way.…

At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney-piece I light a lamp and walk about, thinking of my friends — of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora — precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!

I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all! Living on this bare promontory, snatched every night from darkness by Arcturus, far from the lime-laden dust of those summer afternoons, I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.

Capitally, what is this city of ours? What is resumed in the word Alexandria? In a flash my mind's eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today — and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either.

Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them. The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body — for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying — I think he was quoting — that Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets — I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.

Notes for landscape-tones.… Long sequences of tempera. Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick-dust — sweet-smelling brick-dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water. Light damp clouds, earth-bound yet seldom bringing rain. Upon this squirt dust-red, dust-green, chalk-mauve and watered crimson-lake. In summer the sea-damp lightly varnished the air. Everything lay under a coat of gum.

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