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on 25 August 2000
Since I first read it,... the Alexandria Quartet has haunted me. Durrell's style is admittedly dense, but all this means is that you get to spend more time with the book, a true blessing. It's a jigsaw puzzle, stories fitting together in unlikely ways, and each of the four novels on their own would count as brilliant (with the possible exception of Mountolive, which is only 'very good'). But taken together they are mindblowing: each complements and adds to each of the other volumes. Quite amazingly good.
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on 10 May 2001
This is one of the major english novels of the century and it is a shame that it not read and known more widely. It is essentially the story of a group of characters living, loving and interacting in Alexandria in the late 30s and early 40s but, in a challenge to the linear narrative techniques dominant in most novels, the first three parts (originally separate books) tell of the same period of time; only in the final part is the story 'moved on' in the conventional sense. Thus, the complex web of relationships and the motivations of the characters are revealed slowly adding to the dense, rich and beautiful tapestry of the work. The novel makes the reader question the nature of reality, the truth of our perspectives and to appreciate the labrynthine nature of human life itself yet all this is done without preaching and authorial comment damaging the artistic integrity of the work. It is always the story and her characters - that one develops a real attachment to - that remain prior. The language of the novel itself is perhaps its greatest treasure. Durrell from start to finish writes with elegance and strength - with the observations of the poet and the hunger of a man who has lived through such experiences. Alexandria - the city, of course, can also lay claim to be the central figure, her presence captured so uniquely by Durrell haunts almost every page, interacting with the protagonists and providing a real 'sense of place.' It is a sublime work that all lovers of serious literature should read.
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on 4 March 2001
The great sweep of Durrell's quartet is almost impossible to describe. His characters and the evocation of wartime Alexandria are so perfect that you can taste the perfume on Justine's neck, hear the call from the mosques and smell the blood of camels butchered in the streets. Here are poets and prostitutes, diplomats and gun runners. There are scenes of lust and love and violence and despair. The characters mutate as the story unfolds and then convolutes upon itself again. We are as confused as the characters themselves and never find ourselves in a position where we understand events before they do. Myriad scenes tumble upon each other; a bird shoot on Lake Mareotis, the masqued ball, the strange death of Pursewarden, the dreadful death of Narouz. Across four volumes Durrell seldom puts a foot wrong and while his florid prose is not to everyone's taste, nobody can deny that this is one of the the under rated classics of the twentieth century. After the grim years of the Second World War and the grey, slow grind of the 1950s, this novel must have burst upon literary Europe like a comet streaking across the sky. It is an essential book for anyone who considers themselves well-read.
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on 17 February 2007
This is an exquisite piece of story-telling, tracing the eccentric lives of old souls scratching around in the detritus of a tired, grimy but magnificent old city. The characterisations are vivid, shocking and flamboyantly colourful. My particular favourite, the "old pirate" Scobie with his bathtub of illicit whisky, heretical parrot and manservant with an unfortunate sideline in botched circumcisions, has been one of the most eccentric and sympathetic characters I have had the priviledge to read in literature - his ending, in a tiny and stiflingly hot police cell by the docks, where the narrator struggles by candlelight to pull his stiffened body out of a woman's dress and into the decency of a proper military uniform, becomes ressurection as the dim recollection from the sleepy souls of his district mix their recollections of him with half-forgotten mythology and elevate his sand-filled bathtub into the shrine of "El-Skob", and decendents of the sailors who had caused his untimely demise fire salutes from the guns of their warships to his honour. Truly there is nothing to compare to the intricate narrative style of this superb series of novels.
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on 5 October 2006
Throughout The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell writes with a richness and resonance that is mesmerising. It is a glittering kaleidoscope of genius. His cast of characters is full of wonderful individuals, whether it be the raddled old sea dog Scobie, or the suave Nessim, the party loving Pombal, all chime with the resonance of people whom Durrell must have closely observed. The plot is as twisted as the stands of rope securing the Egyptian dhows to their moorings in Alexandria Harbour. The Quartet rings with the echoes of Severis' poetry, and has snatches of aracane philosophy and descriptions of the Gnostics that give a fascinating insight into the rich social and religious palimpsest that was and is Egypt, along with a real understanding of the diplomatic and political interplay of Britain and Egypt in the early 20th century. Reading the book is like whirling one way on a merry-go-round, trying to watch a static object - only to discover yourself on another merry-go-round whirling a different way trying to keep your eyes on the original object. It looks quite different. Durrell twists time to allow multiple viewpoints of the same story, and then allows the fourth volume to complete the chronological continuum so the story composes itself, and the true nature of the preceding events is finally aligned and arranged and there is a sense of closure. Without doubt one of my favourite books of all time, to be savoured in the balmy evenings of a Mediterranean island, listening to the warm wind through the palms, with the creak of cicadas in the background.
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on 19 July 2009
, , , Lawrence Durrell is! And as you read the notes and "workpoints" that litter the end-papers of these books, you can't escape the feeling that he is (was) a self-regarding old windbag. But the results are magnificent! To say the characters - almost without exception - are larger than life sounds disparaging. But they are so well done! Consider Scobie, the Alexandrian cross-dressing colonial policeman - so alive that it's no surprise to learn that Durrell knew him during the time he lived in Alexandria. Durrell is superb at landscapes, street scenes, Arab markets, horse-breaking, cocktail parties, child brothels, even incest - quarrying the Thesaurus for words you've never heard before, never restricting himself to 10 words where he can use a couple of hundred - and getting away with it. There's a gorgeous, hilarious, touching scene where Pursewarden, a slightly down-at-heel diplomat, celebrates William Blake's birthdate by waltzing in the snow in Trafalgar Square with his blind sister, a puzzled policeman the solitary observer. A horrifying incident where the first-person narrator (Darley, an impoverished schoolteacher) has to hack through the hand of Clea (an artist) to save her from drowning after she has been impaled onto a sunken shipwreck by a harpoon accidentally discharged. Children are abducted and never seen again. There's page after page of philosophic introspection and self-examination and discourses on the nature of love. There is poetry in the prose as inventive as anything Dylan Thomas or Dylan, Bob ever produced. There's Durrell disparaging contemporary poets . . . "The slow, sad cowbell of the English muse" and their critics, "arranging sprigs of parsely over the body of a dead turbot" (He hasn't been given the attention he deserved as a poet. This is because some of his poetry is tosh, just as some of the "Quartet" is tosh! Now read his "Tree of Idleness", "Conon in Exile", "Bitter Lemons" ) The "Alexandria Quartet" was very much read in the early 60's - a refreshing antidote to the popular writers of that era - John Braine, Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe, David Storey.
To read the "Alexandria Quartet" is to drown in prose.
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on 6 March 2013
"The Alexandria Quartet", officially, consists of four separate novels, "Justine", "Balthazar", "Mountolive" and "Clea", first published as such at intervals between 1957 and 1960, but the four are so closely interlinked that they are best read as a single work. The first three parts are set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the 1930s. "Balthazar" and "Mountolive" are not sequels to "Justine" in the normal sense, but rather, to use Durrell's own description, "siblings", by which he meant that they deal with the same events but from a different perspective. Only "Clea" can be seen as a sequel to the other three parts.

"Justine" is ostensibly told in the first person, although at times it reads more like a third-person narrative with an omniscient narrator, as the narrator (unnamed in this novel, but referred to as "Darley" in the later novels) reports on events he did not witness in person and displays an insight into the motives and emotions of others which he is unlikely to have possessed. We never, in fact, learn Darley's full name; it is implied at one point that his initials are "L.G.", giving him the same initials as his creator Lawrence George Durrell, but elsewhere in the text another character addresses him as "Mark", an inconsistency which is never resolved.

The main theme of "Justine" is an extension of the familiar love triangle into a love quadrilateral. Darley is a schoolmaster and struggling writer, who is involved in a love affair with Justine, a beautiful and mysterious woman married to Nessim, a wealthy Egyptian aristocrat and the narrator's friend. The fourth corner of the quadrilateral is Darley's other lover Melissa, a nightclub dancer who is possibly also a prostitute. Other characters introduced at this stage include the French diplomat Georges Pombal, Balthazar (a doctor with mystical inclinations), the novelist Pursewarden, the broker Capodistria and Scobie, an elderly police officer who later works for the Secret Service. (Durrell may have borrowed the name from Greene's "The Heart of the Matter", which also features a colonial police officer named Scobie).

"Balthazar" essentially tells of the same events as Justine but from a different viewpoint even though Darley is, officially, still the narrator. We also learn that Darley was not Justine's only lover and more of Nessim's earlier life. New characters are introduced, such as Nessim's younger brother Narouz, and others, notably Pursewarden, Scobie and Clea, a beautiful lesbian artist, take on more important roles than they played in "Justine". At least, Clea is portrayed as a lesbian here, although subsequent developments suggest that "bisexual" would be a more appropriate description. Homosexuality, both male and female, plays an important part in the story; both Balthazar and Scobie, for example, are homosexual.

The third volume, "Mountolive", is perhaps the most traditional in style in the Quartet. Although it takes place around the same time as "Justine and "Balthazar" it is perhaps more of a "half-sibling" to those novels as it introduces much new material. It is the only third person narrative in the series- Darley, in fact, only plays a minor role- and also the most political. The protagonist here is the title character, Sir David Mountolive, the British Ambassador to Egypt, who was only briefly mentioned in "Balthazar" and did not appear at all in "Justine". Although Darley is in some ways a self-portrait of the author, Durrell also gave Mountolive some of his own characteristics; both were, for example, born in India. The story begins with a flashback to Mountolive's youth when, as a young diplomat, he has an affair with Leila Hosnani, the mother of Nessim and Narouz. The novel then briefly follows his subsequent diplomatic career, which culminates in his return to Egypt as Ambassador. The political side of the novel deals with a plot by a group of leading Coptic Christians, led by Nessim and Narouz, to smuggle weapons to the Zionists in Palestine, whom they see as potential allies against the British. Pursewarden, who is appointed as Mountolive's political adviser, plays an important role in this story.

In "Clea", which moves the action forward to the war years of the 1940s, Durrell returns to the first-person mode, with Darley, now romantically involved with Clea, once again the narrator. We also learn what has become of some of the other the characters from the earlier books, especially Balthazar and Mountolive, and some secrets are revealed, including a very dark one involving Pursewarden. The novel is far from being a straight linear narrative; there are frequent digressions, especially the "Brother Ass" chapter, essentially a lengthy diatribe, attributed to Pursewarden but probably reflecting some of Durrell's own views, about the state of European and British culture. (Durrell was officially British, but preferred to think of himself as a cosmopolitan and held no very high opinion of the country of which he was nominally a citizen).

Despite Durrell's multitude of characters, a case can be made out that the most important player is not any human individual but rather the city of Alexandria itself, as complex as any of the protagonists, if not more so. Durrell was fascinated by the multi-cultural nature of the city in the early twentieth century, and it is notable that no major character is an Egyptian Muslim. The Hosnani family are Coptic Christians, Justine and Balthazar Jewish, Melissa an ethnic Greek (originally from Smyrna in Asia Minor), Pombal French and Darley, Mountolive, Pursewarden and Scobie British. Another important presence is that of the Greek-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, who is not actually introduced as a character in his own right, but who is frequently referred to in the text.

"The Alexandria Quartet" is, in many ways, an experimental work of fiction in terms of structure and style. There is no strict time-scheme, and the narrative moves back and forth in time. More importantly, the use of shifting styles of narrative to tell the same story from different points of view allows Durrell to achieve effects not available to authors who rely upon a single omniscient third-person narrator. There had been other writers who had used multiple-narrator technique, such as Faulkner in "As I Lay Dying", but Durrell uses it in a more subtle way, making use of what I would call the "double first person". In "Balthazar", for example, Darley is still the narrator but frequently relates what he is told by other characters, especially Balthazar, who although he is the title character does not play a great substantive role in the story, and Clea.

Experimental modernism can sometimes lead to a dry, austere style of writing, but not here. As Jan Morris points out in her introduction, Durrell's prose style is marked by an elaborate and allusive richness of language- indeed, too much so for some of his more puritanical contemporaries. It is also a highly sensuous one- accounts of the city, its sights, its sounds, even its smells, tastes and sensations abound on almost every page, all described in a richly evocative language. It reminded me in this respect of another lengthy novel-sequence from around the same period, also set in an Egyptian city, Mahfouz's "Cairo Trilogy". Durrell also employs much obscure or erudite vocabulary- retromingent, ventripotent, umbrageous, kallipygous. He even manages to use one word, "pegamoid", which was previously unknown not only to me but even to the compiler of my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. (It means, apparently, "impervious to emotions").

Some literary modernists seem more interested in language itself than in people, but Durrell's literary devices are not an end in themselves but a means to a greater end, an exploration of the human condition. He is able to create rounded, three-dimensional characters in whom we can believe and can write with great depth and perception of human relationships. This is particularly true of "Justine", in my view the finest of the four volumes, with its searching yet compassionate analysis of the various love-affairs which make up its subject matter. The fey, doomed figure of Melissa emerges as one of the great tragic literary heroines of our age.

It is rare for the same family to produce two great writers, rarer still when those writers are as different in their style and subject-matter as Lawrence Durrell and his younger brother, the naturalist, conservationist, autobiographer and travel writer Gerald. Previously I had only known Lawrence as "Larry" from "My Family and Other Animals". Having read "The Alexandria Quartet" I can now understand just why he is regarded as one of the great figures of twentieth-century British literature and this as a work of enduring quality. Hats off to Larry!
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on 8 September 2009
I could get carried away and wax lyrical, attempt to emulate others, indeed allude to Durrel's affectations but I wont. Just get it and read it. I regard myself as someone with eclectic tastes who has read broadly across various genres and the literature of various countries and I think this is one of the most entertaining books I've read. Nuff said!
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on 29 August 2009
Pretty much every review of this book states that it's the reviewer's favourite book. I picked it up knowing absolutely nothing about it except that Durrell bumps into Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi. And... it's the best book I've ever read.

Durrell recommends us to read the first three books in any order or even simultaneously. Here, I feel he is unaware of a strength in his book. The first three books are layers of the same story. Of course if I'd read them backwards, I may have been similarly impressed but the structure is truly genius:

The first book is truly beautiful and wonderfully interesting but in the end rather simple. Then almost every page of the second book makes you smile at the naivety of the narrator of the first book. The third makes an abrupt change of style and suddenly the reader is laughing at his own naivety. How could we have seen the story in such a skewed way? The whole story is blown apart... and yet in an entirely cohesive way. If that sounds absurd, then read the book and appreciate what a genius the author is.

I really don't want to say much about the final book because it blew me away so much and I think it would produce the same reaction in almost anyone (this is a very, VERY highbrow book yet the end of the book excludes almost no reader). As I finished the last page my instant urge was to turn back to the first and to start this tome all over again.
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on 25 April 2006
The first volume, 'Justine', reads like a competent and engaging but rather predictable tale of adulterous romance - until 'Balthazaar' turns your perceptions completely upside down - and then 'Mountolive' repeats the same dizzying trick ('Clea' is a little disappointing, though). If I had not been stuck on holiday with a combined edition, I might not have progressed beyond 'Justine', and would have missed out on one of the most stimulating and enjoyable reads of my life. These books remind us that whatever we may think we understand about the world or other people is always open to re-interpretation.
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