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!