A Seductive Spectacle

The languid bazaar of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet still beckons 50 years later


Speak the name Lawrence Durrell, as I have been doing recently, and you will have little trouble prompting the title of his masterwork, the four-novel cycle he called “The Alexandria Quartet.” Yes, everyone read it back when. Or some of it. Justine . . .Balthazar . . . The well of memory tends to run dry about there, leaving only the wistful fragrance of the little remembered but not quite forgotten.

Yet half a century ago, when Justine appeared, it elicited a rush of critical superlatives that announced the birth of a literary classic. Almost at once the novel established an outlandish reputation for Durrell, previously known for a precocious first novel and some sublime travel writing. He was confidently placed in the big shoes of Joyce, Proust, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, among other modernist forebears. “The novel may indeed be dying,” declared the critic Robert Scholes, “but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance.”

At 45, the preternaturally energetic Durrell leapt into the awaited moment of his fame, churning out the rest of the volumes—siblings, he called them, not sequels— one after the other, faster than a publisher could keep up with them: six weeks to write Balthazar, he said, 12 weeks for Mountolive, and eight weeks for Clea, the last to appear, in early 1960. Within months of Justine, rights to the whole opus, to his poetry, to Bitter Lemons, a book on Cyprus, were snapped up around the world. Durrell was able to give up nearly 20 years on the British Foreign Office payroll and buy a house in southern France, where he lived ever after, receiving royalty checks, accolades, and pilgrims in inexorably dwindling numbers.

Durrell had found his voice and located his literary identity in a particular place, Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, a seedy polyglot seaport of bygone luster. There is no denying Durrell’s extraordinarily retentive powers of observation, but he was the first to say that his city was woven from many cities in his mind. He was stationed in Alexandria for less than a year, starting at the end of 1944, and once considered setting the whole quartet in Athens, which underscores the invented and nearly arbitrary nature of his terrain. Be that as it may, for George Steiner, another serious critic then and now, “Durrell’s Alexandria is one of the true monuments to the architecture of imagination. It compares in manifold coherence with the Paris of Proust and the Dublin of Joyce.”

Alexandria, in fact, is the central character in the Quartet—the fabric that, if anything does, holds together the threads of narrative. Durrell gives the city personality and moral will: “Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi.” Alexandria: “the capital of Memory.” And how lovingly he describes

streets that run back from the docks with their tattered rotten supercargo of houses, breathing into each others’ mouths, keeling over. Shuttered balconies swarming with rats, and old women whose hair is full of the blood of ticks. Peeling walls leaning drunkenly to east and west of their true centre of gravity. The black ribbon of flies attaching itself to the lips and eyes of the children—the moist beads of summer flies everywhere; the very weight of their bodies snapping off ancient flypapers hanging in the violet doors of booths and cafés. . . . And then the street noises: shriek and clang of the water-bearing Saidi, dashing his metal cups together as an advertisement, the unheeded shrieks which pierce the hubbub from time to time, as of some small delicately-organized animal being disembowelled.

If Durrell’s Alexandria has a mind and soul of its own, the same is not always true for his human characters, whose exoticism and wordiness hide more than they reveal. The more Durrell tells us about them, perversely, the fuzzier they become. He was carefree, or careless, about imputing thoughts and behaviors to characters as the spirit moved him, not as their integrity would demand. Durrell’s fondness for grotesques, like his fondness for place, was an attraction to surfaces. Form revealed content, or shrouded it—a nascently postmodern ethic that worked best in miniature. In any case, the principal players of the Quartet tend to be impressionable, transient, self-absorbed, and fallen—or well on the way.

first encountered Durrell, in my early adolescence, drawn by the clothbound pastel editions on my parents’ shelves, by the idea of a quartet of novels, and by the aroma of decay and sexuality they managed to exude. This would have been in the mid-1960s. I was not much beyond John Steinbeck and Wilkie Collins at the time, and could not have anticipated the seductive spectacle of Durrell’s languid bazaar, the world-weary eccentrics and tortured adulterers who while away the hours drinking and smoking and screwing and talking. How they talked and talked, about love, death, art, and the universal questions. My young brain and soul drank this in like—like absinthe, I suppose. I feel sure that it was in the pages of The Alexandria Quartet that I was first exposed to abortion, lesbians, hookah pipes, incest, Spanish fly, female circumcision, cross-dressing, and child prostitutes, to say nothing of the agonies and imponderables of love.

Just as seductive for a would-be writer was Durrell’s literary style: its lushness and near abandon, its pervasive eroticism and reckless profundity, its dazzling vocabulary (“Phthisic”! “Eburnine”! “Usufruct”!), its tales within tales within tales, its palimpsest of versions, its mistrust of certitude. The narrative was hard to plumb, allusive to a fault, slippery in intent; like poetry, it bore rereading. Now I appreciate the novels of the Quartet better as writers’ books. But at the time, like Durrell himself, apparently, I barely noticed that half the characters were novelists or artistic illusionists of some kind, that their preoccupations toggled between the pleasures of the senses and the meaning of life, and that they never paused to earn a living, change a diaper, or wait for the bus.

Durrell’s indulgence in aphorisms also tickled a young reader’s fancy. On a single page I found these three tossed off: “You can’t put a soul into splints.” “Nothing matters except pleasure—which is the opposite of happiness, its tragic part, I expect.” “Real innocence can do nothing that is trivial, and when it is allied to generosity of heart, the combination makes it the most vulnerable of qualities under heaven.” You would think Durrell’s main ambition was to appear in Bartlett’s Quotations; if so, it was frustrated. Not that his aphorisms are all bad. Pombal, the French consul, has a good one: “Women are basically faithful, you know. They only betray other women.”

Lawrence Durrell—you say Durl, not Durrell, unless you wish to be understood—was born in India in 1912 to middle-class English parents who had made their lives in the Raj; his father built railroads in the Himalayas. Twelve-year-old Larry was shipped back to England to be schooled for an eventual return to the civil service in India, and his father died before he ever saw him again. Durrell failed his university entrance exams, hated England, and left as soon as he could for the writing life in Corfu. He took with him not just his new wife, but his mother and siblings, including Gerald, 13 years his junior, who went on to become a famous naturalist and nature writer.

Lawrence Durrell remained an expatriate for life, but that was a state of mind (and money) more than a state of anger, as his biographers Ian MacNiven and Gordon Bowker make clear. Short and barrel-chested, Durrell was pugnacious, charming, generous, and moody; a prodigious drinker too. For two decades off and on, he renovated humble dwellings on Mediterranean islands, befriended the locals in their taverns, and sat at his typewriter. In the 1930s he began corresponding with fellow writers and other literary folk, notably Henry Miller, also little known at the time. A fan letter about Tropic of Cancer triggered a lifelong friendship (and a fine collection of their letters). Miller, T. S. Eliot, Durrell’s patron in London publishing circles, and Anaïs Nin, another lasting friend, applauded Durrell’s youthfully brash decision to refuse the offer of a British publisher to issue The Black Book (1938), his overwrought early novel, only if they could make prurient emendations (“f—k,” for example). Durrell had it published in Paris with the full text and was none the worse for it; it didn’t appear in Britain until 1973.

Like many British writers of his generation, Durrell was employed during World War II and long afterward by the British government as a public information officer, which meant he could do a novelist’s research on the public purse. He served in Cairo and Alexandria, in Argentina (which he hated) and Yugoslavia, in Rhodes and Athens. Despite his short stay in Alexandria, he did come away with a second wife, Eve Cohen, widely regarded as the model for Justine.

Durrell was versatile and prolific. He published 13 volumes of poetry. He was an agile humorist in his vignettes of diplomatic life—homages to Wodehouse—Esprit de Corps (1957), Stiff Upper Lip (1958), and Sauve Qui Peut (1966). His books about Corfu (Prospero’s Cell, 1945), Rhodes (Reflections on a Marine Venus, 1953), and Cyprus (Bitter Lemons, 1957) confirm him as superb memoirist, journalist, and travel writer whose literary heirs include Peter Mayle, Bruce Chatwin, and John Berendt. He also wrote a pretty good espionage yarn called White Eagles Over Serbia, which appeared the same year as JustineBitter Lemons, and Esprit de Corps. Nineteen fifty-seven was in every sense a peak year for Durrell.

Justine is a memoir of a love affair between Darley, the novelist-schoolmaster-narrator, and Justine, the haunted Jewish wife of a wealthy Egyptian Copt named Nessim Hosnani. The story has internal accounts of the triangle and interlocking others to cite and is based on what may be Justine’s diaries and a novel about her by a former lover, as well as by Darley’s own beliefs and secondhand knowledge. Upon Justine is layered Balthazar, named for a homosexual mystic who finds a draft of Darley’s memoir and sets out to correct it. He is the “Great Interlinear,” revealing to Darley and to us that not all is as it seems—notably that Justine’s dalliances with Darley were a beard to hide from her husband her real love affair with another novelist named Pursewarden, who has since committed suicide. Mountolive is the most conventional novel of the first three and, today, the most satisfying: a third-person account of the same events from the point of view of the eponymous British diplomat who returns as British ambassador in Cairo (and to his own past love affair with Nessim’s mother). Here we see Darley as others see him, not always flatteringly. Clea, the fourth book, is Darley, elegaic, returning from island exile to Alexandria after the war, sifting through memory and desire to reach some kind of reconciliation with the city and the past.

Durrell had a fancy construct for the Quartet, which he laid out in a brief prefatory note to Balthazar. Voraciously self-taught—and with a sizable chip on his shoulder from his thwarted university education—he described “a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition.” The first three novels are three versions of the same story, set in Alexandria on the eve of World War II, and the fourth is a look back at events of the first three. “Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum,” Durrell wrote.

My reading of this today is that he was infatuated with the concept but not deeply engaged by it; the shrugged use of “soup-mix” acknowledges as much. In the many discussions of form and structure by the Quartet’s characters, as well as in answers he gave to solemn literary interviewers, Durrell comes across as someone who takes himself very seriously and yet is eager to prove that he doesn’t. Of Darley, one of several Durrell doppelgängers in the Quartet, another writer says: “Poor Darley’s books— will they always be such painstaking descriptions of the soul-states of the . . . human omelette?” Or take this fragment from Clea in which someone discusses the structure of a very similar novel:

A continuum, forsooth, embodying not a temps retrouvé but a temps délivré. The curvature of space itself would give you stereoscopic narrative, while human personality seen across a continuum would perhaps become prismatic? Who can say? I throw the idea out. I can imagine a form which, if satisfied, might raise in human terms the problems of causality or indeterminacy. . . . And nothing very recherché either.

Such a passage is self-lampooning, defensive, and poignant all at once.

The novels are not plotted in any conventional sense, although they don’t seem nearly as experimental today as they did when I first read them. The stories are about doomed relationships, the impossibility of truly knowing oneself or another, the hold of memory and the elusiveness of truth. They are punctuated with events—a masked ball, a hunting party, a mysterious murder, a shocking suicide, a gunrunning plot—but display more interest in states of mind and the vagaries of fate than in the connection between action and consequence, in moral choices, or in any of the other wheels that turn tales. These novels are unabashedly interested in themselves, in their own art and architecture.

In rereading these books, I was struck by how subdued a place Alexandria was even during wartime. There are always gunships in the harbor, and allied troops are going to or coming from battle in the desert. The plot by a Christian Copt cabal to supply arms to Jewish guerrillas in Palestine provides the only real-world intrigue to lift the reader from the hermetic inwardness of the novels. Looking back now, from an age when the Islamic world has a dramatically different face, the Quartet’s detachment from its milieu—an intimacy with which is supposedly its strongest suit—is disconcerting at best. Durrell has taken the affects and atmospherics of Muslim culture and left Muslims mostly out of the core of the plot.

came back to Durrell with mixed feelings, and as I read through the four novels for the first time in 40-plus years—encountering my own youthful enthusiasms in the margins— was sporadically impatient or mortified (for me, for him) when I came across examples of what Durrell himself called his “over-efflorescence.” These lines from the opening page of Justine had merited heavy underlining when I was young: “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.” Today, I might have scrawled: Oh, please.

How can an author capable of subtlety and originality also write potboiler sentences such as these?

“Who invented the human heart, I wonder? Tell me, and then show me the place where he was hanged.”

With every succeeding mile I felt anxiety and expectation running neck and neck. The Past!

“Come now,” he said suddenly; he was dying to possess her, to cradle and annihilate her with the disgusting kisses of a false compassion.

There came over her an unexpected lust to sleep with him— no, with his plans, his dreams, his obsessions, his money, his death!

If Durrell touted the Quartet as “an investigation of modern love,” I’m not sure he truly got it about men and women. The evidence in his personal life (five wives and many more lovers) doesn’t settle the question—as in his fiction, perhaps he was more interested in the trees than the forest. His rendering of lovemaking can be swollen to the point of narcissism, and it’s telling:

The kiss did not for a moment expect itself to be answered by another—to copy itself like the reflections of a moth in a looking-glass. That would have been too expensive a gesture had it been premeditated. So it proved! Clea’s own body simply struggled to disengage itself from the wrappings of its innocence as a baby or a statue struggles for life under the fingers or forceps of its author. Her bankruptcy was one of extreme youth.

Durrell was the toast of the town, but he did not convince everyone. The novelist Anthony Burgess dismissed Durrell’s magnum opus in 1962 as “sadistic-sentimental exotic escapism.” Later, in 1975, Time magazine critic John Skow said the effect of Durrell’s prose was “that of Berlioz played by an orchestra of gondoliers,” which is pretty mean and pretty funny. And in the same year, the novelist and critic Edmund White cited, not unkindly, Durrell’s “willingness to run the risk of seeming ludicrous,” which I think gets at the heart of my ambivalent reading and rereading of the Quartet.

Running the risk of seeming ludicrous, I think, fairly states the burden on a poet. Durrell called poetry “an invaluable mistress . . . because poetry is form, and the wooing and seduction of form is the whole game,” a conviction that his novels do not contradict. We permit our poets rhetorical ambition, verbal gymnastics, wordplay, allusion, aphorism, the concrete and specific in a soup-mix with the vast and ineffable. Why does the prose form render the same words less effective? Break the quoted paragraph on lovemaking on this page into lines of verse and see if it doesn’t sound different, and even better.

The kiss did not for a moment
Expect itself
To be answered by another—
To copy itself . . .

If 1957 marked the end of Durrell’s lifelong struggle to make ends meet— publication of the Quartet permitted him to move into a house he bought with his third wife in the French village of Sommières, where he lived until his death in 1990— something else ended in that season. The eight novels he wrote after the Quartet, including an inchoate set of novels he dubbed the Avignon Quintet, were tepidly received, disappointing his hopes—and not just his—that lightning would strike a second time. Perhaps his hunger was gone, or the creative well was dry, leaving only self-caricature. It’s also possible his public lost patience. The Alexandria Quartet is a tour de force, but a little Durrell goes a long way.

Memory and distance throw light on what The Alexandria Quartet was a half century ago—a dying burst of romance in the heyday of realism, an appeal to credulity on the eve of so much skepticism, a bold experiment in form that in only a few years literary experimentalism would render almost pallid. But the books do bear rereading for the same reasons, as a sweet remembrance of things from not so long ago. “Art occurs at the point where a form is sincerely honored by an awakened spirit,” Durrell once aphorized. By his lights and mine, The Alexandria Quartet remains a work of art.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Charles Trueheart is a Scholar contributing editor and former director of the American Library in Paris. His book about Vietnam in the Kennedy years, Diplomats at War, is forthcoming.


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