These four books by Lawrence Durrell, “Justine”, “Balthazar”, “Mountolive” and “Clea” are a love letter to Alexandria, to art, to storytelling, and scene-setting. Its labyrinthine plot, myriad and muddling weaves in and out of the lives and loves of a group of friends in Alexandria – residents, expatriates, Copts, French, English, writers, painters, diplomats, businessmen – is by its own confession:
“…a curious sort of book – the story would be told, so to speak, in layers…a series of novels with ‘sliding panels’… Or else, perhaps, like some sort of medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one obliterating or perhaps supplementing another.”
Self-referential, narrated by a struggling writer, with bald modernist pretensions, this is now a modern-day classic.
I picked up this collection based on one of those favourite books articles, where Margaret Atwood listed her top literary inspirations. I bought Durrell, and others, inspired by her inspiration; being listed by Margaret Atwood is one of the top recommendations I could imagine. But the task of this book – these four books, in fact – is immense. The size and intense gaze of the quartet is exhausting, its goals are worthy and worn on its sleeve.
Durrell always planned a series: four books to experiment with ideas of Freud, Einstein, metaphysics, and multiple perspectives. Published 1957 – 1960, the first three books are all set roughly the same time, telling the same moment from multiple characters’ perspectives, with the fourth book fourth set six years later during the Second World War. Each book is named after a character, but, with books 1, 2 and 4 narrated by Darley the self-conscious novelist, this does not mean those characters tell their own story. “Justine” is voiceless, we have a seemingly faceless Balthazar in book 2, “Mountolive” is like a breath of fresh air as it is the first time we escape the almost claustrophobic incestuous Alexandria, and “Clea” a refreshing finale set six years after events, during the Second World War.
And Alexandria “the capital of Asiatic Europe, if such a thing could exist” colours the whole work:
“…the whole of Alexandria unrolling once more on either side of me – its captivating detail, its insolence of colouring, its crushing poverty and beauty. The little shops, protected from the sun by bits of ragged awning in whose darkness was piled up every kind of merchandise from live quail to honeycombs and lucky mirrors. The fruit-stalls with their brilliant stock made doubly brilliant by being displayed upon brighter papers; the warm gold of oranges lying on brilliant slips of magenta and crimson-lake. The smoky glitter of the coppersmiths’ caves. Gaily tasselled camel-saddlery. Pottery and blue jade beads against the Evil Eye. All this given a sharply prismatic brilliance by the crowds milling back and forth, the blare of the cafe radios, the hawkers’ long sobbing cries, the imprecations of street-arabs, and the demented ululations of distant mourners…”
In perhaps a testament to the power of this immense construction, the focus on the city and its feelings, we are not introduced to Darley’s name until halfway through the second book when greeted by Mountolive the first time we meet him. The joy of this book is in its tone, its writing: there are masterful set-pieces, devious story-telling, descriptions of pure colour and feeling.
Ostensibly, Darley writes about love, and almost every possible kind you can imagine is caught up in the web of these friends’ world. But the impact the scenery, the context, has on its people and Darley’s writing makes it bigger than that, less specific. It is neither precisely emotional nor specifically topographic, zooming into human intimacies then panning out to bring the city in once more:
“Landscape-tones: brown to bronze, steep skyline, low cloud, pearl ground with shadowed oyster and violet reflections. The lion-dust of the desert: prophets’ tombs turned to zinc and copper at sunset on the ancient lake. Its huge sand-faults like watermarks from the air; green and citron giving to gunmetal, to a single pumb-dark sail, moist, palpitant: sticky-winged nymph.”
Frankly, Durrell’s vocabulary is exhausting, using florid language consciously and unnecessarily, and the tropes are exhausting. However, the scenes he sets, the backdrop these people live their lives against, is stunning in it’s sensuousness and beauty. There is something to be found in the crannies of an aged beggar’s face, in the smells down alleys, in the blind eyes of a woman seeking to look at you.
The deliberate project of this very modernist novel both fails and succeeds: Durrell could not escape the literary pretentions of his story-telling which, for the most part work. And you are very aware “At each moment of time all multiplicity waits at your elbow.”. Durrell’s technique of telling and retelling the story from many perspectives is almost like solving a mystery for the reader. Of course, it tells a lot about the fallibility of fact, of the changeable nature of subjectivity and belief, but also there are moments of putting two and two together: that is why the character knew; this tells us why they took this next step. It cuts and changes across time, pulling together a massive collection of facts and stories from every angle.
From its scope, its scene-setting, its intense care and focus on Alexandria and its loves, The Alexandria Quartet is a classic, easily understood as Margaret Atwood’s literary inspiration. The town is heaving, a melting pot, full of smells and sounds, a colourful, meaningful, history-filled backdrop for Darley, Justine, Bathazar, Mountolive and Clea. From this city the lives fragment, fracture through a prism, lit and sustained by the centre of their world. For its awkward language, its conscious attempt to be an experimental modernist masterpiece, it is worth it, it is wonderful, it is difficult, and it is a classic.