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Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea

The reputations of writers and their books inevitably rise and fall with literary fashions. There are many writers on this site whose reputations were much higher that they are today. Inevitably, writers such as Hemingway and D H Lawrence come to mind, the former, with his simple sentences and machismo and the latter with his earthy sexuality both seeming somewhat out of date in the 21st century. Durrell is another of these writers. Best remembered for this book, his flowery style, his exoticism (and exotic sex) and complex plot do not seem entirely in tune with the current age. Exoticism and exotic sex, so fascinating in the 1950s and 1960s, are now just a cheap flight away while a flowery style seems generally to be frowned on in this age of ten second sound bites. This is a pity for, reading it again after many years, I found that it still stood up as a fine piece of English literature.

The basis of the novel is a story of a group of people in Alexandria, with the story told from several different viewpoints. This story is not just a story where different characters might see things slightly differently but, as we see the same events as viewed by others, we get, in some cases, a radical different view of the action, changing our mind about the various characters and what they did and did not do. The interesting thing about the characters is that, though the novel is set in Alexandria, an Egyptian city, there is not a single Egyptian Muslim among the main characters. The main characters are English, Greek and Egyptian Copt. Only one of the English characters has a named book – Mountolive – though perhaps the main English character is the narrator, Darley (though we do not learn his name till well into the book). His name and activities indicate that he might well be based, at least in part, on Durrell himself. He is an impecunious would-be novelist (he is actually writing the Alexandria Quartet during the course of the book), who makes his money by teaching and, briefly, spying and, during the war, working for the British Embassy. It is he that sees or hears of much of the action and reports it. He also has affairs with three of the main characters – Justine, Melissa and Clea – though, in all three cases, he is not necessarily their first choice. The other English novelist is Pursewarden, arrogant, learned and successful, said to be based on Wyndham Lewis. Justine, as we learn later, is in love with Pursewarden (everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person in this novel). He starts off as a relatively inconsequential character in the first novel but assumes much greater importance later on, particularly when we learn about his work for the British Embassy, and his blind sister. It is he who makes pronouncements about literature, often mildly outrageous and presumably acting as the mouthpiece of Durrell. Finally, there is David Mountolive, the only English character with his own book. Mountolive starts his career in a junior post in the British Embassy in Egypt, as he speaks good Arabic. Naturally, once settled there and with his good Arabic, he is then transferred to Czechoslovakia. While in Egypt he has an affair with the much older Leila Hosnani, mother of Nessim and Narouz, a very rich Egyptian Copt family. Her husband is ill and dying, though she remains loyal if not faithful to him. By the time that Mountolive returns to Egypt (as ambassador), Leila has been disfigured by smallpox.

Of the non-English characters, the Egyptian Coptic Hosnani family is key. Leila’s role is, in fact, relatively minor. Nessim is married to Justine and they seem to have a troubled relationship, though our view of their marriage changes dramatically later in the book. The two brothers have divided up the family interests, with Nessim being the banker, while Narouz manages the estates. Their activities, which we learn of later on, are also key to this book. Justine is a Lebanese Jew by origin and has managed to work her way up. She was first married to a Frenchman of Albanian origin, Jacques Arnauti. He wrote a book about Justine and their marriage called Moeurs, which several of the characters have read and enjoyed. Justine clearly represents passion (and is based on Durrell’s first wife). Her affair with Darley and her Lesbian affair with Clea are both fraught with problems, as is her marriage to Nessim. The nationalities of Clea and Balthazar are not made clear but they are presumably of Greek origin. Clea’s surname, mentioned only once in the book, is Montis, a Greek name. Clea only really comes into her own later in the book, particularly in the last book, when she has an affair with Darley. Her eponymous book is the only one set in a different time period from the other books, specifically World War II. She is an artist and, as she herself admits, has difficulties with men. Narouz is madly in love with her (but she is not in love with him). To lose her virginity, she offers herself to Pursewarden, but is rejected. Balthazar is a doctor, specialising in sexually transmitted diseases. He is gay and falls madly love with a young Greek actor but, like many relationships in this book, it does not work out well.

There are several fascinating minor characters. Scobie is a somewhat disreputable man, gay and a transvestite. He also has a key position in the Egyptian police. He provides much of the comic relief, not least after his death. He had prepared large amount of alcohol in his bath but had been beaten up and killed when dressed as a woman. The locals raid his bath and drink his alcohol, with disastrous consequences. As a result, however, he is remembered and canonised, becoming El Scob. Almost as amusing is the perennial womaniser and French stereotype, Pombal, a low-ranking French diplomat and Darley’s roommate. Far less amusing is the semi-tragic figure of Melissa, a Greek prostitute and Darley’s lover, but who definitely takes second place to his love for Justine, of which Melissa is well aware. However, one of the most important characters and probably not minor at all is the city itself. The scenario had already been devised somewhere, the actors chosen, the timing rehearsed down to the last detail in the mind of that invisible author – which perhaps would prove to be only the city itself: the Alexandria of the human estate., Darley/Durrell says. Though the novel occasionally goes off elsewhere, specifically Cairo and Darley’s Greek island, it is Alexandria that plays such a key part in the lives of all the characters and which Darley the narrator relishes.

There is a plot or, rather, several intertwined plots. Much of them concern relationships, both romantic and social. All the main characters have at least one romantic relationship, sometimes explicitly explained early on and sometimes only revealed later. A few of the characters have unrequited love for others, against sometimes revealed early and sometimes not. Few of the relationships work out well and some disastrously. Part of the joy of this book is the various social relationships. Pursewarden, inveterate snob, is revealed to be close to some characters we would not have expected. On the other hand, he writes a letter to Darley (which he does not send and does not expect Darley to see), addressing him as Brother Rat and being quite cruel about him. Darley reads it and, to his own surprise, is not too bothered about it. Darley’s relationship with Pombal, for example, is well and humorously described, with Pombal often acting as a procurer of women for Darley. (It is through Pombal that Darley meets Melissa, for example.)

It is not all about relationships. There are also a few political plots going on, most of which we don’t learn about till later. They key plot is one that both we and some of the major characters misjudge and which has been criticised for being unrealistic. The first three books are all set at about the same time but the last book, Clea, is set later, during World War II, when we get into issues relating to the war. The Copt issue is also paramount, with the Copts, as represented by Nessim, feeling that the British hate them but that when the British leave, they will be even worse off under the Arab Muslims, a view which has probably turned out to be very accurate. Durrell clearly loves the city but also loves the intellectual fervour which is found there and his characters – diplomats, doctors, writers, officials, businessmen – all participate in this fervour in their various ways.

As I stated above, I had very much enjoyed reading this book many years ago and now that I am older and perhaps a bit wiser I still it find a very enjoyable and worthwhile piece of literature. Its flowery language may seem somewhat outdated but it does not detract from the overall effect – a complex intellectual society seen from varying viewpoints and superbly narrated by a first-class novelist. This book is still read by other writers as well as the general reading public and it is to be hoped that it will continue to be read by a newer generation of readers.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Faber & Faber
First published 1958 by Faber & Faber
First published 1958 by Faber & Faber
First published 1960 by Faber & Faber