The telephone is a modern symbol for communications which never take place.”–Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet is not for everybody. In his gorgeously-written, percipient tetralogy, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the prose is moody and lush. The narrative is psychologically-oriented and fragmented. Over the course of the quartet, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates and augments a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt. Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed. Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery. In the ’50s, Durrell’s poeticism flourished.
I first read The Alexandria Quartet in my student days in Bloomington, during a typically humid, hot Midwestern summer, with oversized verdant plants climbing and blowsy flowers blooming. I spent most of my time sweatily reading in the back yard. And I fell in love with the lyrical voice of Durrell/Darley, the schoolteacher-novelist narrator who falls in love with Justine, the exotic, promiscuous, mysterious woman no man can apparently resist: she is a kind of Cleopatra.
Before Darley met Justine, he was involved with Melissa, a frail, hashish-smoking exotic dancer. Darley, Melissa, Justine, and her husband Nessim develop a complicated relationship afterwards.
I have had many such glimpses of Justine at different times, and of course I knew her well by sight long before we met: our city does not permit anonymity to any with incomes of over two hundred pounds a year. I see her sitting alone by the sea, reading a newspaper and eating an apple; or in the vestibule of the Cecil Hotel, among the dusty palms, dressed in a sheath of silver drops, holding her magnificent fur at her back as a peasant holds his coat–her long forefinger hooked through the tag.
When I am in a certain mood, I can read this kind of prose forever. And so here I am, many years later, rereading Durrell. I recently treated myself to a used Folio Society set. (Yes, I know! What am I thinking?) They were replacements for paperbacks falling apart.
The shape of the Quartet suggests a musical analogy–that of the Theme and Variations. Justine introduces not one theme but a plethora of them as the lovelorn but unconfident Darley, seemingly a displaced person in the turbulent city, meets one after another of the people who are to be the actors in his story. Justine binds them all together… Perhaps she is Durrell’s version of Virgil, seconded to guide Dante through the Inferno.
I have finished Justine and am halfway through Balthazar, which clarifies many of the mysteries of the first book (or at least seems to). Balthazar, a homosexual doctor who is a close friend of both Justine and Darley, has read Darley’s manuscript about Justine. He returns the manuscript” crosshatched” with his own observations, and it changes the text of Justine for Darley and for us. He learns that Justine had not been in love with him: she was in love with the novelist Pursewarden, and used Darley so her husband would not be too jealous. (Poor Darley!)
There are frequent references to Cavafy, who wrote of Alexandria: “There’s no new land, my friend, no / New sea; for the city will follow you, / In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly …”
The four-volume novel is all ambience, I promise you, though there is some plot. I did love this more when I was young, but perhaps I was more susceptible to lyricism then. When we are young we all have our “Alexandria,” and that mine was the academic but gorgeous Bloomington sounds ridiculous, but, as far as it goes, it is true! And so I loved The Alexandria Quartet.
And here is a picture of the paperback set I had then.