Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet

 The telephone is a modern symbol for communications which never take place.”–Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

These are first editions.  I wish I had these...
I wish I had these first editions.

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.

Justine folio society 22073In the Folio Society edition of Justine, there is a brilliant introduction to the quartet by Peter Porter, which has enhanced my enjoyment of the books.

He writes,

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.

alexandria quartet durrell b32916

Why I Love to Reread: The New Brontë Craze

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
― Robertson Davies

vintage woman reading book stock-illustration-21375543-vintage-woman-reading-book-and-holding-cup-of-coffeeThere is a secret bloom that arrives in late middle age.

It has to do with books.

Rereading a book for the first time in decades is an entirely new and delightful experience.  You remember your first reactions, and add new impressions from years of reading history and reviews.

I always have my nose in a book.  From Virgil to Virginia Woolf, from Catullus to Colette, and from Gogol to Edward Gorey.

Below is a humorous image of Rory (Alexis Bedel) on The Gilmore Girls, with her nose in a book at the Harvard Library.

For a couple of decades after graduate school, I had little time to reread the classics.  In my free time I reviewed contemporary fiction for newspapers and (now defunct) literary journals. I was remarkably well-informed on the trends of the 1980s:  the minimalist stories of Ann Beattie, the gritty working-class fiction of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, John Updike’s suburban adulterers, the  bizarre humor of T. C. Boyle (then known as T. Coraghessan Boyle), and the magic realism of Louise Erdrich.

The bad thing about reviewing is that you don’t get to choose the books.

The good thing about not reviewing is that there is no longer pressure to keep up with the latest books.

And so I have been free to reread the classics.

I have reread all of Austen’s novels several times.  Emma is my favorite.   But, yes, you can read too much Austen.  I am on an Austen break at the moment.  But never fear, I’ll be back.

anne bronte tenant of wildfell hall 51Sp7PW34wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My latest craze is rereading the Brontës.  I just reread Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Is Anne as interesting as Charlotte and Emily?  No, but she is very good indeed.

Although her style is not  as poetic or striking as that of Charlotte or Emily, I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the perils of romantic love.  The frame construction reminds me of Wuthering Heights.   We get to know the heroine, Helen, through the narrator’s intense  letters to a friend, and then through the diary she gives him to read, and then back to his letter.  She marries an attractive man who turns out to be a dissolute drunk.  She escapes with her son to live in the run-down Wildfell Hall.

I wish Anne had written more.  I like Agnes Grey less than the intense Tenant. 

Are you or aren’t you a rereader?  What are your favorite books to reread?

Giveaway Winners!

Jen gets the Will Self.

Joyce gets the Rumer Godden.

Diana gets the Cathy Marie Buchanan.

Send me your addresses at

If anyone wants Little Dorrit, The Trumpet-Major, or Anna Karenina, the offer is good through the weekend.

Happy reading!

Spring Giveaway: Little Dorrit, Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major, Anna Karenina, Rumer Godden’s Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, Will Self’s Grey Area, and Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls

Heritage Press edition of Anna Karenina.
Heritage Press edition of Anna Karenina.

It is the Spring Giveaway!

These books need a good home.

They range from good reading copies of the classics to never-been-read newer books.  If you would like one or more, leave a comment. If you choose Little Dorrit, Anna Karenina, or The Painted Girls, could you reimburse me for the postage?  These three are hefty.

1.  A lovely Heritage Press edition of Anna Karenina that comes in a box.  I bought this for $3 at a sale because I wanted to try the Constance Garnett translation.  It has illustrations by Barnett Freeman.  And, after all, Garnett introduced Virginia Woolf and the Edwardians to Tolstoy.  (There is a fascinating article at The New Yorker on Constance Garnett here.)

2.  A Penguin of Little Dorrit, with a cover photo from the Masterpiece TV series.

Little Dorrit penguin 41UioCbPFHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_3.  Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major.  This is a 1995 Wordsworth edition, a good reading copy.  It is a little larger than the current Wordsworth paperback, but I can’t find an image online.

4.  Will Self’s Grey Area.  A collection of short stories which I have never read, but I am a  fan of his novel, How the Dead Live.

5.  Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls, a historical novel about two sisters, one a model for Degas, the other in a stage adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir.

Rumer Godden Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy 24607254.   Rumer Godden’s Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.  This is Godden’s third nun book, which I bought for $1 at a sale.  Yes, I have another copy; no, I haven’t read it yet.  But Godden is one of my favorite writers.   

Diary of a Pelvic Exam

doctor health-drs-swscan01630-copy-copyI grew up on Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I understand the importance of looking after one’s health.

Recently I wrote what I call a diary-in-a-list when I found a pea-sized bump under my skin in an awkward place.

Here is what I did.

1.  I tried to find a mirror to do a self-exam.

2.  I finally used the one in my compact.

3. After looking at my lump, I Googled health care sites.

4.  I diagnosed my lump as a benign cyst.


1.  My doctor barely knows who I am, because I am a very healthy person. (And that is a good thing.)  He/she knows me only from the records on his/her tablet.

2.  He/she confirms my diagnosis, but wants to know the date of my last pelvic exam. I do not have that data in my memory.

3.  The doctor asks if I have all my “lady parts.”  I do wonder why none of this is in my records!

4. But I have no qualms about putting my feet in stirrups, because I have had, of course, many pelvic exams.


1.  The speculum, an ice-tongs-like instrument that is used to hold open the vagina so the doctor can examine the cervix, is not a one-size-fits-all device.  The type of speculum used for a menopausal woman is different from that used for a menstruating woman.  (I learned this after the exam.)

2.   He/she tried to shove the speculum in.  I was in such pain that I instinctively shot up into a half-sitting position and told him I couldn’t take the pain.  I have never had this kind of pain before.

3.  He/she said he/she was almost done.  The nurse looked concerned.

4.  Instead of screaming, I endured the pain.  I was sure something was wrong with ME.  It wasn’t till later that it occurred to me the speculum was the wrong size.

5.  I went home and wept.  I had a burning sensation in my vagina and cramps.

6.  And then I went online and learned from Our Bodies, Ourselves that new guidelines from the American College of Physicians say pelvic exams are unnecessary for most healthy women.
The article says,

There are no data supporting the effectiveness of the screening pelvic examination (including speculum and bimanual examinations) in the asymptomatic average risk woman for any indication other than periodic cervical cancer screening. The procedure causes pain, discomfort, fear, anxiety, and/or embarrassment in about a third of women and can lead to unnecessary, invasive, and potentially harmful diagnostic procedures. …

There are also potential procedure–related harms. For example, researchers report that heavier women are more likely than women of average weight to report more disrespect and embarrassment during a pelvic exam. Women with a history of exposure to sexual violence are also more likely to report fear, embarrassment and anxiety.

So this was an unnecessary procedure for me.

I guess we have to research everything before we go to the doctor.  But we can’t.

I’m sure family doctors have only a two- or four-week gynecology rotation during their residency.  This is not their expertise.  And perhaps they don’t treat many post-menopausal women.

Next time, I’ll go to a gynecologist.

A Few Words on Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words

Lost for Words St. Aubyn 9781250069214Who doesn’t love satires?

I am a fan of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde,” Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, Dawn Powell’s The Wicked Pavilion, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

I recently purchased a paperback of Edward St. Aubyn’s novel, Lost for Words.  Why?  Because I liked the the cover art.  This slight novel is a satire of the politics of a literary prize–and what could be better summer reading, I thought, what with the Man Booker longlist coming up soon?

St. Aubyn is witty, but he is much more savage than he is comical. (In fact, the savagery is almost frightening.)  This glitteringly malevolent novel reads like a writer’s revenge.  And, no, in case you’re wondering, he has never won the Man Booker Prize.  Parts of his novel were obviously inspired by the 2011 Man Booker Prize debacle, when the chair of the judges, Dame Stella Rimington, former Director General of M15 and author of thrillers, made a gaffe:  she upset critics and readers by saying she was looking for readability.  (It doesn’t sound so bad in retrospect, does it?)

The British take the Booker so seriously–for months I am agog over a surfeit of information about the drama of the judges and the longlist and the shortlist.

The Elysian Prize is the name of St. Aubyn’s thinly veiled Man Booker Prize, which his stick-figure writer characters would kill to win.  Sonny, the wealthy Indian author of a self-published novel, very unamusingly plans to assassinate the chair of the judges when his book doesn’t make the longlist  Katherine, a  beautiful writer with multiple lovers, dumps two boyfriends over the prize:  the first, an editor whose  assistant mistakenly submitted a cookbook instead of her novel, and the second,  a boyfriend whose novel makes the shortlist.

Most comical are the unlikely  judges.  Unpromising and unliterary, but funny!  The chair of the judges is a Scottish M.P., who accepted the chairmanship “out of backbench boredom.” The other judges are Jo Cross, an outspoken newspaper columnist who values “relevance”; Tobias, a charming actor whose favorite is a pseudo-lyrical historical novel about Shakespeare; and Penny, who has retired from the Foreign Office and is writing bad thrillers with the help of software called “Ghost” which suggests hackneyed phrases like “ice water running through his veins” when you type in “assassin.”

Vanessa is the only literary judge, an Oxford academic.  Here is Malcolm’s reaction to her:

In the last analysis, Malcolm felt there was no harm in having one expert on the history of literature, if it reassured the public.

Now I admit that is funny!

Reading this short, uneven book is a bit like watching a Road Runner cartoon.  Will Wile E. Coyote explode the dynamite or not?  Only who IS the Road Runner?  And is it racist that the Indian writer is Wile E.?  Can you deconstruct it?   Although St. Aubyn is a highly-praised writer, there is no way I can recommend this book.

Literary Gossip is Good for the Soul: News, Prizes, and Links

algonquin round table 610_algonquin_aboutSometimes it’s pleasant to post literary gossip and links to juicy articles about books. (Juicy by our unexciting standards.)

1.  Who is the  biggest publisher of literature in translation in the U.S.?  The New York Times reports,

It’s not Random House, and it’s not a specialized indie outfit like Europa Editions or New Directions. It’s Last year, the company’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, brought out 44 new English translations from a diverse slate of literature, including Icelandic, Turkish and Korean. That’s more translated titles than any other American publisher, according to data from Three Percent, a literary translation blog at the University of Rochester.

2.  In The Guardian, Tessa Hadley writes about Margaret Drabble’s first novel, The Millstone She says, “For my money, it’s the seminal 60s feminist novel that Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is always supposed to be.”

the millstone drabble 41XWah-yQmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_3.  In The Guardian, we also learned that Dorothy Richardson’s superb sequence of novels, Pilgrimage, is to be reissued by Oxford World Classics. 

Dorothy Richardson
Dorothy Richardson

4.  At the TLS blog, you can read Michael Caines’s article on rediscovering Brigid Brophy. Coincidentally, on my e-reader I have a copy of of Brophy’s The Finishing Touch, with an introduction by TLS editor Sir Peter Stothard.

Brophy the finishing touch 51tTNdHJzML5.  Karen E. Bender’s stunning collection of short stories,  Refund, is on the longlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award.  (I blogged about this extraordinary book here.)

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-stories6.  Jo Walton has won the James Tiptree Award for her dazzling novel, My Real Children (I wrote about it here.)

Jo Walton's My Real Children7.  Wendy Pollard’s brilliant biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson, who is one of my favorite writers,  is a finalist for The People’s Book Prize. (You can vote here.) Wendy said in an email that it is “a vote for literary biography.” I interviewed Wendy here.

wendy pollard Pamela-hansford-Johnson-web8. Penguin has reissued Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.  Ruth Franklin in The New York Times Book Review describes them as “a collection of warm and funny magazine pieces chronicling the ups and downs of Shirley Jackson’s household.” Franklin also reports that  ten years after the publication of Life Among the Savages, “Betty Friedan accused Jackson of betraying her readers by contributing to the pernicious myth of the ‘happy housewife’ purveyed by women’s magazines of the era.”  Hm, I love Betty Friedan, but I also enjoyed Jackson’s funny memoirs.

life among the savages and raising demons 1505_SBR_SHIRLEY_COVER.jpg.CROP.original-original