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.
In 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.
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.
I read these when I was a student as well, and ‘lush’ and ‘poetic’ are the words I’ve always used when trying to describe the books to people. I loved them at that point in my life – romantic, exotic, a love poem to the city of Alexandria as much as about people. I liked the way the perspective shifts from book to book, so you never quite know whose view of the past is true, or how reliable memory is. Over the years I’ve picked them up, and put them down again, because I always feel reluctant to re-read them, in case they don’t match up to my memories.
Yes, I started to reread Justine 10 years ago or so and did not appreciate it. Now I’m very much loving the Quartet, so what’s right for one time of life is not necessarily right for all? It’s very slow and perhaps I’m in the mood for poetry right now.
I have often wondered what Lawrence Durrell would be like to read. You intrigue me, though I’m not certain he is for me. Lovely folio edition there.
The books are very, very short, as well as poetic, so you might get hooked! All the editions I’ve seen of The Alexandria Quartet are magnificent, and the Folio Society is a treat. I loved my old paperacks, too.
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I have a lovely, battered old set of Faber paperbacks I picked up recently in the wonderful Samaritans Bookcave – I read one of his ‘travel’ books and liked his prose. Lyrical and poetic prose often still does it for me, so I’ll read these. I do envy you your lovely Folio set, though!
Those Faber books are so nice! I think you’ll very much like this. They’re “modernist” novels, and the lyrical prose is addictive. I’ll have to read some more Durrell.
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I loved these too. I never quite finished; I didn’t read the fourth, I did tire of it. (I didn’t read the fourth Raj quartet, just listened to it on Books-on-Tape – -beautifully read by Ken Danziger (who I’m listening to now reading Fielding’s Tom Jones). I too let myself become immersed in these deeply meditative worlds — the word pictures just took me off. And it was endlessly interesting because of the differing subjective points of view.
Does your Folio Society book have adequate or great pictures? I know I’m so attracted to the volumes because of the selections of illustrations from them the Folio Society tempts us by. And the blogs by the illustrators. I had and still have the same paperback set.
What a wonderful summer present to yourself. It’s a summer world in the Alexandrian Quartet.
They are short, lovely books. I imagine they WOULD be good to listen to on tape. The Folio Society books are very attractive. The illustrations were not quite what I expected. They are old sepia photographs of Alexandria: people in cafes, beach scenes, etc. You can see by the cover of Justine (Folio Society) above what the photos are like.
The train from Caroll Gardens to The Hearst Building was a long enough of a ride that the two round trips would just about the right amount of time to read each volume. It was summer and it rained all the time. The Quartet was a perfect companion.
They’re great books! I can see that they’d be good on the train.
L.D. was a powerful talent… a profound evocative gift for imagery, almost unparalleled. As a fiction writer though he lacked narrative vision and discipline so, left to his own devices he becomes desultory to a fault, beautiful language notwithstanding.
Therefore – when the narrative is constrained by real situations as in his “travel” books: “Bitter Lemons” and “Prospero’s Cell” – his descriptive gifts shine. PROSPERO’S CELL is a rare masterpiece, and Bitter Lemons ain’t far behind.
I recommend these way above The Alexandria Quartet for anyone attracted to Durrel’s poetry.
I’ll certainly look for these travel books. He does have a brilliant poetic talent. He does meander in his fiction: I noticed this especially in Clea. Still, I love the AQ!
Have reread every decade. (3-4 times ) Nothing quite like that first time ( as a young woman ) – the lesson that nothing is ever quite like it seems.
Recently listened to the audio books. Again that was special. Have given it so many times as a gift. There is always just Justine. But there is always more
Oh, I had no idea there were audiobooks! The AQ is astonishing, and I’m sure I’ll read it again. Once a decade sounds right.
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