‘An education system based on the abacus and a theology which got left behind with Augustine and Aquinas’. This is what someone says about Egypt in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. As other characters make throwaway remarks that are equally ridiculous–’The timorous soul of the Egyptian cries always for the whip’; ‘we Europeans in such disharmony with the fearful animal health of the blacks around us’–it is probably not divorced from the author’s own prejudices.
It is not difficult to see the casual racism in The Alexandria Quartet, irrigated by imperialist attitudes that were common at the time, but the work deserves its acclaimed reputation as a work of fiction from the second half of the 20th century. Durrell’s unquestioned assumption of the superiority of European culture allows him, paradoxically, to be keenly responsive to the racial and ethnic mix that constituted the multinational aspect of Alexandria during the 1930s and ’40s.
In his fascinating study of the city, Philip Mansel summarises: ‘The golden age of cosmopolitanism in Alexandria was the twenty-year period between 1936 and 1956.’ The Egypt that Durrell knew from personal experience was an independent country but British troops remained, protecting their country’s business concerns over the Suez canal. Therefore Alexandria became home to a medley of expatriates from the Middle East, Europe, and the Balkans.
To say that Durrell sees the life of ordinary Egyptians going on around him but writes about it only as scenery is true but also a disservice to the extraordinary vivacity of his descriptive prose. Here is a part of what a character sees when he returns to Alexandria in Clea, the final volume of the quartet: ‘plum-blue Ethiopians in snowy turbans, bronze Sudanese with puffy charcoal lips, pewter-skinned Lebanese and Bedouin with the profiles of kestrels’. A dozen or so pages later, a pastoral scene unfolds: ‘Ancient lands, in all their prehistoric intactness: lake-solitudes hardly brushed by the hurrying feet of the centuries where the uninterrupted pedigrees of pelican and ibis and heron evolve their slow destinies in complete seclusion.’ Observations like these, a striking hybrid of travel-book and upmarket holiday-brochure writing, comes from a European eye but the verbal exuberance makes them memorable.
At other times, images are arresting because they are simply gorgeous, as with the similes for a flock of flamingos suddenly arising from a lake ‘like the heart of a pomegranate staring through its skin’ or in a night scene with ‘stars scattered as thick as almond-blossom on the enigmatic sky’. Durrell’s language is sometimes florid and overwrought but often arresting and there are some wonderful set pieces, like the description of Alexandria under aerial attack in World War 11 in Clea or the nocturnal fish hunt in the third volume, Mountolive.
The author lived and worked in the city between 1942 and 1945 and there is a certain authenticity to the sights and sounds that he records but he is also creating an imaginary Alexandria. As a place of Otherness, it becomes a city where non-Muslims can love without license, where heterosexual, homosexual, and extra-marital affairs abound. At one point, the narrator watches a couple engaged in sexual activity and cannot square their ‘posture, so ludicrous’ with the outpourings of poets on the subject of sexual love.
Alexandria’s actual Afro-Arabic identity, when it isn’t being insulted, is left wide open to exoticism and orientalism, cosmetic treatments for accommodating the Other. When Egyptians do feature in Durrell’s four novels they tend to be either servants or wealthy individuals like Nessim Hosnani, a Coptic Christian. As a society in their own right, non-Christian Egyptians remain mostly sequestered in a place referred to as the ‘Arab town’.
Other than the Hosnani family, the main characters are European or Levantine and they make Alexandria what they want it to be. For some, it serves as a place of escape or transgression, for others a place of romantic idealization: ‘ “Egypt” he said to himself as one might repeat the name of a woman. “Egypt” ‘. They might think they are affected by the city’s genii loci but ambiance is foisted on the place by their desires. There are some obvious topographical markers–the Corniche, the Cecil Hotel, Lake Mareotis –but nothing to compare with the Dublin of Ulysses or the London of Dickens.
It is because Muslim Egyptians are marginalized in the quartet that their social and political reality demands to be acknowledged. Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station was made in 1958, a year after the publication of Justine, the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, and it makes for essential viewing alongside the four books. The film makes central the social class that Durrell fails to register–a proletariat of unlicensed soda sellers and station porters–while also stressing the carnality and the psychology of sex that is so vital to the quartet. In both the film and the books, the libidinal runs rampant, and its repellent forms are not ignored: Chahine anticipates incel culture while child prostitution is referenced more than once by Durrell.
‘I want to know what it really means’, says the narrator in Justine, referring not to life, the universe and everything but to what he calls the ‘scrimmage of sex itself’. But the books amount to more than a carnival of sexual adventurism as practiced by a group of decadent expatriates. It is equally devoted to the complex algorithms of love, relayed through a small cast of central characters whose presence, even when some of them are deceased, populates all four of the novels.
Durrell was a contender for the Nobel Prize for literature in the early 1960s but lost out due, in the committee’s words, to ‘his monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications’. The committee had a point and many readers may at some point tire at yet another disquisition on the nature of sexual love and turn for succinctness to Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra.
The erotic affiliations that the Nobel Prize committee balked at are varied. The most important ones involve Justine, a Levantine Jewess married to Nessim Hosnani but secretly in love with an Englishman, Pursewarden. She seeks to protect him from her husband–his jealousy could prove fatal–by maintaining an affair with another émigré, Darley.
Other important characters are Balthazar, a doctor, Clea, a bisexual artist, and a British diplomat by the name of Mountolive. Justine is the most intimate of the four volumes, due to its narration by Darley whose doomed relationship with Melissa, a club singer and prostitute, becomes supplanted by his increasingly intense and poetic adoration of Justine. The story comes to an end with Darley leaving Alexandria to heal himself on an Aegean island. Melissa has died and Justine left for Syria, taking with him the young child born from a liaison between Melissa and Nessim.
Balthazar, the second instalment, provides a different angle on the multiple affairs by having Balthazar provide information and insights that were unknown at the time to Darley. As a literary technique, it made the novel seem experimental at the time of its publication (1958). The reader learns that a fact can have different truth values for different people, depending on their frame of reference. Durrell evoked Einstein when delineating his method (‘a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition’, he asserted), and that truth may have little to do with fact.
The titular character in the third volume, Mountolive, has a slight presence in the earlier two books but now takes center stage. As a young diplomat in Alexandria, he spent time with the Hosnani family and had an affair with Nessim’s mother before being posted to various embassies around the world. Now appointed British ambassador to Egypt, he returns to the city where places are the same but the people he knows have changed. The story is told in a conventional form, using a third-person omniscient narrator, and is built around a murkily-defined plot by Copts and Zionists to fill the political vacuum they fear will otherwise be dominated by Muslim interests when the British and French are no longer key players.
Clea, concluding the quartet, is set during World War II when Darley has returned from the Greek island. It is the most Proustian of the tetralogy in its elegiac evocations of past emotions and the melancholy that descends on those imprisoned by their memories. Pursewarden’s incestuous secret is revealed, Darley continues to play a sexual version of musical chairs–this time with Clea–and there is a gruesome underwater scene. It is in many ways the most satisfying volume of the quartet.
The Alexandria Quartet has never gone out of print and this new one-volume edition of the tetralogy from the original publisher, Faber and Faber (which also published each book individually), allows for a fresh appraisal of the work. What first attracted readers to the books and made them hugely popular in the 1960s and ’70s was a sense of place and supposed insights into the human heart and sexual psychology. All this is now suspect.
The Alexandria that Durrell evokes is as much the fantasy of an exoticized European gaze as it is a real city. The libidinal liveliness of its central characters is more a seductive literary construct than a probing into what makes people what they are.
What remains, though, is sufficient unto itself: magnificent writing spread across four books that encompass a vision of human vulnerability and the emotional turmoil we inflict on ourselves. Driving all this is the compulsive need to imagine life as being much more than biological existence.
Additional Work Cited
Mansell, Philip. Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean. John Murray. 2011