»  The New Criterion

October 2011

  Alexandria, Durrell & the "Quartet"

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All our fashionable blather about "diversity" notwithstanding, we live in an age of ethnic disaggregation. Czechs and Slovaks, Serbs and Croats, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Abkhazians and Ossetians and Georgians, have all separated after centuries of cohabitation. The Flemish and Walloons of Belgium look set fair to do the same. The Jews are long gone from Arabia and Persia, the Saxons have mostly decamped from Transylvania, the Nepalese are leaving Bhutan, and the Bantus want out from Somalia. The Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland are less mixed now than they were a hundred years ago, and in the week of Barack Obama's inauguration Reuters ran a report headlined U.S. School Segregation on the Rise. Jerry Z. Muller's striking article "Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism" in the Spring 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs argued that this ethnic disaggregation, far from being a historical aberration, is "propelled by some of the deepest currents of modernity."

The English writer Lawrence Durrell encountered one small instance of this trend in October 1977. Durrell had lived in the Egyptian city of Alexandria for three years during WW2. Fifteen years later he published four linked novels set in the city — the Alexandria Quartet. Though there were some dissenters, the overall critical reception was enthusiastic, and the Quartet novels, published separately from 1957 to 1960, were best-sellers. (They were re-published as a set in 1961 and many times thereafter.)

Hence Durrell's presence in Alexandria in 1977. The BBC had persuaded him to visit his old haunts in Greece and Egypt for a documentary program. According to Michael Haag's 2004 book Alexandria, City of Memory, a fine atmospheric survey of the city's literary life in the first half of the 20th century, Durrell found Alexandria much changed from the city he had known thirty-odd years before:

The city seemed to him listless and spiritless, its harbor a mere cemetery, its famous cafés no longer twinkling with music and lights. "Foreign posters and advertisements have vanished, everything is in Arabic; in our time film posters were billed in several languages with Arabic subtitles, so to speak." His favourite bookshop, Cité du Livre on the Rue Fuad, had gone, and in others he found a lamentable stock. All about him lay "Iskandariya," the uncomprehended Arabic of its inhabitants translating only into emptiness.

Even making allowances for the writer's depressed mood — his fourth marriage was on the rocks and he was drinking heavily — he was right to think that the Alexandria he saw in 1977, a quarter-century on from Egypt's nationalist revolution, was a monochrome shadow of the city he had immortalized in the Quartet. Durrell's Alexandria was of the previous era, when the colorful King Farouk had reigned over an Egypt that was, to all intents and purposes, a British puppet state. "Never go back" is, after all, not a bad general rule.

The Alexandria of the Quartet, the Alexandria of that earlier era, was chaotically cosmopolitan. "Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds," says Durrell in Justine, the first book of the Quartet. If anything, that understates the case. Arabs and Jews, Greeks and Italians, French and British, Armenians and Turks jostled together. Between the mosques and synagogues could be found the churches of Copts and Maronites, Chaldeans and Melchites, and all the many varieties of Orthodox and Catholic.

There had been much linguistic churning. Arabic, still colored with some Ottoman Turkish, was the majority language of the city, while French was the commercial lingua franca. Greeks were the largest European nationality in residence; but as late as 1910 the traveller Douglas Sladen had been able to write that "Alexandria is an Italian city … Italian is its staple language." Grand commercial families had their mansions, the poor had their hovels, and a multitude of traders, clerks, petty officials, and foreign bohemians occupied every kind of residence in between. Vice was rampant; the law capricious; anything could be bought.

This Alexandria was a city of a type more common then than now: busily commercial and apolitical, with a strong preference for keeping out of Great Power squabbles, the better to make money and indulge the pleasures of the senses. There have been such cities all over the world in all times. The Hong Kong I knew forty years ago was one such. In its particular colors and demography, though, Durrell's Alexandria belonged to a region, an atmosphere, whose name, I had thought, is not much used now: the Levant. "The eastern part of the Mediterranean, with its islands and the countries adjoining," says the Oxford English Dictionary. Webster's Third is crisper: "The countries of the Eastern Mediterranean."

(So I had thought. Nowadays, however, one does not have to guess about these things, at least so far as written usage is concerned. Google Books supplies an "Ngram Viewer" that plots the frequency of occurrence of any word or phrase you give it across the past two centuries, in all the books so far scanned by Google. The phrase "the Levant" peaked around 1820, falling off thereafter to a low about 1980, since which it has recovered slightly.)

The Levant was rather rich in these commercial, cosmopolitan cities until modern nationalisms purged them. You may not be interested in Great Power squabbles, but they are interested in you. Smyrna, on the account given by Giles Milton in his whimsically-named 2008 book Paradise Lost, had something of the same flavor prior to its awful destruction in 1922; so did Beirut before civil war started up in the 1970s. Pre-Nasser Alexandria, though, was Queen of the 20th-century Levant, and it was Lawrence Durrell's Quartet that fixed it in the minds of the fiction-reading public.

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Lawrence Durrell first came to Alexandria in April 1941. He was 29 years old. (Next year is his centenary.) His wife Nancy and infant daughter Penelope were with him. They were refugees in flight from Greece, where — excepting short spells in Paris and London — they had lived since 1935. When the Germans had invaded Greece and Yugoslavia on April 6, the Durrells had first fled to Crete, 15-month-old Penelope carried in a wine basket. After six miserable weeks under constant air attack in Crete, they had managed to secure passage on one of the last ships out, headed for Alexandria.

Durrell was, like Kipling and Orwell before him, Indian-born. His father was a railroad engineer; his mother was the daughter of a factory accountant; both families were long-time residents of the Raj — "English pied noir," Durrell was wont to say, though his mother's ancestry was in fact Protestant Irish. At age eight he had been shipped to England for the traditional unhappy boarding-school education. He was a poor scholar, inattentive and disorganized. By 1930, aged 18, even after three years at a "crammer," Durrell failed his university entrance examinations. He had, though, discovered Europe: not so much the place as the idea of Europe as seen from Britain — sunshine, good food, cheap wine, easy sex, art. Durrell settled into a lifelong dislike of his ancestral country, which he called "Pudding Island." Says a character in the Quartet, echoing many another bohemian expatriate: "I am just a refugee from the long slow toothache of English life."

Durrell determined on a literary career. By the time of the flight to Alexandria in 1941 he had published three novels and three slender volumes of poetry. He had also accumulated a fair literary acquaintance. It included T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Anaïs Nin; but its brightest star, so far as Durrell was concerned, was Henry Miller, his foremost literary hero. Durrell actually gets a passing mention in George Orwell's 1940 essay on Miller, "Inside the Whale":

Associated with Miller there are a number of writers of approximately the same tendency, Lawrence Durrell, Michael Fraenkel and others, almost amounting to a "school."

Bohemian as he was by temperament, though, Durrell was never as thoroughly "inside the whale" — never as disengaged from worldly affairs — as the quietist Miller. Durrell was, in fact, for several years an occasional employee of the British Foreign Office: in prewar Athens, in wartime Cairo and Alexandria, in postwar Rhodes and Belgrade, and in Cyprus during the terrorist "emergency" of the mid-1950s. Visiting him at the last of those posts in 1955, his brother Gerald (also a writer) found him installed in a palatial office with "a desk the size of a billiard table." Michael Haag's book has a 1943 photograph of Durrell in jacket and tie at an office desk not much less than billiard-table size in Alexandria, where he was a Foreign Office press attaché.

Some of this government work was from necessity: Durrell did not make a living from writing until the success of the Quartet in the late 1950s. Some, though, fell out naturally from that residual sense of imperial responsibility with which every Englishman of Durrell's generation and class was to some degree impregnated — even Orwell worked for the BBC during the war. You could take the boy out of the Raj, but you couldn't take the Raj out of the boy.

That was how Durrell came to settle in Alexandria for three years during 1942-45. Arrived in the city after that desperate flight from Greece in April 1941, he was first processed as a refugee — was actually interned for a few days — then made his way to Cairo, whither Nancy and the baby had preceded him. After some weeks of near-destitution, he was recruited by the Foreign Press Department of Britain's Cairo embassy.

In November the following year, with Rommel's army in retreat following the Second Battle of El Alamein, the embassy decided they needed a man on the spot in Alexandria (which is just 66 miles east of El Alamein). Durrell was the man. He settled in to Alexandria as a bachelor: his marriage had broken up earlier that year, Nancy decamping to Palestine with the baby.

There commenced the period — two years and nine months — that gave Durrell the material for the Alexandria Quartet. It is an odd thing that a writer can take such imaginative nourishment from quite short spans of time like this. Paul Scott's Raj Quartet is likewise based on only three years' acquaintance with India, the country that is its subject. It is as though a particular author, dipping a toe into the water of some particular place, were to find himself all at once soaking wet. Durrell went on to write other novels, including an entire quintet, but none was as well received, or is as well remembered, as the four he set in Alexandria.

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Only in Clea, the fourth book of the Quartet, do we encounter the war. The first three books are set in prewar Alexandria, which Durrell knew only by hearsay. (The irresponsible-bohemian side of Durrell's personality, speaking as the narrator of Clea, reacted to the war with mixed feelings: "At first it had seemed to portend the end of the so-called civilized world, but this hope soon proved vain.")

The structure of the Quartet is in fact based on Durrell's understanding of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. Or "understanding" — scoff quotes would not be out of place there. Durrell was no mathematician, and I doubt his engagement with modern physics amounted to more than having read some popularized accounts in magazines. He had, though, grasped the essential point that Relativity describes the world using three dimensions of space and one of time.

That idea, by analogy, structures the Quartet. "A four-dimensional dance, a relativity poem," Durrell called it. The first three books are, as it were, stationary in time. They cover the same events in prewar Alexandria from three different points of view. Only in Clea do we advance forward in time, into the war years. These Relativistic notions seems to have been buzzing around in Durrell's head for some time. Gordon Bowker's biography has him saying the following thing to a circle of admirers in 1939 Athens: "The problem of life is in the reconciliation of Time and Space."

Durrell was regrettably prone to metaphysical flim-flam of this sort. Here he is in 1952, though this time it seems to be Quantum Mechanics, not Relativity, that he's been browsing in some dentist's waiting-room:

The act of thinking about something creates a field around the object observed, and in order to think about that object you must neglect the whole from which the object has been separated … Everything is part of some greater whole. Everything is the sum of smaller parts. How, then, can we deal with the object-in-itself?

"By leaving metaphysics to the metaphysicians," would be my answer. A creative writer is entitled to some self-indulgences, though — think of the occultist buncombe to which Yeats was susceptible — so long as they not become annoying impositions.

A weightier charge against the Quartet is that it is over-written. To this the author pleaded guilty in a 1959 interview for The Paris Review.

Interviewer:  Your prose seems so highly worked. Does it just come out like that?
Durrell:  It's too juicy. Perhaps I need a few money terrors and things to make it a bit clearer — less lush. I always feel I am overwriting. I am conscious of the fact that it is one of my major difficulties.

Thus in a single paragraph we get, descriptive of dusk descending on the city: "the streets turning slowly to the metallic blue of carbon paper … the large mauve parcels of dusk moved here and there … The great limousines soared away from the Bourse with softly crying horns, like polished flights of special geese …"

You either mind this kind of thing or you don't. Probably more people mind it today, in these prosaic times, than did in 1960. And again, Durrell knows his weakness. In Balthazar, the second book of the Quartet, he commits the following sentence: "The flocks of spiring pigeons glittered like confetti as they turned their wings to the light." At once he turns and mocks himself: "(Fine writing!)" I am not much of a fan of purple prose myself, but I find it hard to mind Durrell's.

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The story told, re-told, and re-re-told in the first three books of the Quartet concerns a very varied cast of characters entangled with each other in ways that become fully clear only when the three narratives have been layered on top of one another. The fourth book then advances some of the same characters in time through World War II. In barest outline:

Justine is a first-person narration by Darley, a struggling Anglo-Irish writer. He takes up with Melissa, a young Greek dancer. She loves him; but Darley meets and falls in love with Justine, the Jewish wife of Nessim, a wealthy Copt. Darley and Justine have an affair. Justine's previous husband had written a novel about her; Darley reads it. Melissa suffers silently.

Balthazar, a homosexual but charismatic Jew, gives lessons in Kabbala, attended by Darley, Justine, and Nessim. Capodistria, a Jewish money-lender related somehow to Justine, also attends. We meet Pursewarden, an obnoxious but successful English writer, and Clea, a serene, virginal young painter. Scobie, an elderly transvestite retiree from the Egyptian Police, provides comic relief.

Melissa tells Nessim his wife is unfaithful. He arranges a meeting at which to interrogate her. They become lovers. Justine, Darley learns from her first husband's novel, cannot love properly because she was raped by a relative in her youth — presumably Capodistria. Pursewarden mysteriously commits suicide. Nessim arranges a duck shoot. Darley expects he will be the victim of an "accident," but it is Capodistria who is fatally wounded. Justine leaves Nessim and the city for Palestine. Melissa has Nessim's child, then dies of consumption. Darley goes to live on a Greek island with Melissa's (and Nessim's) child.

Balthazar is also narrated by Darley. He has written a novel about those events, giving it the title Justine. From his Greek island he sends the manuscript to Balthazar in Alexandria. Balthazar annotates it extensively and sends it back. He knows much more than Darley about the events in Justine. All was not what it seemed.

From Balthazar's annotations we and Darley learn much more about Nessim, his brother Narouz, and their mother Leila. Some years before, Leila, her husband old and sick, had taken as lover a young trainee British diplomat, Mountolive. He is now Ambassador. Plots and counter-plots are revealed. Several characters turn out to be Intelligence operatives.

Mountolive is told in the third person. We get deep background on Mountolive, Nessim's family, Pursewarden, and the political shenanigans in Alexandria: Britain-Copt-Muslim-Zionist.

Clea is told first-person by Darley again. He returns to Alexandria, now at war. He renews acquaintances: Nessim, Justine (back from Palestine), Balthazar, Mountolive. He has an affair with Clea, but it is unsatisfactory. The war ends. Darley obtains a minor official post on his Greek island and decides to return. An absurd accident allows Clea to discover her soul as a painter. Darley goes back to his island; Clea goes to France. Finis.

Thus the narrative line of the Quartet. Narrative, however, is not the point of the work, or not the only point. In fact there are signs of narrative sloppiness. The timeline of Mountolive's diplomatic career, for example, as given in Part II of Mountolive, is hard to square with his other appearances. Durrell wrote quickly, did not revise much, and hated proofreading. In the Paris Review interview he gave the following writing times for the four books, in order: four months, six weeks, two months, seven weeks. In the year Justine came out he published a second, unrelated book, about Cyprus. Writing at that speed, it's a wonder he could keep his characters' names straight.

Durrell's own descriptions of the Quartet showed his intent as psychological and aesthetic. In a note prefixed to Balthazar he wrote that "the central topic of [the Quartet] is an investigation of modern love." That seems an odd thing to say about human relations in the politico-ethnic salad of a highly atypical and not actually very modern city, but one must presume a writer knows his own intentions. I think he got closer to the truth in a letter he wrote to Henry Miller after finishing Justine: "It's a prose poem to one of the great capitals of the heart."

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I can faintly recall the fuss made by the publication of the Quartet. I was in my mid-teens, well-read in the kinds of books given to young people in England of the time — Mark Twain, Victorian adventure classics by the likes of R.M. Ballantyne and Sir Walter Scott, and any number of historical novels — but mainly interested in hunting down and reading every science fiction story ever written.

By the time I got to university the Quartet had been well digested by educated English people. To have read it was the mark of an up-to-date literary sensibility. Also of an "advanced" outlook, at any rate among youngsters: I got the impression the Quartet was considerably salacious (which is not, in fact, the case). I picked up Justine at the time, but set it aside after a few pages as insufficiently interesting.

A few weeks ago, after a lapse of nearly half a century, I acquired by chance a neat boxed set of the four paperbacks, and read them all through. I have read nothing else of Durrell's but the Selected Poems, which I acquired at the same time. I was quite surprised to find myself responding to the book. I disagree with Durrell's outlook on life at almost every point. I don't believe that Anglo-Saxon civilization is a disease for which Greco-Latin Europe is a cure. I think the Marquis de Sade, who supplies five of the Quartet's six epigraphs, should have been strangled at birth. Formal experiments in literary form — in the case of the Quartet, all that Relativity stuff — more often mar than enhance a work of fiction for me. There are a tad too many purple passages here; and Durrell seems to have an unhealthy interest in physical disfigurement. (One character is missing a nose; another has no eyes; Narouz is hare-lipped; his mother hideously marked by smallpox …)

The Alexandria Quartet sticks in the mind somehow, though, and with all its faults keeps one's attention and forms a rounded, satisfactory whole — creates a world. "You might try a four-card trick in the form of a novel," Pursewarden tells Darley in Clea. Lawrence Durrell did so try, and somehow he pulled it off.