Book Review – The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell


The Alexandria Quartet. No, not a small band of string players but the crowning achievement of English novelist Lawrence Durrell, and arguably one of the great literary masterpieces of the twentieth century.

Lawrence George Durrell1 was born in India in 1912 to British colonial parents. Sent off to England at the age of eleven for his education, then failing to make it into Cambridge, Durrell took his disenchantment abroad, spending much of his life in the eastern Mediterranean. He first became known for his poetry; his prose writing took some years to achieve recognition but has remained his enduring legacy. To augment his income from writing Durrell worked for some years for the Foreign Office. His official postings and private sojourns during and after World War II inspired much of his work – and “inspire” is the right word: he writes memorably of Corfu, Rhodes, Cyprus and Egypt. He finally settled in Provence, where he lived for thirty years before his death in 1990.

The four novels that form The Alexandria Quartet were published between 1957 and 1960. In order they are Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960), each book taking its title from one of its leading characters. The first three present the perspectives of different people of a single set of events in Alexandria in the years just before the Second World War; the fourth book is set six years later.

In his preface Durrell says that “this group of four novels is intended to be read as a single work”, and I have found for myself that it does indeed work properly only as one whole thing. Durrell describes it as “an investigation of modern love”. Modern love is shot through with sexual and political intrigue, some of the relationships conducted à deux, some as triangles, others as polygons. The fraying fabric on which Durrell’s characters weave their web of interactions, perceptions and reminiscences is the city of Alexandria, beautiful and repellent.

The city is the one constant in the whole work, and Durrell’s portrayal of it sticks in the mind: his prose-poetry is unsurpassed at conveying its sights, smells and tastes. Margaret Drabble describes Durrell’s style as “ornate, lyrical and sensual, perhaps too much so for English tastes…” and she argues that, perhaps for that reason, The Quartet has been much more highly regarded outside England than within. Personally, I don’t find Durrell’s writing “too much”. Here is a small sample, taken from the opening paragraphs of the first book.

“Five languages, five races, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar… Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick-dust, sweet-smelling brick-dust, and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water… The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion.”

The principal narrator of The Quartet is an impoverished teacher of English, L. G. Darley (the initials those of Durrell himself). Chief among the Egyptian characters are members of the Coptic, i.e. Christian, Hosnani family. The eldest son, Nessim, is married to Justine, a beautiful Jewish girl whom he plucked from abject poverty. Nessim’s younger, hare-lipped brother, Narouz, is swept up in the rising tide of anti-British resentment that began in the 1930s and exploded in the Suez conflict of 1956. Narouz is trouble, and he eventually pays with his life, though at whose hand is not clear.

The sexual intrigues mingle Egyptians and expatriates. In the opening book Darley is the lover of Melissa, a Greek night-club dancer (and a little more besides) but has just begun a clandestine affair with Justine Hosnani. Justine’s personal magnetism is irresistible, but she is unreadable, unpredictable and untamed – a handful, one might say. She is not the only Hosnani playing away: her mother-in-law, Leila, is conducting a passionate relationship with a much younger British diplomat, David Mountolive; that affair drives some of the later narrative. These relationships are fraught with danger, creating tensions that Durrell exploits with great skill.

Mountolive recruits another Alexandrian ex-pat, the novelist Pursewarden, as his advisor, i.e. spy. Pursewarden is led into a painful conflict between friendship and duty, and it ends badly. Pursewarden’s own story is related by another narrator, Balthazar, who gives his name to the second book. Darley and Balthazar exchange reminiscences throughout The Quartet, the second narrator subtly revealing further perspectives on the same set of events.

The main characters are educated, articulate and generally not wealthy – except for the Hosnanis, who are filthy rich. But the secondary characters play vitally important roles. Durrell uses Darley’s connections to depict the lower life of Alexandria – as well as to throw in some howlingly funny dialogue and scenes. (There is a parallel here with Shakespeare’s knockabout characters popping up in serious drama.) We are thus entertained by Scobie, transvestite and closet homosexual (“I have The Tendency, old man”) who is, improbably, recruited into the Egyptian police force. Shockingly, El Scob, as he is known to the Egyptians, one evening goes prowling the docks in drag and is beaten to death by British sailors. Equally unforgettably, there appears Pombal, a minor overweight French consular official. Such a delicious name: you can almost hear the air whistling out of a leather cushion as he sits down. Pombal routinely struggles for the right English phrase in translation. The French phrase émissions nocturnes sur les ondes courtes (intended to mean night-time broadcasts on the short wave) emerges in Pombal’s English as nocturnal emissions on the short hairs.

The fourth and final book, Clea, provides a sense of passing time which the previous three do not. It covers the war years and after, adding to and nudging our earlier understanding of what had taken place. Clea is a Greek artist with a lesbian past, notwithstanding which she and Darley begin a brief affair after bumping into each other in the street. Thus the sexual provender of Alexandria, noted at the beginning of the quartet, remains unexhausted at the end.

Clea reveals that, while war prevents Mountolive and Leila from forming a permanent relationship, happiness continues to elude them when it is over, for reasons which I will not divulge here. Improbably, Justine and Nessim reunite in a relationship that is physically and intellectually satisfying. Balthazar and Clea pursue their separate lives in Alexandria. Darley takes himself off to a remote Greek island with the dead Melissa’s illegitimate child, there to write his recollections.

So, no happy ending and no sad one either, and, in a sense, no ending at all. Durrell’s thesis is that, amid the characters’ diverse perceptions of what went on, there is no such thing as the objective truth. There are only individual perceptions of it, and these may overlap, but they are never completely congruent and do not necessarily lead to conclusions.

Durrell is undeniably demanding on his readers’ education and concentration, but that is how he casts his spell. The Quartet is a lengthy read too, some 900 pages in standard paperback format. But what a rewarding read it is! During my adult life I have read The Quartet three times, always end-to-end without a break, and each time have found it more satisfying than the time before. I am not ashamed to say that, despite the plethora of other pleasures in modern English writing, I feel a fourth reading coming on.

Bob Young

Endnote: There are three copies of The Alexandria Quartet available through NYCC libraries. Note also that the first of the four books, Justine, was filmed in 1969, with Anouk Aimée as the title character. It failed to do justice to Durrell’s language or vision and was deservedly panned by the critics. It was a financial flop too. Well worth avoiding!

1 Lawrence Durrell was the eldest brother of Gerald Durrell, who is best known for his TV zoo series, drawn from his book My Family and Other Animals.