Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 16, 2010

Classic Friday: Alexandria Quartet

Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell, 4 vols. published 1957-1960

It was my brother who got me into these books, way back in the early 1970s. And then, through Durrell, I (like so many others) discovered the Greek poet CP Cafavy. Durrell’s settings are exotic, the characters mysterious, with secrets both romantic and political in nature. These are plots with layers that Durrell slowly peels back, challenging the reader to discard previous assumptions about motives and actions throughout the Quartet.

The first three volumes cover the same time period, mostly, but from different characters’ points of view. Very Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950) in effect. The fourth volume acts like an extended epilogue, catching us up on various characters a few years later, and resolving a few more questions.

Spies, adulterers, writers, poets, military men, expats, diplomats–all in Alexandria, Egypt, as the Mideast moves through the 1930s and 1940s. The plot is complex, and I imagine a chart of characters’ relationships would resemble a sturdy but poorly designed spider’s web, with lines going all which-way.

My favorite volume is the third (the only one told in third person narrative voice), but these books must be read in the correct order, to get the full sense of the layers and revelations.

Durrell is a thick writer, by which I don’t mean anything bad. The layers are there in the prose as well as in the plot.

We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it. I can think of no better identification. “Your doubt, for example, which contains so much anxiety and such a thirst for an absolute truth, is so different from the scepticism of the Greek, from the mental play of the Mediterranean mind with its deliberate resort to sophistry as part of the game of thought; for your thought is a weapon, a theology.”

That’s Justine speaking to the English narrator, in Vol. 1, using syntax one doesn’t hear in normal dialog. I see layers about nationality, about motives, about truth (these books are all about discovering the limits of “truth”), about games (and everyone but the narrator–poor naive Englishman–is playing a game in these books).

I keep thinking about rereading these (it’s been decades since I last went through them), but I need an unemcumbered mind. The books aren’t easy, but they repay the effort required to read them.

Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea


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