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The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
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The Alexandria Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell

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1,632216,620 (4.31)183
Recently added byprivate library, DonaldPowell, jmadelbecq, dprendergast, anneofkells, phoebekw, matija2019
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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Well. This was far from being "among the greatest works of English literature in the twentieth century" as claimed by the so-called Modern Library (whoever they are). It was unique, challenging and bizarre as well as, at times, inconsistent (dare I say flawed?). And yet somehow in the flaws is a level of honesty not found in so many books that smoothly portray "reality" with details intended to seduce the reader into believing. That trickery of perception.

Here's how it went for me: beautiful, poetic writing...followed by casual racism...then brilliant artistic insights...then ugly amoral behavior...then cultural revelations...then awkward construction...then imaginative atmospheric metaphors capturing a sense of place and time...then postmodern literary devices....etc etc. This book is such an odd duck that it certainly does achieve something quite unique in English literature, I do agree with that. I can almost compare it, in a way, to Infinite Jest, not in content or style but in the innate inconsistency that defies categorization. The awkwardness at times felt as though the author was "showing his work," (and a writer is the main character). So is it "post modern" or is it not? It's ambiguous, sprawling, beastly, occasionally boring. It's not one thing. It's four books that meander through a continuous storyline in diverse ways.

One of the oddities is the perspective changes. Book One, Justine, is told from the first person perspective of the writer Darley. Book Two, Balthazar is also told by Darley, however it completely alters the understanding we have about the characters from Book One. It straddles this odd border between metafiction and fiction because it features a partial retelling of the events from Book One. I would subtitle it, "The Misperceptions of Darley." The premise is that Darley gave the manuscript of Book One (it's implied but never quite stated that Durrell's actual Book One is Darley's manuscript) to this other character Balthazar, who then "corrects" all of Darley's misperceptions. Much like an editor might use Comments in Microsoft Word to make revision suggestions to an authors draft. Book Two reveals that there was so much behind the scenes that Darley didn't understand, it completely repositions (a new perspective), the characters from Book One. One of the repeated themes of the book is that we really never understand each other (what makes up a "self" is highly questionable as well), and over and over in the series, new facets of individuals and motives and previously unrevealed actions causes us to reevaluate the characters many times over. Couple that with changes that happen to them over time, it highly destabilizes the concept of "identity."

Book Three, Mountolive, throws another wrench into the consistency of the story in that it is told from a third person perspective, a close god's-eye view from inside some of the characters featured in Books One and Two. This was a strange shift that was not particularly justified by Durrell and presents details that Darley never could have known (authorial invention?). One might hypothesize that it represents a book "written by Darley," as if the character wrote Book 3...however, this premise is again never directly stated, so I found the shift awkward.

The fourth book, Clea, returns us to Darley's first person perspective much as in Books One and Two. Again, new aspects to the characters are revealed or have evolved. We never really knew them and they are constantly in a state of flux, just as quantum particles and the universe are.

Most impressive throughout The Alexandria Quartet is the nearly baroque poetic language. Durrell is quite masterful and insightful when he allows his characters to be. There are, in fact, TWO writers as characters in the book and Durrell manages to make them both talented, artistic and eloquent and yet utterly distinct. Very skillful, subtle writing.

The racism is absolutely disturbing, without question. It would seem likely that, being true to British expats living in Egypt before and just after World War II, the characters are going to be infused with racialist views. But the casual use of racist epithets to describe black music and black musicians is disturbing, not to mention the exotic portrayal of Egyptians. Exoticism in its own way is something that betrays a level of racism that has been written about by various cultural critics; it portrays races as "other" and incomprehensible. If Durrell were weaving this into his story for a thematic reason, giving him the benefit of intentionality, it would likely be to point out that we are ALL exotic and incomprehensible to each other. Durrell certainly never sugarcoats the brutality or prejudice of his characters and makes no obvious judgement upon them. He presents the occurrences rather neutrally or amorally. This is dicey indeed. Does it matter what he the author thought? Or is it more important how we now reflect on this series published in the late 1950s? It's jarring to read such casually used language, as if it's just an everyday thing. Yet I think it was rather valuable, in an odd way, because it put me in the mindset of how Trump spoke about immigrants "infesting" this country or, like Roseann Barr tossing off her racist tweets. This is casual conversation for many Americans. It might have been a very small aspect of this book to Durrell, but it had a big effect on me as a reader today. Racist beliefs are just an assumed, automatic and off-hand aspect of the worldview of so many individuals that changing it will require a lot of significant social change. Of course right now, we are going in the opposite direction with the mainstreaming of racism.

Without a doubt, this is an unusual and powerful work but not one I can particularly recommend. I would think those with patience for the unfolding of a story who appreciate off-kilter experimental works that live in an undefinable quantum state of wtf...then yes, perhaps this is for you. Strangely enough, I've heard this described by some as a "romance." It seemed more an anti-romance to me. ( )
  David_David_Katzman | Jul 14, 2018 |
Read these at least 40 years ago and still think they're great. They were wonderful stories, beautifully written, and they helped me articulate something I'd always instinctively known: that truth is relative.
  laursand | Dec 10, 2017 |
One noticeable negative effect of using an online cataloguing social media service like this here Goodreads is a tendency to attach more value to numbers than to books themselves. Thus, I am mildly obsessed by the numbers of books read per year, by the number of pages read per year, by the 'most-read authors' and by the various sub-categories of the books I read. This isn't all bad of course. Being aware of how many books I read helps keep me focused on reading more books and spending less time foostering online. It encourages me to read more non-fiction and helped me notice the overwhelming maleness of the authors I read and helps me push myself outside my comfort zone and challenge myself a little

Unfortunately, there's a tendency to look at books and decide they're too damn long, too damn dense, too damn hard, I'll be a month or more reading that, it'll bring down my total, better to read something short and fast and easy. This is particularly bad when it comes to collected or omnibus editions, like the Gormenghast trilogy which I've tried a few times to start but give up because it's just going to take too damn long and after all that time it'll only count as one book! Or this very Quartet, which I put off for weeks before diving in. The numbers shouldn't matter more than the books, of course, but sometimes they do, and that's something to be overcome.

The Alexandria Quartet consists of, yes, four novels, all set in the titular North African city in the late thirties early forties. In fact, the first three cover the same time period, more or less, and provide seperate glosses on the same events - even if the events themselves are not depicted in the book, they are altered by new information. Then in the third novel, 'the time dimension is unleashed,' and yes Durrell can get away with saying stuff like that and, indeed, with doing stuff like that.

A group of remarkably self-involved, pretentious, priveleged, post-colonial avatars fall in and out of love with each other, have affairs, enact betrayals and deceptions, analyse themselves and their histories and their relationships with with rare articulacy and poetic prolixity. They discuss art and poetry and literature and all around them the city and its environs are described with astonishing vigour and extraordinary language. They break up, commit suicide or die or go into exile, and that's the first book, Justine, a concentrated non-linear burst of almost impressionistic intensity. Balthazar interleaves new accounts, new insights structured as threads which intertwine with Justine, altering our perceptions, deepening our understanding, but quietly mocking our presumption that there can be full and complete and singular understandings.

Mountolive steps back and above the previous two, almost conventional in plot and structure, creating a political backdrop which further contextualises, confuses and contradicts the first two volumes. Finally Clea lurches like its narrator back to the city and on through the war - and, in a series not short of passages of dazzling literary dexterity, contains the highlight of a description of a bombing raid seen from offshore. Stories continue and develop, the nature of love is further explored, the dead from Justine continue to intrude with galling insights, comic hilarity and esoteric explorations. It ends with notes that point to future volumes never to be written but which exist as part of the vast thrumming life-energy of the Quartet that seems to sprawl across unwritten histories.

Beautiful and vital, complex and ambitious, funny and horrible, this is an astonishing, dazzling, deeply enriching work of literature.

Such a pity it only counts as one book. ( )
3 vote Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
Didn't get beyond page 50 - it failed to engage me ( )
  psutto | Jun 17, 2015 |
Several years ago, prior to visiting Egypt, "The Alexandria Quartet" came highly recommended as an entertaining source of accurate reading material for a brief overview of the political and cultural climate in Alexandria during the 1940s. This fictional tale of drama, love, intrigue, and espionage also serves as number 70 on Modern Library’s list of Top 100 novels.

Lawrence Durrell created a unique reading experience in his assembly of 4 individual novels following the lives of a dozen characters including an Egyptian Coptic Christian Prince and his Jewish wife, several British and French secret service employees, a psychiatrist, artists and writers, and an exotic dancer. What makes this literature truly ground-breaking is the fact that the first 3 volumes cover the exact same events- each seen from a different point of view- often creating opposing perspectives. Durrell explains in the introduction, “I realize that each person can only claim one aspect of our character as part of his knowledge. To everyone we turn a different face of the prism.”

The 4 volumes are titled "Justine", "Balthazar", "Mountolive", and "Clea". Justine, Blathazar and Mountolive each share their personal interpretation of events. The final volume
takes place at a later date and ties together the content of the story.

A critique of the individual volumes:

"Justine": The first book of this quartet is somewhat difficult to digest. It is an expression of random thoughts, mysterious incidents, and vague descriptions taking place in the course of one year at the early stages of World War II. Told out of chronological order and at various locations, piecing together the proper sequence of events becomes quite a challenge. Add to that Durrell’s poetic language and philosophical musing about love and passion, life and death… you sometimes wonder if there is going to be a plot. And when Justine is over, the reader is left mystified with unresolved dangling threads:
an unsolved murder
- an abandoned lover
the unknown identity of those who are secret service employee, spies, and subversive radical revolutionaries

Plot or no plot, it is a mesmerizing tale that leaves the reader somewhat frustrated… begging for clarification from Volume 2.

"Balthazar": The psychiatrist- Dr. Balthazar- does present some astounding facts that bring clarity to the events of volume 1. Nothing was as it seemed- and as the cliche goes- there is plenty of “smoke and mirrors”. The carnival scene- akin to New Orleans Mardi Gras- makes for some of the best reading of the series involving exotic costumes, secret love trysts, mistaken identities, murder, and lots of suspense.

"Mountolive": Mountolive appears to be a minor character in the first 2 volumes, but now takes on a primary role. Volume 3 carries the most depth of political views, particularly as it regards the Arab community and their relationship to Europe and the United States. There are interesting observations involving the Egyptian Coptic Christians and resident Jews during this critical time in history. You will also enjoy layer-upon-layer of new details revealing the true plot amidst this exotic background.

"Clea": After working through 3 volumes totaling 808 pages, you may be wondering, “What could be left to say?”. In the first 3 volumes Clea was a mere spectator- a recluse artist offering occasional words of wisdom- though removed from the political and social life of Alexandria. What could she possibly have to contribute to this intriguing tale of murder and international espionage and subterfuge? Clea puts everything in perspective… and brings the 4-volume journey to a thoroughly brilliant and satisfying conclusion.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this collection of novels. I will leave you with two of my favorites:

“These grains of truth which just slipped out... truth is not what is uttered in full consciousness. It is always what ‘just slips out’.”

“There are only three things to be done with a woman... you can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.”

Enjoy! ( )
2 vote LadyLo | Jun 15, 2015 |
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Epigraph
"JUSTINE" - I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved.  We shall have a lot to discuss about that. - S. Freud: Letters

"BALTHAZAR" - The mirror sees the man as beautiful, the mirror loves the man; another mirror sees the man as frightful and hates him; and it is always the same being who produces the impressions. - Justine (D.A.F. de Sade)

"MOUNTOLIVE" - The dream dissipated, were one to recover one's commonsense mood, the thing would be of but mediocre import -- 'tis the story of mental wrong-doing.  Everyone knows very well and it offends no one.  But alas! one sometimes carries the thing a little further.  What, one dares wonder, what would not be the idea's realization if its mere abstract shape thus exalted has just so profoundly moved one?  The accursed reverie is vivified and its existence is a crime. - Justine (D.A.F. DE SADE)

"CLEA" - The Primary and most beautiful of Nature's qualities is motion, which agitates her at all times, but this motion is simply the perpetual consequence of crimes, it is conserved by means of crimes alone. - (D. A. F. de Sade)
Dedication
"JUSTINE" - To Eve these memorials of her native city.

"BALTHAZAR" - To MY MOTHER these memorials of an unforgotten city

"MOUNTOLIVE" - A CLAUDE

"CLEA" - To MY FATHER
First words
The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.
"BALTHAZAR" - Landscape-toes: brown to bronze, steep skyline, low cloud, pearl ground with shadowed oyster and violet reflections.

"MOUNTOLIVE" - As a junior of exceptional promise, he had been sent to Egypt for a year in order to improve his Arabic and found himself attached to the High Commission as a sort of scribe to await his first diplomatic posting; but he was already conducting himself as a young secretary of legation, fully aware of the responsibilities of future office.

"CLEA" - The oranges were more plentiful than usual that year.
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Consisting of Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea, The Alexandria Quartet explores the sexual and political intrigues of a group of expatriates in Egypt before and after the Second World War.

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