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The Alexandria Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell

Series: Alexandria Quartet (Omnibus 1-4)

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1,814246,629 (4.32)190
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
Recently added byprivate library, SeanK1964, Riuets, Deborama, aoife, olymisan, evangelista, RuiFlores, MaryE.Hughes
Legacy LibrariesEvelyn Waugh , Lawrence Durrell
  1. 10
    The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: Another highly acclaimed four-part series where different perspectives offer different views into truth.
  2. 00
    Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (WSB7)
    WSB7: The exploration of the play between the book's characters and the "society" of a great old city is intersting in both works.
  3. 00
    Surveyor by G. W. Hawkes (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: Surveyor is also about how the ground can shift under your feet when you find out something new about someone.
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To hell with reviews! Who needs 'em! I have written eloquently (if, in retrospect naively) about these books in the individual volumes. Here instead, I offer a collection of quotes from the books, a 'commonplace book' if you will. Set in Alexandria and Greece throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Quartet is the story of an impoverished British writer, Darley, and his love for the married, ambiguous Justine. The characters who spiral around this pair are all of them fascinating, multi-faceted, and hopelessly lost. It's tale of memory, of love, and the fallibility of humankind.

Justine (1957)
"What I most need to do is to record experiences, not in the order in which they took place- for that is history - but in the order in which they first become significant for me."
"A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants".
"It is idle to go over all this in a medium as unstable as words."
Clea: "There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature."
"Our friendship had ripened to a point where we had already become in a way part-owners of each other."
The only response to life is "ironic tenderness and silence".
"[Capodistria] impregnates things. At table I have seen a water-melon become conscious under his gaze so that it felt the seeds inside it stirring with life."
Arabic proverb: "The world is like a cucumber - today it's in your hand, tomorrow up your arse."
"These are the moments which are not calculable, and cannot be assessed in words; they live on in the solution of memory, like wonderful creatures, unique of their kind, dredged up from the floors of some unexplored ocean."
Balthazar: "We are all hunting for rational reasons for believing in the absurd."

========
Darley's description of a great dust storm (khamseen) over Alexandria:
"That second spring the khamseen was worse than I have ever known it before or since.Before sunrise the skies of the desert turned brown as buckram, and then slowly darkened, swelling like a bruise and at last releasing the outlines of cloud, giant octaves of ochre which massed up from the Delta like the drift of ashes under a volcano.The city has shuttered itself tightly, as if against a gale. A few gusts of air and a thin sour rain are the forerunners of the darkness which blots out the light of the sky. And now unseen in the darkness of shuttered rooms the sand is invading everything, appearing as if by magic in clothes long locked away, books, pictures and teaspoons.In the locks of doors, beneath fingernails. The harsh sobbing air dries the membranes of throats and noses, and makes eyes raw with the configurations of conjunctivitis. Clouds of dried blood walk the streets like prophecies; the sand is settling into the sea like powder into the curls of a stale wig. Choked fountain-pens, dry lips- and along the slats of the Venetian shutters thin white drifts as of young snow.The ghostly feluccas passing along the canal are crewed by ghouls with wrapped heads. From time to time a cracked wind arrives from directly above and stirs the whole city round and round so that one has the illusion that everything-trees, minarets,monuments and people - have been caught in the final eddy of some great whirlpool and will pour softly back at last into the desert from which they rose, reverting once more to the anonymous wave-sculptured floor of dunes..."
=====

Justine: "Who invented the human heart, I wonder? Tell me, and then then show me the place where he was hanged."
Scobie: "When he speaks of the past it is in a series of short dim telegrams - as if already communications were poor, the weather inimical to transmission."
"Man is only an extension of the spirit of place."
"Alexandria, the capital of memory."
"Each man goes out to his own music."
Justine: "I have always thought that the dead think of us as dead. They have rejoined the living after this trifling excursion into quasi life."
"The city was smiling with a heartbreaking indifference."

Balthazar (1958)
"Great souls require nourishment."
Pursewarden: "If things were always what they seemed, how impoverished would be the imagination of man!"
[Clea] "suddenly [felt] herself becoming breathlessly insubstantial, as if she were a figure painted on a canvas."
Justine: "There are whole parts of my character I do not understand."
"The most dangerous thing in the world is a love founded on pity"
"Her letters had become her very life, and in the writing of them she had begun to suffer from that curious sense of distorted reality which writers have when they are dealing with real people; in the years of writing to Mountolive, for example, she had so to speak re-invented him so successfully that he existed for her now not so much as a real human being but as a character out of her own imagination. She had even almost forgotten what he looked like, what to expect of his physical presence, and when his telegram came to say that he expected to be in Egypt again within a few months, she felt at first nothing but irritation that he should intrude, bodily as it were, upon the picture projected by her imagination."

======
Darley's letter to Clea:
"I think it better for us to steer clear of the big oblong words like Beauty and Truth and so on. Do you mind? We are all so silly and feeble-witted when it comes to living, but giants when it comes to pronouncing on the universe. Sufflaminandus erat. Like you, I have two problems which interconnect: my art and my life. Now in my life I am somewhat irresolute and shabby, but in my art I am free to be what I must desire to seem - someone who might bring resolution and harmony into the dying lives around me. In my art, indeed, through my art, I want really to achieve myself by shedding the work, which is of no importance, as a snake sheds its skin. Perhaps that's why writers are heart want to be loved for their work rather than for themselves - do you think?"
======

Pursewarden: "It is the duty of every patriot to hate his country creatively"
"We are all looking for someone lovely to be unfaithful to"
"I love to feel events overlapping each other, crawling over one another like wet crabs in a basket."
When a great scandal is happening secretly, everyone knows but "the truth is that nobody ever does breathe a word, nobody interferes, nobody whispers while the acrobat is on the tightrope. They just sit and watch the spectacle, waiting only to be wise after the event."
Balthazar: "Everything is true of everybody"

Mountolive (1958)
"All great books are excursions into pity"

Leila "appeared to be somehow fading, receding on the curvature of a world moving in time, detaching herself from his own memories of her."
Mountolive on Pursewarden: "The artist's work constitutes the only satisfactory relationship he can have with his fellow-men since he seeks his real friends among the dead and the unborn. That is why he can't dabble in politics; it isn't his job. He must concentrate on values rather than policies."
Pursewarden: "the writer, most solitary of animals"
"Monsieur, je suis devenue la solitude meme"
"Somehow his friendship for them had prevented him from thinking of them as people who might, like himself, be living on several different levels at once."
"'O want easily supplied by one who has trained himself to see men and women as flies.' So says the proverb."

Nessim: "If only we did not have to keep on acting a part, Justine."
Justine: "Ah, Nessim! Then I could not know who I was."

Clea (1960)
"When you are in love with one of its inhabitants, a city can become a world."

"The writer I was becoming was learning at last to inhabit those deserted spaces which time misses - beginning to live between the ticks of the clock, so to speak."
Justine to Nessim after many years: "You have escaped me somewhere."
Justine: "A woman's best love letters are always written to the man she is betraying."
Of psychoanalysis: "what can one say of this very approximate science which has carelessly overflowed into anthropology on one side, theology on the other?"
Balthazar: "The most tender, the most tragic of illusions is perhaps to believe that our actions can add or subtract from the total quality of good and evil in the world."
Liza "listens to one as if one were music, an extra intentness which makes one immediately aware of the banality of most of one's utterances."
Darley: "I saw that we artists form one of those pathetic human chains which human beings form to pass buckets of water up to a fire, or to bring in a lifeboat. An uninterrupted chain of humans born to explore the inward riches of the solitary life on behalf of the unheeding unforgiving community; manacled together by the same gift."
Liza: "One must try everything to recover memory. It has so many hiding-places."
Darley: "For a night and a day I lived the life of an echo, thinking much about the past and about us all moving in it, the "selective fictions" which life shuffles out like a pack of cards, mixing and dividing, withdrawing and restoring."

======
The wisdom of Pursewarden:

On a self-absorbed dimwit: "He had a large, hand-illuminated sign hanging up on the front of his mind reading ON NO ACCOUNT DISTURB."
"My books bear scarlet wrappers with the legend NOT TO BE OPENED BY OLD WOMEN OF EITHER SEX."
"Like all young men I set out to be a genius but mercifully laughter intervened."
"Civilisations die in the measure that they become conscious of themselves. They realise, they lose heart, the propulsion of the unconscious motive is no longer there. Desperately they begin to copy themselves in the mirror. It is no use."
"Once a writer seldom a talker."
"Language! What is the writer's struggle except a struggle to use a medium as precisely as possible, but knowing full its basic imprecision/ A hopeless task, but none the less rewarding for being hopeless."
"A novel should be an act of divination by entrails, not a careful record of a game of pat-ball on some vicarage lawn!"
End of Pursewarden's notes: "You may travel round the world and colonise the ends of the earth with your lines and yet never hear the singing yourself."

======
And finally, excerpts from the celebrated nighttime sequence near the start of Clea, as Darley and his ward re-enter the war-weary city:

At midnight we slipped out slantwise from the bay upon a high moonlight - the further darkness made more soft, more confiding, by the warm incoherent goodbyes which poured out across the white beeches towards us. We shuttled for a while along the ink-shadowed line of cliffs where the engine's heartbeats were puckered up and thrown back at us in volleys. And so at last outwards upon the main deep, feeling the soft unction of the water's rhythms begin to breast us up, cradle and release us, as if in play. The night was superlatively warm and fine. A dolphin broke once, twice at the bow. A course was set.
Exultation mixed with a profound sadness now possessed us; fatigue and happiness in one. I could taste the good salt upon my lips. We drank warm sage-tea without talking. The child was struck speechless by the beauties of this journey - the quivering phosphorescence of our wake, combed out behind us like a comet's hair, flowing and reviving. Above us, too, flowed the plumed branches of heaven, stars scattered as thick as almond-blossom on the enigmatic sky. …. An all-obliterating darkness reigned. Somewhere ahead of us lay the invisible coast of Africa, with its 'kiss of thorns' as the Arabs say… I could not see my own fingers before my face. The sea had become a vast empty anteroom, a hollow bubble of blackness.
Then suddenly there passed a sudden breath, a whiff like a wind passing across the bed of embers, and the nearer distance glowed pink as a seashell, deepening gradually into the rose-richness of a flower. A faint and terrible moaning came out across the water towards us, pulsing like the wing-beats of some fearful prehistoric bird - sirens which howled as the damned must howl in limbo. One's nerves were shaken like the branches of a tree. And as if in response to this sound lights began to prick out everywhere, sporadically at first, then in ribbons, bands, squares of crystal. The harbour suddenly outlined itself with complete clarity upon the dark panels of heaven, while long white fingers of powder-white light began to stalk about the sky in ungainly fashion, as if they were the legs of some awkward insect struggling to gain a purchase on the slippery black. A dense stream of coloured rockets now began to mount from the haze among the battleships, emptying on the sky their brilliant clusters of stars and diamonds and smashed pearl snuffboxes with a marvellous prodigality. The air shook in strokes. Clouds of pink and yellow dust arose with the maroons to shine upon the greasy buttocks of the barrage balloons which were flying everywhere. The very sea seemed to tremble. I had no idea that we were so near, or that the city could be so beautiful in the mere saturnalia of a war. It had begun to swell up, to expand like some mystical rose of the darkness, and the bombardment kept it company, overflowing the mind. To our surprise we found ourselves shouting at each other. We were staring at the burning embers of Augustine's Carthage, I thought to myself, we are observing the fall of city man…
… Then, almost as suddenly as it had started, the spectacle died away. The harbour vanished with theatrical suddenness, the string of precious stones was turned off, the sky emptied, the silence drenched us, only to be broken once more by that famished crying of the sirens which drilled at the nerves…. We waited thus for a long time in great indecision; but meanwhile from the east the dawn had begun to overtake the sky, the city and desert. Human voices, weighted like lead, came softly out, stirring curiosity and compassion. Children's voices - and in the west a sputum-coloured meniscus on the horizon… Shivering, we turned to one another, feeling suddenly orphaned in this benighted world between light and darkness.
But gradually it grew up from the eastern marches, this familiar dawn, the first overflow of citron and rose which would set the dead waters of Mareotis aglitter; and fine as a hair, yet so indistinct that one had to stop breathing to verify it, I heard (or thought I heard) the first call to prayer from some as yet invisible minaret. Were there, then, still gods left to invoke?
I gazed around me. It was all the same, yet at the same time unbelievably different… (How many times had we not put out from there, at this same hour, in Clea's small boat, loaded with bread and oranges and wicker-clothed wine?) How many old sailing-days spent upon this crumbling coast, landmarks of affection now forgotten? ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 27, 2020 |
It's a long haul, at 800 plus pages, but surprisingly worth it. Hard to classify, not really a romance or historical fiction, it is about the four characters that name the four sections, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea and how their lives intersect. The novel manages to convey the city of Alexandria very well and all its historical connections to the past. ( )
  charlie68 | Apr 18, 2020 |
I realized then the truth about all love: that it is an absolute which takes all or forfeits all. The other feelings, compassion, tenderness and so on, exist only on the periphery and belong on the constructions of society and habit.

My gratitude for M.J. Nicholls remains at the fore of this celebration. It wasn't he that steered me to this massive work. I am honestly unable to gather any of MJNs inferences in the direction of Durrell. It was more Nicholls' esprit, that laudable expansion on what we talk about when we review books on GR. Nietzsche started this ball rolling, waxing loudly that there are not facts, but only interpretations. This leads us gleaming into the vortex of Durrell's 4D (apologies to Sherman and Peabody) tetralogy, one name, one face, one book for each dimension in that dotty quantum way.

We begin at the End. The End, mind you, only of an Affair. There is something greasy and squeamish about this, much like Greene's masterpiece. Bendrix and Darley deserve each other, but before one can Blitz the Casbah, the threads separate and the emphasis chugs along at a different angle, involving other souls. Some dead, others despairing. There is a dank musk of incest here. This theme finds a bizarre counterpoint throughout.

The novel Balthazar takes the premise of Justine -- foreigners behaving badly in the ancient city -- and extrapolates it with an unknown resonance. A History worthy of Foucault is forming midway through the second novel. Darley/Durrell is establishing a "great interlinear" a hypertext with contradicting testimony interspersed in his own account.

Montolive is my favorite of the set and a likely zenith for Durrell's ambition. The title character is a diplomat whose own troubled passion vibrates the relations of all the other characters, even as War looms on the horizon. The poems of Cavafy haunt the crackling descriptions of the feverish Egypt of the 1930s. This is a lost city buried under Islamic nationalism and a modern legacy of defeat and corruption.

The Quartet clambers to halt in Clea, by far the weakest novel of the series. The necessary throes of Darley and Clea felt so contrived that I have trouble even thinking calmly about it now. What does remain placid is my memories of the book as object. I bought a hardcovered boxed set of the Quartet 20 years ago and attempted several times to find purchase in its opening pages. This was to avail. Last fall while hobbling about on a sore knee in Berlin, I went with my wife to an English Language second hand book shop just off of Karl Marx Allee. It is more pathetic than romantic to see an American limping about abroad with his hands full of snobby novels. Thus I am guilty.
( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
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 |
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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
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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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