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The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

The Alexandria Quartet (edition 2005)

by Lawrence Durrell

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Title:The Alexandria Quartet
Authors:Lawrence Durrell
Info:Faber and Faber (2005), Paperback, 884 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

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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 |
Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea — the four novels that constitute The Alexandria Quartet — are famous for Durrell’s florid prose and unique four-tiered structure, which the author spoke of as his “four-decker,” but it is unlike other multi-volume fiction of note. Rather than following a linear progression, as such works tend to do, The Quartet, in the first three novels which are set mostly in pre-WWII Alexandria, explores intricate interrelationships of certain Alexandria denizens in an iterative fashion in which the many layers of personality are unearthed and explored through varied points of view of different characters. It is only with the fourth volume that time moves forward beyond the war that caused a major upheaval even in Egypt. During its course— after most of the characters encountered in the previous novels have gone their separate ways — Clea ties up many loose ends.

It is a truism that two witnesses to an event inevitably see and report different facts. This notion seems to be at the foundation of Durrell’s concept and he even drops clues to his approach here and there. Notably towards the beginning of Justine we read the following:

I remember her sitting before the multiple mirrors at the dressmaker’s being fitted for a shark-skin costume, and saying: “Look! Five different pictures of the same subject. Now if I wrote I would try for a multi-dimensional effect in character, a sort of prism-sightedness. Why should not people show more than one profile at a time?”

Is this not a metaphor for the entire tetralogy?

The multiple points of view are presented variously through extended “quotations” from letters, diaries and novels of various characters. This is a clever way to shift point of view without actually employing an omniscient narrator. While Durrell’s people and places are interesting, aided in large part by an endless succession of new revelations that keep one turning pages, the question arises as to whether these books could have been published today. Modernism disrespects narrative to some extent, and modern readers are thought to prefer that action be carried forward by dialogue. And so it is somewhat ironic that it is the deeply textured nature of Durrell’s long narrations that make the characters — including the city of Alexandria itself — so vivid, memorable and even haunting for the reader.

Durrell is reported to have said that The Alexandria Quartet is an exploration of the varieties of love — the many ways individuals of all sexes join together, explore each other and in the end come to know themselves. Right at the outset of Justine, Durrell sets the table: “. . . there are more than five sexes and . . . the sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion.” He never directly defines exactly what those five sexes are, yet one begins to get the picture as the novels progress.

But the subtext is the city of Alexandria itself as temptress, betrayer, comforter and tormentor. Durrell’s characterization of the city is subtle enough that one comes away with a sense of longing for that time and place which flamed bright for a brief moment and then all too soon was gone.

When these novels were first published during the 1950s, Durrell’s entire approach was considered ground-breaking. The novelty of The Alexandria Quartet has never quite worn off, and yet while there are many Durrell enthusiasts about, his star does not seem to shine as brightly as it once did, perhaps because his prodigious knowledge and love of language requires the reader to command an uncommonly large vocabulary in both English and French, and also because the deep narrative style has been out of fashion since about the time Durrell was laboring over these volumes. While Durrell is not on my list of favorite writers per se, this tetralogy continues to exert an almost nostalgic appeal, despite the fact of never having been to Alexandria. My first reading was way back in the 1960s, but the second time around was like experiencing it all over again for the first time. ( )
5 vote Poquette | May 9, 2014 |
Simply amazing. Heart-wrenchingly beautiful meditations on love, life, war, everything. The story of a group of people living in Alexandria just before World War II - but its so much more than that. Give yourself a few months and take your time - something I rarely, if ever, do - and soak up this book like a hot bath on a cool night. You will not be disappointed, I promise you.

REVIEWS (specific to the books):

Justine - http://wp.me/sGVzJ-justine
Balthazar - http://wp.me/pGVzJ-g6
Mountolive - http://wp.me/pGVzJ-gb
Clea - http://wp.me/pGVzJ-gg ( )
2 vote drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
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"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)
"JUSTINE" - To Eve these memorials of her native city.

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


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.

(summary from another edition)

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