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The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

The Alexandria Quartet (original 1962; edition 2005)

by Lawrence Durrell

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Title:The Alexandria Quartet
Authors:Lawrence Durrell
Info:Faber and Faber (2005), Paperback, 884 pages
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The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (1962)

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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. ( )
4 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 ( )
1 vote drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
I think this is where I gained an interest in urban planning. ( )
  dmarsh451 | Mar 31, 2013 |
Being a serial book-adulterer I have fallen into and wandered out of love with an amoral number of books - but I remain forever in thrall to the Alexandria Quartet.

Of course, I may change my mind in ten years. Let's just wait and see. ( )
  Scribble.Orca | Mar 31, 2013 |
Fantastisk berättelse, i fyra böcker, om kärlek och relationer i det tidiga 1900-talets Alexandria. Skeendena skildras först genom berättarens begränsade synvinkel och sedan i de andra böckerna tillkommer andra vinklar. Vi får följa berättaren, Darley, hans stora kärlek den gåtfulla Justine, läkaren Balthazar, den unge diplomaten Mountolive, konstnären Clea och människor runt dessa i tiden runt Första världskriget. En romansvit att läsa om och läsa om. Min mamma berättade om den när jag satt på hennes sängkant (hon berättade ofta vad hon läste när jag gick in för att säga godnatt och ofta dröjde mig kvar ett slag). Jag läste den första gången när jag var tjugo och gick på Hemslöjdens skola Sätergläntan i Dalarna. Jag sov i en allmogesäng från 1800-talet i en timrad stuga och Alexandriakvartetten var precis vad jag behövde för att inte kvävas i allt hemvävt och tovat. Andra gången var min dotter Alice nyfödd och jag läste medan jag låg och ammade. Tredje gången var när jag läste Biblioteks- och informationsvetenskap. Vid varje omläsning har något nytt hamnat på plats. Dags för omläsning. ( )
  LottaDB | Sep 9, 2012 |
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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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