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Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell
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Mountolive (original 1958; edition 1959)

by Lawrence Durrell

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968128,922 (3.89)33
Member:JBreedlove
Title:Mountolive
Authors:Lawrence Durrell
Info:E. P. Dutton & Co. (1959), Edition: BMOC Ed, Hardcover, 318 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:literature

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Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell (1958)

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Mountolive is the third novel in the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. In the first novel, Justine(1957) the narrator Darley, an Irish expatriate living and teaching in Alexandria, sets the stage for the innovative four volume work by describing his fascination with the ancient Egyptian city and his immersion into the complex social life of the Alexandrians. As a writer, he attempts to capture the essence of the city by chronicling over time the intricate and mysterious interactions of several characters living in the Mediterranean coastal city in pre-World War II Egypt. Justine is the flawed, sensual heart of her social group, married to and in love with Nessim, the eldest son of a wealthy Coptic Christian family who live on a vast ranch at the edge of the desert. As a Jew, she is forever excluded from true acceptance by Nessim's family and the culture of Alexandria. She is impulsively driven to find self -acceptance and identification with the essence of the life of the city. She searches desperately but unsuccessful to find meaning in life in Alexandria, that she conceptualizes as a small precise key to a beautiful and intricate pocket watch. The urgency is to find the key before age reduces her passion and youthful allure.

The second novel, Balthazar(1958) involves Darley's review of an interlinear (a book written in more than one language) sent to him by Balthazar a psychiatrist acquaintance who presents a more detailed view from multiple cultural sources of the social and political situation in Alexandria described in Justine. Important information not earlier available is supplied and the historical accuracy of events is supplemented by Balthazar's complex written psychoanalytic interpretation of Justine, Nessim, and other key players. The personalities of the characters are shown to be less fixed and more determined by interpersonal agendas and apparently random events in Alexandria than Darley presented in volume one of the quartet. Even with the structured focus on unconscious motivations of the characters and their defensive interactions, the essence of life in Alexandria seems chaotic and random.

In the third novel, Mountolive (1959), Darley describes the career and psychological development of a British diplomat trained for a lifetime to maintain "good form" at all times. Part of his training as a young man involved early placement by the British High Commission in Alexandria as a sort of scribe to await his first diplomatic posting. At that time he had a letter of introduction to the Hosnani family, the Coptic Christian family owners of the ranch Darley introduced in the first novel, Justine. The reticent Mountolive came of age rapidly in his brief early experience placement and learned the value of maintaining a careful, conservative, British approach to people and diplomatic decision-making, his "stiff upper lip." With knowledge gained from this experience, Mountolive left Alexandria for many years occupying additional upwardly mobile posts in the British Empire between the World Wars. In the third novel of the Quartet, after years of training in diplomacy and obedience, he returns to Alexandria as British Ambassador to Egypt during the same time period described in Justine and Balthazar. He anticipates that finally he can make decisions on his own and exert a British structural influence on Egyption culture, politics, and the lives of characters he met during his first visit to Alexandria.

Before long, Mountolive discovers that his concentration on maintaining good form in Egypt is only as attractive as his uniform and his ambassadorial presence in society has only minor effects on social and political situations. As World War II approaches, Coptic Christians become targets of Moslem discrimination, Justine finds her risky existential key, Nissim and Balthazar organize military support for a pro-Palestinian movement, a British staff member commits suicide, the Egyptian king dies, pro-Hitler sentiment increases, and Mountolive realizes he has important responsibilities without any power to influence events. The main characters develop a common belief that somewhere in the heart of experience there is order and coherence which we might surprise them if they are attentive enough, or patient enough. But they all ask themselves, will there be time? Will Mountolive seek a path of least resistance or will he persist in his largely ceremonial ambassador role? What will happen to the Hosnani family members and other social/political ties established by Mountolive. The novel shows the restrictions on individual free will even in an exotic city like Alexandria during a turbulent historical era and sets the stage for the concluding part of the Alexandria Quartet, Clea. I highly recommend Durrell's major literary accomplishment that influenced the direction of post-World War II literature. Looking at the same events from different perspectives (Justine-existential, Balthazar-psychoanalytic, Mountoloive-social/structural) Darley constructs a narrative that establishes in the reader a tolerance for ambiguity and an acceptance of the existential power of a fully conscious life. ( )
  GarySeverance | Feb 18, 2014 |
Another entry in my Alexandria Quartet reviews and again I caution against reading it if you haven’t yet read the work in question.

Mountolive (published 1958) is, first of all, a masterful play on expectations. The Alexandria Quartet relies upon the crossed recollections of unreliable narrators for its form and in this the third volume Durrell deceptively switched to the traditional storytelling mode of a third-person narration – transforming it into an odd continuation of the experimental form.

Thus Mountolive begins in a refreshingly different manner, slapping the reader down some years before the events of Justine in the midst of an unsettling family drama. David Mountolive, briefly glimpsed in Balthazar as a mild-mannered diplomat, is followed through the book from his first visit to Egypt as a naive accident-waiting-to-happen, kindly boarded by the Hosnani family. What begins as an affair between Mountolive and Leila soon expands to become a primarily political story, or rather the story of how political ideology put insurmountable strain upon relationships of all sorts, driving apart friends, lovers and brothers as the book progresses. Mountolive is also the most cinematic and spacious of the three “sibling” novels. It breaks away from Darley’s constrictive voice and is a deeply refreshing and revitalizing example of changing horses in midstream.

Among other things, this new tactic gives Pursewarden an expanded role – no longer at the mercy of Darley and Balthazar’s interpretations, he thus appears a little more well-rounded and turns the tables delightfully. Darley’s grand passion is flattened out – seen from Pursewarden’s view, he comes across as a bit of a wimp: "The poor fellow flutters like a slab on a skate at her approach; he and Nessim are, however, great frequenters of each other, great friends. These modest British types – do they all turn out to be Turks secretly? Darley at any rate must have some appeal because he has also got himself regally entangled with a rather nice little cabaret dancer called Melissa. You would never think, to look at him, that he was capable of running a tandem, so little self-possession does he appear to have. A victim of his own fine sentiments? He wrings his hands, his spectacles steam up, when he mentions either name." And yet as more revelations spiral down the pike Darley, seen from this exterior view, becomes a figure rather admirable. Far from the hero of this story, his is truly a minor role, and yet he is now revealed as fundamentally good and ingenuous; a well-meaning man innocently swimming with sharks.

Another aspect of the expanded narrative is in the sense of place. Durrell’s ability to make a landscape come alive is no doubt why his travel writings are so thoroughly respected. In Mountolive this talent is no longer limited to Egypt and so there are lovely depictions of snow in Russia and a waltz in Trafalgar Square as well as a pre-dawn fish hunt upon Lake Mareotis and an eerily empty plantation. A brief snapshot of London: "The thin black drizzle over Trafalgar Square, the soot-encrusted cornices of Whitehall, the slur of rubber tyres spinning upon macadam, the haunting conspiratorial voice of river traffic behind the veils of mist – they were both a reassurance and a threat. He loved it inarticulately, the melancholy of it, though he knew in his heart he could no longer live here permanently, for his profession had made an expatriate of him."

Owing to Mountolive’s role in the embassy the political bent slowly woven into the first books is now delved into feet-first. Frankly, I didn’t understand all of it (my study of politics has not gone much deeper than repeated viewings of Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister) which is my loss. The sense that none of the characters are to be trusted leads to a deeper feeling of unease as the story progresses, abandoning erotic subterfuge in favour of far murkier motivations. As a new set of revelations come to light the end result is a feeling that The Alexandria Quartet is a study in futility. Misjudgments, deceptions, desires that miss their mark, beliefs revoltingly at odds with reality, the knowledge that in the end, people are an enigma. "They were puzzles now, and even their private moral relationship haunted him with a sense of something he had never properly understood, never clearly evaluated."

Another evolving theme of the work is loss of control, as Mountolive, the Hosnani brothers and Pursewarden become pawns (Pursewarden’s suicide seen anew as the decision of a pawn to opt out of the game). "Indeed, now the masters were beginning to find that they were, after all, the servants of the very forces which they had set in play, and that nature is inherently ungovernable. They were soon to be drawn along ways not of their choosing, trapped in a magnetic field, as it were, by the same forces which unwind the tides at the moon’s bidding, or propel the glittering forces of salmon up a crowded river – actions curving and swelling into futurity beyond the powers of mortals to harness or divert." Perhaps all of this is why the narrative focuses so much upon Mountolive. A diplomat, a man not meant for friendship or any close relation with others, who nevertheless gains it and is thence brought into a conflict of interests. That’s an old story but all the themes in the Quartet evolve, ducking in and out of the limelight, never disappearing altogether, never overstaying their welcome. Wonderfully well-balanced.

Is Durrell fair to his characters? It is true that once the gloves come off Justine is described with perhaps too much emphasis upon her barbarism. However, considering her previously established traits – as a man-eater, as the child of a poor neighborhood given a rough start in life and as a lost and purposeless individual – is it any wonder that she fell in love with a man with a cause? To compare Nessim with Darley or Pursewarden is to compare the fanatic with the diffident. Durrell establishes his characters well: The same applies to Narouz. The poor fellow is clearly a bomb waiting to go off from the beginning – a man at once brutal, simple, mystical and terribly isolated. His downward spiral is all too believable and leads to a devastating finale.

The Alexandria Quartet continues to be a draining experience. Disillusion, despair, betrayal of friends and lovers, people dying like flies – an unpleasant story told in the most romantic style imaginable. Each novel leaves me newly exhausted, head spinning, heart heavy. This sounds like a negative statement but in fact my highest criteria for art is that it move me. Durrell’s ability to break my heart is for me his greatest skill, greater even than his prose style.

In ten years or so I shall be certain to revisit The Alexandria Quartet, to see if it still wields such force further on in my life. Onwards now to Clea and then I am so reading P.G. Wodehouse…

http://pseudointellectualreviews.wordpress.com/2013/05/25/mountolive-lawrence-du... ( )
1 vote nymith | May 28, 2013 |
Starts slow and ends strangely but mostly a good and different read. Durrell's prose is a window into an earlier time of writing. Languid and descriptive w many older English words that I had to look up. Scry? The story is also a light on the perils of occupation and the difficulty in mixing western & eastern cultures.

The third book in Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Robert Kaplan noted this book in one of his travelogue's. ( )
  JBreedlove | Feb 26, 2013 |
In this, the third volume of Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet,” the narrative shift focuses, this time to Mountolive, a character who has perhaps more in common with the real-life Durrell than even Darley, who narrated both volume I (“Justine”) and will narrate volume IV (“Clea”). Both Durrell and Mountolive were born in India and later joined the Foreign Service abroad.

In this “sibling companion” to the other volumes, we find both more growing political intrigue and romantic machination. Just as “Balthazar” reconstituted and reframed the story of “Justine,” the entry of Mountolive as a major figure does much the same. He begins at the Hosnani estate of where Nessim, Narouz, their mother Leila, and ailing father all reside, and we quickly learn of Mountolive and Leila’s love affair. The jumps in time make it somewhat difficult to discern when this occurred (most likely well before the action of volumes I and II), but their relationship is handled every bit as well as the myriad other relationships, romantic and Plutonic, that have arisen. Mountolive takes a job as a British foreign service and hires Pursewarden, a more minor character from the previous two volumes, as one of his advisers. We also learn of a gun cartel that seems to be affiliated in some way with Narouz, whose political influence and rhetoric is becoming too strong for his own good. Mountolive’s knowledge of the gunrunning plot, along with the corruption the Pasha both accepts and participates in, let him leave Egypt, but not before becoming thoroughly disillusioned.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who read my reviews of the first two novels that I have utterly enjoyed “Mountolive,” too. And since I know longer know how to gush about Durrell’s gorgeous, fantastic writing in an original way, I will do what I did in those reviews and leave you with a snippet from the opening chapter detailing Mountolive’s entry into the British Foreign Service and his involvement with Egypt:

“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. Only somehow today it was rather more difficult than usual to be reserved, so exciting has the fish-drive become.”

How can you not love this stuff? ( )
  kant1066 | Jan 8, 2013 |
for me, this book doesn't quite match up with it's predecessors. it lacked some of the poetic writing from justine and balthazar. even some of the beautiful and horrific scenes were lacking. i think this is because the perspective is no longer through darley. interpreting the events through this character is what made things come alive. i am glad that durrell decided to travel back to this formula for the final installment. but it forces me to wonder, why didn't durrell keep it that way for the whole series? what was the advantage for this novel? it just made it more scientific, exact, direct, lacking the emotion.

there are still some amazing sections of this book and the layer that is added is deep. i can't wait to finish the final piece. ( )
  Rocky_Wing | Sep 3, 2011 |
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The dream dissipated, were one to recover one's commonsense mood, the thing would be of but mediocre import -- 'tis the story of mental wrongdoing. 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.
D.A.F. de Sade: Justine
Il faut que le roman raconte.

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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.
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The romantic quadrangle presented in Justine and Balthazar is presented from a startling new angle, and an adulterous marriage turns out to be a vehicle for the explosive passions of the modern Middle East.

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