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The Alexandria Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Alexandria Quartet (Omnibus 1-4)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,931256,992 (4.31)197
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
  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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» See also 197 mentions

English (23)  Spanish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (25)
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
1960s racism & sexism was overwhelming, but every time I thought about putting it down, there would be another gorgeous desert or hunting scene. ( )
  linepainter | Aug 15, 2021 |
***Update: Bailed.***

When I bought this Kindle, I thought these were the memoirs about the Durrell family. Now that I've watched the amazing series, I know these are the fiction books written by the oldest brother, Larry. I don't think they'll be my cup of tea, but I guess we'll find out some day, when I get around to attempting to read them.
  Jinjer | Jul 19, 2021 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Lawrence Durrellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Morris, JanForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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

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