BOOKS / Classic Thoughts: A four part snail: Peter Guttridge on a flawed masterwork, Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet

IN 1957, age 44, Lawrence Durrell had four books published. In addition to a travel book, a children's adventure and a collection of comic stories about embassy life in the Balkans, Justine, the first volume of the Alexandria Quartet, appeared and was an instant success. Inspired by his second wife Eve and their time in Alexandria together during the war, Durrell had been writing it in Cyprus since 1953, the impressionistic novel moving along, he told his friend Henry Miller, 'like a snail, paragraph by paragraph'. He finished it in 1956, during the Cyprus troubles. As he told Miller: 'While outside bombs were going off, Claude (eventually his third wife) helped me finish it, sitting up late into the night over scale maps of Alexandria, tracing and re-tracing the streets and recapturing much that I had lost - the brothels and parks, the dawn over Lake Mareotis.'

Justine added to Durrell's reputation as a poet and travel writer that of serious novelist (he had written only potboilers before). Three more novels - Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea - quickly followed and all four were collected as The Alexandria Quartet in 1962. The Quartet is set in the period leading up to the Second World War although the final book, Clea, takes the story into the war. In Justine the narrator, Darley (who shares Durrell's initials), describes his affair with Justine, a beautiful, promiscuous Jewish woman married to Nessim, a wealthy Copt. Here the main characters in the novel are introduced - they include the sad dancer Melissa, the womanising French diplomat Pombal, the cynical author of a trilogy, Pursewarden, and Clea, the artist.

In a preface, Durrell rather grandly explains his intention to write 'a four-decker novel based on the relativity proposition - three sides of space and one of time. The three first parts interlap, overweave, in a purely spatial relationship. The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel.' With such a proposition it is understandable that he is often regarded as pretentious and mannered. Most of the characters speak grandiloquently about Literature, Life and Love. Portentous remarks such as 'One makes love only to confirm one's loneliness' become increasingly wearisome as the Quartet develops.

But you suffer the pomposity for the pleasure of the plotting, the setpiece descriptions and the gaudy characterisations. There are many memorable scenes stunningly described: a horseride across the desert to meet a tribe of Bedouin, a carnival at which it is thought Justine has been murdered and a vampire is abroad, a duck shoot at dawn on Lake Mareotis which ends in another death, the narrator returning to Alexandria by sea in wartime during a night bombardment, Clea losing a hand in an underwater accident.

Durrell likes Grand Guignol effects. But however extravagant the incidents, they are given a kind of verisimilitude by the acuity of Durrell's descriptive writing - at its best when confronted by a great event, or washes of desert landscape. Occasionally he strains for effect or produces patches of purple prose, but the overall rhythm of the books carries you over the bumpy bits. In Clea the narrator says: 'is it just a meaningless display of coloured fireworks? Is it the actions of human beings or of a set of dusty puppets which could be hung up in the corner of a writer's mind?'

However, the real shortcoming of the book is Durrell's attitude to women, especially in a book ostensibly about love. He probably differs little from other male writers of the period when he has the narrator in the Quartet find women 'very stupid as well as very profound'. He expressed his misogyny more explicitly in a letter, albeit to the phallocentric Henry Miller: 'Women are merely a tiresome interruption . . . best enjoyed when least cared about.' This middle-aged attitudinising does set limits on the Quartet, but it nevertheless remains a remarkable achievement. Even more remarkable is the fact that, towards the end of his life, Durrell was able to pull off something almost as brilliant in The Avignon Quintet.