Book of a Liifetime: Fiona Sampson

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

The first time I read 'The Alexandria Quartet', I did so out of order, borrowing whichever volume appeared next on the public library shelves. However that coloured my experience, I was bowled over. Written by someone of whom I'd heard only as the butt of Gerald Durrell's family jokes, it was more enticing, as well as more opaque, than anything I'd ever read. I loved the way it scarcely seemed able to contain all that it had to say. I was hooked by its throwaway intelligence. And since I was a teenager I also loved its mystified sophistication, of the kind I was certain awaited me in the big city.

It wasn't until I was in my twenties and owned a single-volume edition that I realised this first great post-modern novel divulges more, rather than less, with each retelling of its central events: a series of encounters between an all-too-flawed cast of colonial trespassers and native Alexandrians. The simple device of nested accounts, each offering revelations that undermine certainties, abolishes narrative authority at a stroke. It was my first recognition that one needn't trust what one is told.

Later, I also understood how brilliantly it deconstructed colonialism. Justine bests the inevitable white male protagonist because of the gaps in his story. He fails to understand the city, and the woman, he believes he loves. Durrell's giant imaginative step out of time and caste, as well as literary convention, argues that self-determination is the fundamental human drive: more important than even love or sex, whose conventional hold on fiction he subverts.

This was incendiary stuff for a girl from the provinces. But as a young adult I fell in love a second time: with the novel's celebration of cosmopolitanism and decadence. I identified with the greedy observer-narrator, Darley; not least because he lacked the class certainty of many literary protagonists. I recognised his world of bedsits, typewriters and seat-of-the-pants finances; while the fantasy of melting-pot Alexandria was a hyperbolic version of all I liked best about London.

Other books soon joined the touchstone 'Quartet' in my satchel. Darley's – or Durrell's – own touchstone is "the old Greek poet", "the native poet of the city". It was this repeated evocation of Cavafy's poetry as an echo-chamber of Alexandrian life that got me reading, first the old Hogarth Press edition of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard's collected translations, then more widely in contemporary poetry.

Like any attempt at a zeitgeist, 'The Alexandria Quartet' has dated in places. Its portentousness can make me blush. But whenever I'm discouraged I return to it, and the sheer sense it gives of literature as possibility: intelligent, risk-taking and omnivorous. Shelley's hell may have been "a city much like London", but Durrell's Alexandria, which resembles the entire divine comedy, ends with art as redemptive meaning-making. How could one resist a novel which ends its 900-odd pages, "I wrote: 'Once upon a time...'. And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!"

Fiona Sampson's 'Rough Music' is published by Carcanet

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders