Book of a lifetime: The Alexandria Quartet, By Lawrence Durrell
Friday 08 February 2013
I am embarrassed to enjoy Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet so much. It was an early passion of mine and one I revisit for the blowsy comfort it provides and for the disconcerting peeling-off of its truly Byzantine plot. I was 17 when I first encountered what the author described as "a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition."
I had no idea then what that could mean - it was 1963 - and still don't really. What mattered to me at that age, with no experience yet of romance or of sex, was that Durrell's tetralogy was also "an investigation of modern love". Egocentric men slept with Levantine sirens in one of the most cosmopolitan and intrigue-ridden cities on the Mediterranean coast, pausing only to belch aphorisms and olive pips. That was just the sort of future I wanted for myself, where I too might write, without any sense of the preposterous, to an ex-lover: "There is a little gin in the bottle and as I don't know where I shall be later on I think I'll just sit down and answer you as best I can until six when the brothels start to open."
I read the Quartet – Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea - for the second time in 1969 when I was living in the Sudan and so closer to the city and culture of the novels, but just as distant from any "modern love". I know exactly what passages appealed to me because I marked the margins and underlined whenever I was (too readily) impressed: "Love rejoices in self-torture," gets my penciled endorsement, as do "The memory of man is as old as misfortune" and "Art like life is an open secret." Of course, in vinegary middle age, I can see how heavily Durrell's prose was weighted with (his words) "plum pudding". And I understand how any reader coming to these novels as an adult might find the writing far too mannered and the portrayal of both men and women overwrought, especially given how since the 1950s, when these books were published, Durrell's private life has itself peeled off to reveal a predatory and sleazy man.
But yet, for all its bloated self-regard and its rarefied setting, the Alexandria Quartet is still for me a brave and brazen work, more ready to take risks than take excessive care. And isn't that exactly what we want from fiction - especially when young? So I'll re-read the novels with a callow heart again, knowing what I can expect – a lush and grandiose portrait of a Levant long mislaid and a reminder, evoked by pencil marks, of an earlier and less judgmental version of myself.
Jim Crace's new novel is 'Harvest' (Picador)
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Husband creates spreadsheet detailing wife's 'excuses' for turning down sex
- 2 UK pirates will get four warning letters a year
- 3 Saneie Masilela, 9, marries Helen Shabangu, 53 years his senior, for the second time
- 4 Laurie Penny: Feminist author subjected to 'vile sexist and anti-Semitic abuse' over her book
- 5 Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport
Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley star in trailer for new Alan Turing film The Imitation Game
Endeavour series 2, episode 4 - TV review: A gripping, sordid, startling and magnificent end to the series
It looks like Krusty the Clown is the major Simpsons character death
Russell T Davies wants your 'sexcapades' for new web series Tofu about modern sex culture
Star Wars 7: Plot details 'leak', with sequel's opening and premise revealed
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash: 'Nine Britons, 23 Americans and 80 children' feared dead after Boeing passenger jet is 'shot down' near Ukraine-Russia border
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vladimir Putin is given 'one last chance' to end hostilities in Ukraine
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash analysis: A tragic lesson of advanced weapons in the wrong hands
- < Previous
- Next >