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)
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Unseen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chapter deemed 'too subversive' released
- 2 Ebola virus: It's ripped through towns – now the deadliest ever outbreak of the virus is heading for Africa's teeming cities
- 3 Joan Rivers: 'Palestinians deserve to be dead'
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Unseen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chapter deemed 'too subversive' released
Doctor Who, Into the Dalek, TV review: Classic sci-fi adventure has blockbuster spectacle
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
The Leftovers, TV preview: Prepare to be bewildered by the latest mystery from the creator of Lost
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward