Book of a lifetime: The Alexandria Quartet, By Lawrence Durrell

 

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)

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