The book you meant to read; The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) by Lawrence Durrell
Saturday 07 December 1996
In Justine, the novelist, Darley, recalls his life with Melissa, the dancer, and love for Justine, wife of the Coptic banker, Nessim. The book bulges with weirdies including the artist Clea; Pursewarden, a novelist who kills himself; and Balthazar, a doctor.
Balthazar has the eponymous doctor criticising Darley's manuscript of Justine. It appears that Nessim and Justine were plotting a coup on behalf of Jewish and Coptic groups. Darley was a pawn: Justine's real love was for Pursewarden.
Mountolive is told in the third person. David Mountolive is the conventional British ambassador. Pursewarden worked for him "undercover" in Alexandria and defended Nessim against charges of conspiracy; Nessim is revealed as a gun-runner. Pursewarden cannot face the implications of his misjudgement: his suicide is finally explained.
Darley narrates Clea. In war-torn Alexandria he falls for Clea. Once aloof, she is now the reverse. She runs off and loses her hand in a harpooning accident.
Theme: Love and fiction. Love is a fleeting illusion. Fiction must capture life's relativity."
Style: The language gives off a heady scent of decay.
Chief strengths: The evocation of place is matchless. Durrell is one of the few British writers who can write about sex without facetiousness or vulgarity.
Chief weakness: "Only the city is real." Alexandria swamps the characters, who drown in the steamy exoticism. Durrell's philosophising is repetitive and trite.
What they thought of it then: The Quartet anticipated the Sixties: Durrell is mind-expanding, highly-coloured and self-conscious. The books were especially trendy in France and America. In Britain, Durrell was regarded as a bit of a fraud.
What we think of it now: Durrell's reputation has collapsed. Critics of the British post-war novel hardly take him into account.
Responsible for: Tourists booking holidays to Egypt in the hope of finding unmentionable delights behind the kasbah. Tourists returning home with diaries steeped in glutinous prose.
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