The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
Several years ago, prior to visiting Egypt, The Alexandria Quartet came highly recommended as an entertaining source of accurate reading material for a brief overview of the political and cultural climate in Alexandria during the 1940s. This fictional tale of drama, love, intrigue, and espionage also serves as number 70 on Modern Library’s list of Top 100 novels.
Lawrence Durrell created a unique reading experience in his assembly of 4 individual novels following the lives of a dozen characters including an Egyptian Coptic Christian Prince and his Jewish wife, several British and French secret service employees, a psychiatrist, artists and writers, and an exotic dancer. What makes this literature truly ground-breaking is the fact that the first 3 volumes cover the exact same events- each seen from a different point of view- often creating opposing perspectives. Durrell explains in the introduction, “I realize that each person can only claim one aspect of our character as part of his knowledge. To everyone we turn a different face of the prism.”
The 4 volumes are titled Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. Justine, Blathazar and Mountolive each share their personal interpretation of events. The final volume takes place at a later date and ties together the content of the story.
A critique of the individual volumes:
Justine: The first book of this quartet is somewhat difficult to digest. It is an expression of random thoughts, mysterious incidents, and vague descriptions taking place in the course of one year at the early stages of World War II. Told out of chronological order and at various locations, piecing together the proper sequence of events becomes quite a challenge. Add to that Durrell’s poetic language and philosophical musing about love and passion, life and death… you sometimes wonder if there is going to be a plot. And when Justine is over, the reader is left mystified with unresolved dangling threads:
– an unsolved murder
– an abandoned lover
– the unknown identity of those who are secret service employee, spies, and subversive radical revolutionaries
Plot or no plot, it is a mesmerizing tale that leaves the reader somewhat frustrated… begging for clarification from Volume 2.
Balthazar: The psychiatrist- Dr. Balthazar- does present some astounding facts that bring clarity to the events of volume 1. Nothing was as it seemed- and as the cliche goes- there is plenty of “smoke and mirrors”. The carnival scene- akin to New Orleans Mardi Gras- makes for some of the best reading of the series involving exotic costumes, secret love trysts, mistaken identities, murder, and lots of suspense.
Mountolive: Mountolive appears to be a minor character in the first 2 volumes, but now takes on a primary role. Volume 3 carries the most depth of political views, particularly as it regards the Arab community and their relationship to Europe and the United States. There are interesting observations involving the Egyptian Coptic Christians and resident Jews during this critical time in history. You will also enjoy layer-upon-layer of new details revealing the true plot amidst this exotic background.
Clea: After working through 3 volumes totaling 808 pages, you may be wondering, “What could be left to say?”. In the first 3 volumes Clea was a mere spectator- a recluse artist offering occasional words of wisdom- though removed from the political and social life of Alexandria. What could she possibly have to contribute to this intriguing tale of murder and international espionage and subterfuge? Clea puts everything in perspective… and brings the 4-volume journey to a thoroughly brilliant and satisfying conclusion.
There are so many wonderful quotes in this collection of novels. I will leave you with two of my favorites:
“These grains of truth which just slipped out… truth is not what is uttered in full consciousness. It is always what ‘just slips out’.”
“There are only three things to be done with a woman… you can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.”
Rated 4 Stars
All contents © 2015 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.