“The Alexandria Quartet” published between 1957 and 1960 is undoubtedly Lawrence Durrell’s greatest achievement. Across four books, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea, Durrell captures the 1930s world of Alexandria, a city bubbling with love, lust, abuse, extreme wealth and poverty and the cruelty that inevitability grows from such an intoxicating melange.
This heady brew is further enlivened by the political intriguing and the first stirrings of nationalism that will eventually sweep away the multi-ethnic pattern of the city, country and region that had allowed such an interesting and perverse Levantine culture to develop. The Second World War would leave little unchanged and this sense of loss is an essential part of all four novels.
The richness of the life of the city is matched by Durrell’s full bloodied and at times over the top prose; in fact much of the writing is poetic in scale and ambition. And although it may be too much of a rich diet for some, it is entirely in keeping with the environment and characters that Durrell so beautifully brings to life. Durrell imbibes his writing with such a heavy and intoxicating perfume of desire that the pages sometimes seem sodden with words. But again this matches the feeling that this intoxication is too much for the characters that ultimately want to escape something that has become squalid and unhealthy. The style of writing perfectly compliments the beautiful but corrupting city of Alexandria.
The first book centres on the love affair between the beguiling but seemingly damaged Justine and a failing novelist and in many ways a failing human being, Darley. This novel is written from Darley’s point of view and he describes an affair that ultimately is more about obsession, guilt and pain than it is about pleasure. The narrative is fluid and does not follow a logical path creating a sense of confusion and uncertainty.
However, the real strength of the quartet and its true purpose doesn’t become apparent until the second novel, Balthazar. The whole of the affair between Justine and Darley is dispassionately reviewed and deconstructed by Balthazar, a friend and confident of the lovers, and it becomes clear that as in life, there is no such thing as one truth, just many points of view that reveal or hide other truths.
As the third novel progresses, truth is reflected and refracted until it does not seem to exist any more and although Durrell is ploughing the same furrow, each turning of the soil reveals something new and unexpected. The final novel does bring some sort of closure, as we like to say today as it moves beyond the affair and takes us to Alexandria at the end of the war.
We are all to some degree unreliable narrators of our own lives, we can never truly know what our lovers, friends or family really think or believe about us, and consequently we invent, misinterpret or misunderstand our relationships. This is the ultimate objective that Durrell strives for and so successfully achieves.
As the quartet progresses it becomes clear that there is very little solid ground on which it is possible to build the foundations of our lives, and that very little is as it seems.
Did you love this book as much as I did? Curious to hear your thoughts…