It is easy to see that Lawrence Durrell started life as a poet, for his prose is magnificent. But his strongest suit is his brilliant evocation of time and place, in recreating the alien landscape of Egyptian Alexandria in the late 1930s and 1940s, during World War Two. And his characters are marvelous: Nessim and Justine, Darley and Melissa, Mountolive and Leila, and Balthazar and Pombal, all quirky, all seeming to fit perfectly into a strange place which is an interesting blend of East and West.
This is NOT to say that THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET doesn’t have its flaws. Those of you who haven’t read these volumes and dive into JUSTINE (the first volume) should be warned that this is Durrell’s most experimental novel. After some wonderful brush-strokes that delineate Alexandria and environs, he plunges us in. The experience is rather like going through an elderly relative’s papers, all spread out over the desk in no particular order, and it is our job to make sense of it. JUSTINE places quite a burden on the reader by the formlessness of its structure. The novel is in four parts, but there are no chapters. Instead, when Durrell runs out of steam, we hit these abrupt breaks, and just as abruptly start up with something else. This can be irksome for the reader, with all these starts and stops, because just as we’re getting into something, we have to drop it and pay attention to something else. Accordingly, JUSTINE has a cloudy quality to it, like an undeveloped photograph, and the only clear thing that emerges is how obsessed the narrator is by Justine– the mysterious, elegant, beautiful, sensual wife of wealthy banker Nessim Hosnani.
The narrator of JUSTINE is un-named, and we don’t actually find out that his name is LG Darley until the end of BALTHAZAR. Of course LG Darley is a dead-ringer for Lawrence George Durrell, the author himself. When we first meet the narrator in JUSTINE, he is a Brit living in Alexandria who has a modest teaching job. One day, Justine accosts him after a lecture and takes him home to meet husband Nessim. And thus the machinery of the novel is set into motion (on page 29.)
Who is Balthazar? He is a close friend of Justine’s who holds weekly meetings, referred to by narrator L. G. Darley as the “Cabal.” Of course, he is a well-known member of the Jewish Community in Alexandria. If JUSTINE was incoherent, then BALTHAZAR is a more coherent version of the same story, told by the same narrator (L.G. Darley), with some extra background details that help us to make sense of the narrative, and chapters (!), which help with the flow of information.
By far my favorite of the four novels is MOUNTOLIVE, the story of a junior officer of exceptional promise at the Foreign Office, who scales the heights of the Diplomatic Services to become Ambassador. In Durrell’s hands it becomes much more than this, since these four novels are meditations and reflections on modern love. Of course MOUNTOLIVE provides all the juicy details about his personal life, as well as the office politics and intrigues of the British Embassy in Cairo and the British Consulate in Alexandria. The reason why this novel is my favorite is because it is the only one to have a coherent structure. All the anecdotes, digressions, free-associations and blind alleys are knitted together by having as a spine the story of Mountolive’s life and career. The other thing that is superb about this novel is the different perspective it gives on the story of the Hosnanis and their friends, which we have heard twice now, once in JUSTINE and once in BALTHAZAR.
CLÉA is the last novel, and not nearly as strong as MOUNTOLIVE. At least it actually has chapters, which give the narrative flow some shape. But like BALTHAZAR (and JUSTINE) there are too many rambles into the weeds for my taste. So much of these three novels (JUSTINE, BALTHAZAR and CLÉA) have a post-prandial air to them. They sound like someone who has just dined on French cuisine accompanied by exquisite wines. Slightly drunk, this raconteur is holding a brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other, telling one bizarre anecdote after another. Very entertaining if you are Durrell’s guest. But for a novel? Not so much. Three Stars.