Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet

On a flight not too long ago, my plane flew over a coastal region that shimmered in the dark. The sight gave me goosebumps, not from fear but from an inexplicable wonder. The captain soon announced that we were flying over Alexandria.

Alexandria. The city that, even from thousands of feet below, had impressed in me something ineffable; perhaps the tiniest psychic glimpse into why it has forever haunted the Cavafies, the Forsters, the Durrells, and the Acimans of the literary world.

Alexandria, where the legendary library once stood. Or should I say mouseion, as Lawrence Durrell does in Justine? This predecessor of the word museum, a space where the muses reside, the word which led me to ask; what do we keep in the museums of our mind?

The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea — “intended to be judged as a single work,” wrote the author.

Justine is introduced to us by our unnamed narrator, and through a book a former lover has written about her that the narrator is reading. (A subtle acknowledgement to the storytelling traditions of the region? In addition, it should not escape us that the narrator’s criticism of the book within the book has allowed Durrell to present Justine in two different ways. Genius!)

The city is introduced synchronously through Durrell’s inimitable writing — sensual, alive, with a soft texture, “like flesh,” as I imagine Marguerite Yourcenar would say. Even at this point, he already leaves you wondering how it is possible to scrutinize a city and simultaneously dissect relationships so breathtakingly and so profoundly.

The captivating stage is set. There is a rumor of a second World War, there are Jews, Copts, Arabs, Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, Frenchmen, and Englishmen in a chaotic, amoral brew. 

Amid the muddle, Durrell reads your mind and puts your words into the nameless narrator’s mouth, “I tried to tell myself how stupid all this was — a banal story of an adultery which was among the cheapest commonplaces of the city: and how it did not deserve romantic or literary trappings. And yet, somewhere else, at a deeper level, I seemed to recognize that the experience upon which I had embarked would have the deathless finality of a lesson learned.”

You’d suspect Justine is a metaphor for Alexandria, “For she is truly Alexandrian… she cannot be justified or excused. She simply and magnificently is; we have to put up with her.” By the end of the first book, you would think you are well-acquainted with the characters and with the city.

But no, the rest of the Quartet is there to prove you wrong over and over again. Balthazar turns everything upside down. Mountolive, more so. Clea, even more. Balthazar and Mountolive are not sequels; they re-contextualize the same story. Only Clea is a true sequel, but the whole Quartet is meant to shatter you. Even the sympathy that clings to the characters are carefully and painfully peeled away. Indignant, you cannot help but ask, “Why? What for?”

Then you remember, these 20th century writers are psychoanalysts and philosophers. They never let you have it easy. They write to question a reader’s perceptions and assumptions. They are masters in geopolitics and they effortlessly weave its nuances into the places and the characters, and the people become an extension of the spirit of the city, of the age. They write to counter and re-examine memory.

Love? That is what everyone says of this body of work. What hasn’t been said about this elegiac Quartet? This is not an education on how to live or love — if anything, I personally think it is an education on how not to — but I have found that it is an education on the creative process, writing to a point where pain becomes art, a paean to the difficulty of writing about truth, the human heart’s selected fictions and affections, relationships, a city, a person, memory, and their multi-faceted prisms… the very things that we keep in the museums of our mind.