In my early twenties, I read The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, and now decades later, I’ve come back to it. I finished reading it again, and I have to say, I’ve spent the last two weeks hypnotized by it. But aside from the luxurious language, and the sensuous world created, the larger conception of the four volumes is audaciously ambitious and deals with themes that have haunted me for most of my life.
Durrell says the structure of The Quartet was based on Einsteinian principles: the three dimensions of space and one of time. Not in any literal sense, but rather metaphorically: the first three books describe a tale from three different points of view, and the fourth picks up the story later in time. In describing The Quartet, I’m about to give a kind of spoiler, but I think it’s necessary, because without a full description of the plan of The Quartet, you might be tempted to bail after the first volume. That would be a mistake. So…
The novels are set in Egypt, between the two world wars. The first volume, Justine, is told in first person by a somewhat struggling British school teacher and writer named Darley, whose circle of friends includes civil servants in the Alexandria Foreign Office. Durrell’s Alexandria is a city of intoxication and deception: it’s a major character in the love story of Darley with the mysterious Justine, a Jewish woman married to a rich Arab banker. The story is told in exquisite language, and Durrell has an almost Dickensian ability to sketch characters who are distinctly humorous and memorable set within the city brought to life in all its frenetic, teeming activity.
But it’s not until the second volume that the larger plan of The Quartet begins to unfold: in volume two, Balthazar, the same story is re-told, but this time from the point of view of a friend of Darley’s, Balthazar. Balthazar sends a letter to Darley which completely upends Darley’s view of what had happened during his affair.
Volume three, Mountolive is told in third person; it too recounts the events of the first two novels, this time largely from the point of view of the chief British ambassador to Alexandria, Mountolive. Not only are the first two versions of the story completely upended, but the misunderstandings are now played out on the macro level, a result of world power politics of which the narrators in the first two books had no understanding. By the end of this volume, the true nature of The Quartet becomes clear. We are actors in a world of incomplete information and so, necessarily, the lives we live are fictional creations of our own construction.
The fourth volume, Clea, moves on in time. It is about six years later after the events of the first three volumes, and Darley, eventually learns most—but not all—of what really happened (even the reader does not get to know the complete story). But again he is forced to reassess the events again, and especially his own feelings towards Justine and the others. He returns to Alexandria, trying to pick up the threads of his life, and here the novel becomes a meditation on the confrontation of the past with the present, and coming to terms with what has changed and what has remained the same. This volume is slower, told more leisurely, with more asides. I think this makes very good sense. The ending is very satisfying as the hypnotic spell is gently broken. I felt as if I had been in the meditation flotation tank; the music is slowly coming back on, gently waking me back to the present reality.
I don’t really know what the present reputation of The Quartet is among serious writers and critics of modern literature. Perhaps there is something old hat about it now. I don’t know. There is, definitely, a certain amount of casual racism, Orientalism, and British colonial attitude through much of it. But I know also that for two weeks I lived in a dream, not able to let it go, mesmerized by the intoxicating tale(s) of Lawrence Durrell.