Places: The Alexandria Quartet

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1962 (includes Justine, 1957; Balthazar, 1958; Mountolive, 1958; Clea, 1960)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Before and during World War II

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Alexandria

*Alexandria. Alexandria Quartet, TheEgyptian port city whose position, on the Nile Delta, has made it one of the most important trading cities in the Mediterranean and a magnet for an extraordinary mix of peoples and travelers. If one theme unites the complex web of political and sexual liaisons and betrayals layered throughout Durrell’s intricate sequence of novels, it is memory. Durrell calls Alexandria the “capital of Memory” and a place where “the wind blew out one’s footsteps like candle-flames,” making it the perfect setting for the rememberings and forgettings that are explored in his books.

A press attaché at the British embassy in Alexandria during World War II, Durrell describes with colorful vigor the city’s crumbling buildings, stultifying heat, and especially the mix of peoples–Jews, Copts, Greeks, English, and French as well as native Egyptians–who make up the city. It is this racial stew that provides the main impetus for Durrell’s story, as various English visitors–the teacher L. C. Darley, the author Percy Pursewarden, and the diplomat Sir David Mountolive–are seduced by Alexandria’s exotic atmosphere and sexual freedom. The theme of an inhibited Englishman becoming free in the warm, easy-going Mediterranean atmosphere was popular in postwar British fiction; it was a theme that Durrell would explore again and again.

Around his three Englishmen, Durrell assembles a cast of characters who represent every aspect of Alexandria: the Coptic financier Nessim Hosnani who, with his Jewish wife Justine, is revealed to be involved in political plots; the doctor S. Balthazar, whose cabalistic studies stand in for the extraordinary belief systems that are rife in the city; the exotic dancer Melissa who, as Darley’s lover, provides his entry into this society; the French sensualist George Gaston Pombal; the artist Clea Montis; and the garrulous old transvestite spy chief Joshua Scobie, who, in one of the novel’s more bizarre twists, evolves into a local saint. Between them, these characters represent not only the various races making up Alexandria’s population, but also the entire social mix from the very wealthy to the very poor. Moreover, the large cast of characters are not merely players in the drama but also aspects of the city itself. The characters move freely from high-society balls to the dark and threatening lairs of child prostitutes; from the cool, detached air of the British embassy to the fervid gossip-mongering of cafés and barber shops. Each fresh location casts a fresh light upon them, and each of the four Alexandria Quartet novels is named after one of them.

The overwhelming impression of the city projected through Durrell’s four novels is of a disturbing, almost threatening place in which betrayal at every level is a matter of course. Although the narrator, Darley, repeatedly feels guilty about betraying Melissa Artemis through his affair with Justine Hosnani, it is a relationship that is almost forced upon him by the city itself, that is inescapable precisely because of the hot-house atmosphere of Alexandria. Likewise, Nessim and Justine’s plots are presented not so much as power plays but rather as part of a way of life imposed by the history and multiracial character of the city. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the characters are drawn again and again to the more unsavory parts of the city, and the multifarious betrayals of the plot result in one suicide and several murders, it is clear that Durrell considers this beady mix of beliefs and sexual infidelities to be life-affirming.

Island

Island. Unnamed Greek island in the Cyclades group, where Durrell’s narrator, Darley, writes and then amends his memoirs of the city in Justine and Balthazar, and where he retreats at the end of Clea. The unnamed island may be related to the Greek island of Rhodes, where Durrell lived after his wartime experiences in Alexandria. Within The Alexandria Quartet, the Greek island serves to provide a clear emotional and spiritual contrast to the Egyptian city. Where Alexandria is full of named streets, buildings, and neighborhoods, the only detail revealed about the island is that it has no antiquities. Where Alexandria is described in a sensual language that is almost overly rich, the island receives virtually no description. Where Alexandria is crowded with characters, Darley is alone on the island, except for Justine’s daughter. The island, therefore, is a place of deliberate emptiness and silence to contrast with the only significant character in the book who is never described: life and excess of Alexandria.

Karm Abu Girg

Karm Abu Girg. Nessim Hosnani’s family estate outside Alexandria, vaguely located on the fringe of the desert, near Lake Mareotis. The most significant thing revealed about the estate is that visitors must abandon their cars and travel by ferry and horse to reach it. Like the Greek island, it contrasts sharply with Alexandria: It is a world of ancient, timeless rituals, quite unlike the twentieth century city. It is also a harsher, crueler world, in which Narouz Hosnani, Nessim’s brother, deals on equal terms with the desert Bedouin and crazed religious fanatics, and where he demonstrates his ability with the whip by using it casually to kill wild animals. Here the old lecher Paul Capodistria is apparently murdered after the set-piece shoot on Lake Mareotis that is the climax to Justine, and here Narouz is brutally killed in Mountolive. By the time the estate is revisited in Clea, it is decaying, nearly deserted, and fallen on hard times as a result of Nessim’s plotting and being left behind by the twentieth century.

BibliographyBegnal, Michael H., ed. On Miracle Ground: Essays on the Fiction of Lawrence Durrell. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1990. In a transcript of a 1986 lecture, Durrell explains his life and art. Other essays in this volume give mythological, Buddhist, and narratological perspectives on The Alexandria Quartet.Durrell, Lawrence. A Key to Modern British Poetry. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952. In the context of the book’s subject, Durrell presents the philosophical, artistic, and scientific ideas that underlie The Alexandria Quartet.Friedman, Alan Warren, ed. Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Contains the most comprehensive selection of essays on Durrell’s work. Included are early reviews of The Alexandria Quartet.Friedman, Alan Warren. Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet: Art for Love’s Sake. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. Shows that love presents “an endless potential for variations on a theme.”Pine, Richard. Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. The first book-length study of Durrell’s work to appear in the past twenty-five years. Based on Durrell’s diaries and notebooks.Unterecker, John. Lawrence Durrell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. A brief, incisive explanation of The Alexandria Quartet’s themes, such as love, the nature of reality, and the role of the artist.Weigel, John A. Lawrence Durrell. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A good summary of Durrell’s life and work. Selected bibliography.
Categories: Places