Lawrence Durrell is famous for two reasons. Firstly he is the author of what many regard as one of the greatest literary achievements of the twentieth century (the subject of this review). Secondly, he is familiar to the many millions who read his brother’s hilarious reminiscences of a boyhood spent on the island of Corfu in My Family and Other Animals, in which he is affectionately portrayed as rather precious and pretentious, at least in the eyes of the young Gerald. If you approach The Alexandria Quartet in the hope of discerning which is the real Lawrence Durrell, you may just end up more confused than ever. I haven’t decided whether The Alexandria Quartet is a brilliant work of art or just a thousand pages of pretentious twaddle. Perhaps it is both. It is a series of books about everything and nothing, but mostly nothing.
To be fair to Durrell, if you don’t dare to pretend to greatness, how will you ever give yourself the chance of achieving it. And to continue with this being fair to Durrell thing, there are parts of these books where the writing is stunning. Unusual and brilliantly imaginative combinations of words describe things, people, events and feelings vividly and with great precision. This a bit hit or miss – at other times he seems just to be expending a great deal of ink (or pixels if you’re reading on Kindle like me) describing something which, arriving exhausted at the end of a paragraph, you realize is nothing at all. Still, It’s a tour de force, but there is no denying that many readers, myself included will need to force themselves to finish it.
The problem is that throughout the books he is basically repeating the same deep thoughts ad nauseam. Having found an intriguing way to express a thought or feeling, he proceeds to do the same, with slight variations throughout the whole bloody quartet, often in the form of over-ripe erudite dialogue that cries out for parody. In the absence of any significant plot, you are left with a bunch of characters to whom you can’t relate wandering around over-analyzing stuff and being deep. That’s really all there is.
The concept of the quartet is interesting. The same series of events are seen from four different perspectives, each adding information and often contradicting the narrative of the preceding ones. At least, that’s how it starts out. In Justine, the narrator, a preposterous aesthete who we later learn is called Darley, moons about the place contemplating his navel and that of his mistress Justine while behaving in a very ungentlemanly manner towards his girlfriend Melissa. That’s about it. Despite the quality of the writing, Justine is probably the most boring of all the books.
In Balthazar, Darley, now on a Greek island, receives a copy of his manuscript from an acquaintance in Alexandria. The manuscript is heavily annotated in ways that show Darley’s imperfect understanding of the events in the first book and especially of Justine’s motivations in having an affair with him. Balthazar is a bit more interesting than Justine because we are intrigued by these contradictions.
Mountolive is the most interesting of the books because the title character evokes rather more sympathy than Darley. The character of the brilliant writer Pursewarden begins to play a prominent role. The other characters constantly remark on how amusing he is. He is not. All kinds of things, people and events remind them of something clever he said in one of his books. God knows why!
In the fourth book, Clea, Darley is back, contemplating his navel. As he describes its contents in excruciating detail, we are not surprised, but nonetheless a little disappointed to find that they are still mostly fluff.
The idea of viewing the same events from different angles is interesting enough to have been imitated, notably by Iain Pears in An Instance of the Fingerpost. In The Alexandria Quartet, however, it’s as if someone painted a room four times and invited you to watch each coat dry. Top quality paint is used throughout and the end-result is quite a pretty color, though not as deep as it said on the can and a bit blotchy in places.
What you will not find painted on the wall is the much vaunted vivid depiction of Alexandria. Critics generally agree that Durrell does a bang up job of bringing the city to life. Strangely, while admiring his descriptions, I never got a feel for the place.
It’s not all boring. In Clea, Darley and Pursewarden’s sister Liza have to decide between their responsibility to posterity and Pursewarden himself in making up their minds whether to destroy his letters to her, which it appears constitute some of the most beautiful writing in the history of literature, but which would reveal a scandal that would destroy his reputation. That’s some pretty powerful stuff. And suddenly in the last book there is an action scene when Darley has to act quickly to save a drowning Clea. This is all the more powerful for being unexpected, popping up in the midst of a particularly eye-rollingly tedious series of ruminations about their feelings for each other. The character of the old sea dog Scobie and his improbable posthumous beatification would, in the hands of a writer with a lighter touch, be an amusing episode. All in all, however, it’s not enough to persuade you that the hours you spent reading the quartet could not have been better spent.
This is a confusing, paradoxical book. The emperor, one has to conclude, has no clothes. But aren’t they beautiful!
Some of them.
Note: I mentioned that Durrell is a tempting target for parody. Here’s an example.