Or, A Reckoning With Sentimental Habits by Way of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet
There once was a man who wrote about the things that other people wrote. Oh, how he loved to celebrate his writers. He wanted them to succeed. He wanted them to be heroic in their work and in life. Something about their success made him feel hopeful about the world and himself.
The following lines appear on the first page of Justine, book one of British poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell’s four-novel series known as the Alexandria Quartet.
(I) light a lamp and limp about, thinking of my friends—of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora—precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria.
I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all! . . . (I) see that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.
I love the ache in the language here, the yearning to remember in order to understand the conflicts that took place in this mystical city. They were real conflicts, with consequences: as the phrase “limp about” implies, the narrator (a writer) has been physically wounded. These lines establish an alluring tension, a sense that love in the Egyptian city of Alexandria is a gauntlet, a test of spirit attempted together by these four friends.
Durrell’s phrase “none of us is properly to be judged” evokes the idea that in this place there can be proper and improper final judgments, an idea that makes the grim but thrilling insinuation that injustice can happen on the level of an entire fate. A few pages later, Durrell places his heroic friends in a space without time, where their existence and his comes to depend on memory:
I am thinking back to the time when for the four of us the known world hardly existed; days became simply the spaces between dreams, spaces between the shifting floors of time, of acting, of living out the topical . . . A tide of meaningless affairs nosing along the dead level of things, entering no climate, leading us nowhere, demanding of us nothing but the impossible—that we should be.
The romantic idea proposed here, that Alexandria’s greatness and his friends’ devotion will further his understanding of what it means to be, is admirable, as is how quickly Durrell delves right into these ideas in the first novel’s first pages. Life and love are difficult, and being is a writer’s true duty.
I read these early pages and adored them. I adored where I thought these novels would go. I thought I had found another pure and wonderful reading experience. I so wanted that to happen.
I came to Durrell via Henry Miller, an author who stands out for causing me more personal and artistic trouble than any other when I was young. When I think about his effect on me I’m reminded of an anecdote from Plato I read in college: “I was once present when someone was asking the poet Sophocles about sex, and whether he was still able to make love to a woman; to which he replied, ‘Don’t talk about that; I am glad to have left it behind me and escaped from a fierce and frenzied master.’”
Of course, Lawrence Durrell also had a Miller phase. They corresponded for decades, starting in 1935, when Durrell, pulled in by Miller in his early twenties (like me) after reading Tropic of Cancer, wrote to him. They hit it off, and Miller came to admire Durrell very much, too. They fueled each other’s artistic drive, debating who was the greater writer. As I read, I liked how Miller sounded as if he’d met his match.
Miller led me to Durrell, which led to this essay. I planned to celebrate what I had heard was an amazing series of books, and I loved the first one, but then, halfway through the second, I got some bad news via email: Durrell was not well-liked. In fact, some people thought he was so nasty they wouldn’t touch his books. This came as a surprise. I liked him because he was connected to Miller, and I knew Miller was a shit in many ways, but he wasn’t that bad, right? So I looked into this Durrell stuff. The results were not good. In a bad mood, I called my editor. She listened. I muttered. She said to keep writing. She counseled me. She said to tell it like it happened. Ugh, I thought. I had so wanted a way out of this. A reprieve. A change of assignment. Kill the piece and move on.
It’s hard to say why exactly, but what I had hoped would be a celebratory essay about love and artistry and great literature had been ruined by these accusations against Durrell. And the proof against him had been right there in the online archives of The New York Times all along. I didn’t know which part of it was worse: that I hadn’t known about this before pitching the piece, or that I had been so naïve in my desire to have another Miller to worship.
My anger made me ask why was I writing literary criticism in the first place. Why wasn’t I focusing on my fiction more? So much literary criticism is false and impersonal, and I feared this aspect of it. Artists are supposedly meant to be quirky, delicate, or raging, in order to succeed as profitable personalities. I could hear Miller laughing at my mistake in the tone of a grand artiste.
I used to read in order to let all manner of books have their way with me. I adopted this habit as part of my romantic training, so that I’d emerge later in life as the sort of deep, writerly man who could recite Homer while doing lots of push-ups. In private, of course. Reading would be my wholesome fuel. I would write madly and read widely, but not too much, lest I disturb the growth of my inner, bookish cool. It felt like my literary career was a fairly delicate thing to cultivate properly. I found the whole idea pretty charming.
Around 2008, well past the age of thirty and supported by rejection notices, I decided that for the time being my fiction wasn’t going to be published. I consoled myself with the thought that during this spell of disappointment the least I could do to participate in literary culture (a terrible phrase) was to try and review some books. So I did. Certain pieces were published and it did make me feel involved, as they say. But there was one major side-effect: I could no longer merely read and let a book drift into me. Now I read with the intent to opine, worrying about the very real possibility of being exposed for a rube. I had done a thoughtless thing and upset that fairly delicate process I had been tending to. “You sure did,” I heard Henry Miller say. I had given up for a while on romance, literature, and Art. Like a fallen man, I punished myself with some Samuel Johnson:
Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labor of learning those sciences, which may by mere labor be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic.
I hope it will give comfort to great numbers who are passing through the world in obscurity, when I inform them how easily distinction may be obtained. All the other powers of literature are coy and haughty, they must be long courted, and at last are not always gained; but Criticism is a goddess easy of access and forward of advance, who will meet the slow, and encourage the timorous; the want of meaning she supplies with words, and the want of spirit she recompenses with malignity. 
I even found a quality moment of self-flagellation in the Quartet. In Durrell’s fourth book, the narrator, a writer named Darley, tells Clea the painter that he’s thinking about setting his novel aside to write criticism. She slaps him. And, befitting the manner of my high, inner-drama, I felt the blow.
I thought that reading and writing about the Alexandria Quartetwould get me back in the Muses’ good graces. After all, it is called a powerful “investigation of modern love,” and Durrell is so little talked-about these days. Perfect for a sort of compromise-assignment to get me back on track.
As I started reading, I liked the fantasy of the artist that Durrell put on display. Those early lines were so heavy. It raised questions about the risks Durrell was taking. Would this book be a confession? An exploration? A defense? A sordid history? What was the “all” the narrator had to go so far away in order to understand? I started to write, to please that older vision of myself as writer. An early draft of this essay includes these lines:
I adore something about these books. I write to show how they belong to a vanished era, made by a vanished kind of writer, delivering prose that would not get a moment’s notice by publishers today. These books are great in a way that books will not be great anymore. I connect them to my past worship of Henry Miller, and I am glad to have found the books that killed the god who wrote the gospels of a good part of my youth. I know these comments must sound a bit wild. It’s my fault, not the Quartet’s. It’s what I project onto them, my deep gratitude for outshining Miller.
I adored Justine because it is proudly romantic and poetic. Each sentence and page builds upon the other to prove they could not have been written any other way. Realizing this stunned me. It seemed both vaguely and firmly true. I wasn’t sure what my thought meant, or if this response even made sense. But it seemed accurate: had Durrell done anything differently in terms of his narrative, the book would simply not be. And I don’t mean it would be a different book, better or worse, “effective” or “ineffective.” It would not be. Just as you or I would be different if interfered with by a slight switch in our DNA. The book would be wholly different. It would not live as art.
But the ugly accusations against Durrell were there in the Times: anti-Semitism; and, based on diary excerpts published in Granta, sexual abuse of his daughter, Sappho, who later committed suicide.
My romantic sense of purpose was extinguished, and my reading had been tainted. Were these things true? If so, would I see evidence between the lines of the Quartet? I kept reading, but not in the same way. I read as an investigator looking for dirt, aware that I was ruining my reading experience. These nasty things had happened after the Quartet was published, after all; clearly my knowledge of Durrell’s biography was intruding on his work. I was able to read for a while and forget, but later, more than once, unable to forget the accusations, I saw no point in finishing the books. I did, though.
Durrell’s narrative persona, and the Quartet’s central narrator, is named Darley. Over the course of the books, Darley learns an immensely hard lesson about love. He grows from a fierce romantic into someone else, due to a lot of deep pain and lost love. It helped in writing this piece that my disappointment with Durrell on a moral level paralleled Darley’s disillusionment with romantic love. It helped because it showed in double-barrel fashion that worship is dangerous.
However, it has not stopped my sentimental hope—equally dangerous—that one day I will again enjoy another pure reading experience. I imagine it will have to be one based on a calculated ignorance, because, stubbornly, I still do not want to confess that I should have seen it coming and that authors are just people. There must be at least a few artistic gods to worship. I want to know that there will be celebrations to come. I don’t really understand why that is, and in fact it would be so convenient to just divorce the art from the man. But that would only serve the cold, impersonal work of criticism. So I’m stuck here, in essay-land, muddling these things over, still very much impressed with and depressed by Durrell’s Quartet.
Book 1: JUSTINE
Justine is the most written of the four books and thus contains much that is beautiful. This novel has very little of Whitman’s “blab of the pave,” and in fact some of it is laughably overwritten. But it suits the novel’s purpose in the series: to chart Darley’s disillusionment with love, as a mark of his progress as an artist. In the later books, especially Mountolive, Durrell delivers good old soap-opera style plot satisfaction, turning the entire prism of the series to make fun of Darley’s gushy prose.
I defend Durrell’s language out of a conservationist impulse; I feel it’s dying. It may be entirely dead as a style with any contemporary power. It is unapologetically poetic and romantic. It also has a broad sympathy and humility pocked with racist and sexist commentary. Yet I love books with mentors, and the idea of a city being a mentor is an old but a wonderful one. Here the author is a student, a novitiate of the “Capital of Memory”:
At every corner the violet shadows fell and foundered, striped with human experience—at once savage and tenderly lyrical. I took it as a measure of my maturity that I was filled no longer with despairing self-pity but with a desire to be claimed by the city, enrolled among its trivial or tragic memories—if it so wished.
Durrell’s greatest powers are aphorism and worldly wisdom. He casually depicts the mores of sophistication and etiquette from around the world, endless customs, religious traditions, habits, fashions, language games, mannerisms, mingling as many people in Alexandria. As mortar there is his romantic decoration, as when he describes sweating during sex as “honey-sweating.” And there are countless moments of breathless noir, in pithy statements like, “We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love.”
In this first book, the most romantic of the four, the ruminative act of questioning and appreciating existence is a suspenseful element. This is slippery material. It can often lead nowhere. But one of Durrell’s great strengths in the series is his ability to find technical innovations that fit smoothly into the novel to raise important themes. We see Darley looking through his drafts and exercise books as he writes about his life and friends in Alexandria. This allows Durrell to quote material that would otherwise be expository, making the books a fluid blend of voices. It’s not an uncommon device, but he uses it as part of a larger scheme to prepare the reader for uncommon technical shifts.
Durrell makes his designs very apparent. He offers “Notes” to start each novel, little statements of purpose that both remove and add mystery, forcing attention back on to the narrative, where it often winds in clear and enjoyable, recursive circles. For instance, he later attributes one of these notes about narrative structure to the character named Pursewarden, who is a successful, troubled novelist. Pursewarden calls one of his techniques the “n-dimensional novel,” an approach he used for a trilogy he wrote, called “God is a Humorist.” But this is really Durrell broadcasting his approach to the Alexandria Quartet, or the one he’s attempting to use:
The narrative momentum forward is counter-sprung by references backwards in time, giving the impression of a book which is not travelling from a tomb but standing above time and turning slowly on its own axis to comprehend the whole pattern. Things do not all lead forward to other things: some lead backwards to things which have passed. A marriage of past and present with the flying multiplicity of the future racing towards one. Anyway, that was my idea . . .
Key to the success of this technique in Justine is the novel-within-the novel called Moeurs. It is a character portrait of Justine, whom Darley loves and has a passionate affair with. Conveniently, all the other main characters have read Mouers, too. As a device, it’s a sturdy way for Durrell to offer Justine’s backstory as a discussion among the other characters, and with it he also elevates the object of Darley’s love: he’s not the first one to have written a novel about her. This adds to her legend and her mystery, because we learn that this other author never figured out Justine either.
This self-referential angle is part of Durrell’s “refracted” narrative approach, part of his talk of mirrors. He accomplishes this as a calm literary progression, without any postmodern asides to wink at the reader. As Durrell has his narrator study the work of this other writer, the layers accrue quickly: the reflections multiply, characters reflect upon the knowledge of other characters, and we get to see all of these aspects. This structure, with its interpretations and counter-interpretations by other characters all seems very logical, given that they are well-educated writers or artists. They discuss each other’s lives, loves, and work. And Darley sees himself as the champion of the city’s spirit as he struggles to write:
The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this—that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold—the meaning of the pattern. For us as artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfill it in its true potential—the imagination.
Certainly many people will balk at his phrase “evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do” for sounding elitist, but the worshipful part of me wanted to argue that Durrell devoted himself to an ideal. Are idealists elitists? Perhaps. But Durrell wasn’t one to apologize for feeling strongly about his vocation, which he portrays as a sort of holy, artistic duty, praying for better abilities, as if blessing his own scribble: “So that the taste of this writing should have taken something from its living subjects—their breath, skin, voices—weaving them into the supple tissues of human memory. I want them to live again to the point where pain becomes art . . . Perhaps this is a useless attempt, I cannot say. But I must try.” (Durrell’s ellipses.)
Darley does hint that he knows he’s kidding himself. Foreshadowing the hard lessons to come, he writes, “A city becomes a world when one loves.” This idea is key to understanding that he does eventually see how fooled he was by his love for Justine, and it echoes for me the manner in which I was taken in by Durrell: maybe a frustrated author could become a world if he does penance as a hobbling critic who tries hard enough to love a “brilliant” writer’s work. In my early notes, before I got to book two and learned of the accusations of anti-Semitism and sexual abuse against him, I wrote: “Durrell’s fascination with how love finds a poetic logic to excuse most anything.” And the irony of this stings in hindsight.
I was taken with this quote: “I dream of a book powerful enough to contain the elements of her—but it is not the sort of book to which we are accustomed these days. . . . I would set my own book free to dream.” (Durrell’s italics.) Yes, I admit, with only a little shame, that he had me with that phrase, “I dream of a book.” I did. I do.
Book 2: BALTHAZAR
From Durrell’s introductory note to Balthazar:
[Modern] literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition.
Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern.
The three first parts, however, are to be deployed spatially . . . and are not linked in a serial form. They interlap, interweave, in a purely spatial relation. Time is stayed. The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel.
The subject-object relation is so important to relativity that I have tried to turn the novel through both subjective and objective modes. The third part, Mountolive, is a straight naturalistic novel in which the narrator of Justine and Balthazar becomes an object, i.e., a character.
This is not Proustian or Joycean method—for they demonstrate Bergsonian “Duration” in my opinion, not “Space-Time.”
The central topic of the book is an investigation of modern love.
These considerations sound perhaps somewhat immodest or even pompous. But it would be worth trying an experiment to see if we cannot discover a morphological form one might appropriately call “classical”—for our time. Even if the result proved to be a “science-fiction” in the true sense.
These technical concerns invade the story, as the books make numerous references to mirrors and curves, and Durrell is clearly reacting to Einstein’s theories. It makes for a nice set of parallel motifs: curved mirrors and memory; Einstein’s notions of curved space and time—with everything seeming shifty and chaotic within the Alexandrian universe, where people and loves can be killed for cheap.
In the early pages of Balthazar, Durrell writes: “Have I not said enough about Alexandria? Am I to be reinfected once more by the dream of it and the memory of its inhabitants? . . . A single chance factor has altered everything, has turned me back upon my tracks. A memory which catches sight of itself in a mirror.” That chance factor is the sheaf of comments that his friend Balthazar, a doctor, wrote about Darley’s book Justine (which of course we have just read in book one):
And there, lying upon the table in the yellow lamplight, lay the great interlinear to Justine—as I had called it. It was crosshatched, crabbed, starred with questions and answers in different-coloured inks, in typescript. It seemed to me then to be somehow symbolic of the very reality we had shared—a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or her individual traces, layer by later.
Must I now learn to see it all with new eyes, to accustom myself to the truths which Balthazar has added? It is impossible to describe with what emotion I read his words—sometimes so detailed and sometimes so briefly curt—as for example in the list he had headed “Some Fallacies and Misapprehensions” where he said coldly: “Number 4. That Justine “loved” you. She “loved,” if anyone, Pursewarden. ‘What does that mean?’ She was forced to use you as a decoy in order to protect him from the jealousy of Nessim whom she had married. Pursewarden himself did not care for her at all—supreme logic of love!
Durrell shows the whole plot as something internal to Darley, the narrator, and in fact in these first two books we see Durrell forcing his narrator toward deeper introspection: “And so, slowly, reluctantly, I have been driven back to my starting point, like man a man who at the end of a tremendous journey is told that he has been sleepwalking.” “I know that the key I am trying to turn is in myself.” Meanwhile, much of the language remains overwrought. I invented these terms: “potent economy,” and “narrative supersweetness.” They echo the material; it’s slightly embarrassing.
The plot involving the Hosnani family—the mother, Leila, and her two sons, Nessim and Narouz, is brilliantly delivered. Nessim is Justine’s husband. So, yes, Darley has been sneaking behind Nessim the whole time, or so Justine has led him to believe. The Hosnani plotlines contain hundreds of wonderful details. Leila’s life, for instance, is rendered as a sad epic: a brilliant scientist forced into marriage to a wealthy man, motherhood, and a life that ends with her living as—a “dethroned Empress, feeding her snake”—literally, she keeps a cobra as a pet. When guests visit the Hosnani estate, out of great courtesy and love the servants stop the clocks in the house because, as they bow and tell the guests, “Your visit is so brief.” The desert legend of Eblis—“the Moslem Satan”—pops up. During a pleasant horseback ride around the grounds, Narouz pauses near a creek, not just to let his horse get a drink but to open his saddlebag and neatly dispose of a human head, as he smiles in embarrassment at his brother. Sure, Durrell’s prose is purple, but the man can make a plot and his characters waltz with the best of them. All the above details appear in a stretch of about eight pages.
The shift of Balthazar forcing Darley to re-imagine the past is no simple act of adding a new point of view. It develops Darley as a character. We get to see how he’s influenced by the knowledge of others, who each represent an aspect of the human character, in turn, an aspect of Alexandria (the four novels’ gravitational center, if you buy the Einsteinian stuff). Durrell also has Darley doubt his version of events, not to add a level of cheap unreliability but to make him human. Because the truth about memory is that it’s a terrible source from which to try and recreate any kind of reality. Even for a great artiste. So we get these portraits of key characters that change as we see them from the eyes of the other portraits.
Meanwhile, our Alexandrian gang of lovers and spies see that “news from Europe was getting worse every day.”
Book 3: MOUNTOLIVE
Here Durrell turns the trick he describes in the introduction to Balthazar, namely, “The third part, Mountolive, is a straight naturalistic novel in which the narrator of Justine and Balthazar becomes an object, i.e., a character.”
Everything in the first two novels is shown in book three to be Darley’s silliness and Balthazar’s misinterpretation. A Palestinian arms plot is the real axis, or so Durrell has enjoyed making us think. It’s a really wonderful use of a conventional novel—thrown like a bomb into the world of the first two novels—as a way to shake up the romanticized world that Darley created. Like the truth, for me, of who Durrell was as a person, not a novelist. Essentially, this is the book in which religion and politics have their way with the cast of characters. Or, it’s the book in which Durrell relents and shows the political and religious layer of what’s been going on. It’s the strongest case for his so-called Einsteinian approach, though it’s not an absolute proof.
The third book is told from the perspective of a heretofore minor character named David Mountolive, a member of the British Foreign Office. As a young man, perhaps twenty, he has a love affair with the forty-year-old Leila Hosnani, mother of the brothers Nessim and Narouz. He then leaves Egypt to serve in posts abroad for many years. The episodes described during this period are highly autobiographical and based on Durrell’s time working in similar posts. They present a very self-deprecating view of a British bureaucrat, echoing much of what Henry Miller wrote about in his trilogy, The Rosy Crucifixion, when he worked for Western Union, which he dubbed the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company.
As Mountolive’s career progresses, he is eventually able to secure a major promotion as Ambassador to Egypt, a plum post for him because he speaks Arabic very well, and it will of course bring him closer once again to Leila, for whom he still pines. However, Leila has in the meantime survived smallpox, which has left her face scarred. She is too ashamed to see him. They keep up this game even though they’re now living so close to one another after wishing for just such an arrangement for many years.
By presenting this completely divergent plot via Mountolive’s character Durrell is exploding the myths that were central to Darley’s story in the first two books. While Balthazar’s notes, called “the great Interlinear,” on Darley’s manuscript of the novel Justine rattled Darley—basically making him out to be a pawn in Justine’s game—only when we get to Mountolive’s story do we see the scope and scale of the game. It’s massive. It’s international and has to do with Nessim and Justine (and many other allies in Alexandria) running arms to support “Jewish underground fighters in Haifa and Jerusalem.”
With each chapter of Mountolive, a piece of Darley’s romantic tale is pulverized and shown to be purely imagined because he was so enrapt by Justine. In wanting her to be someone else, someone he could write a novel about, to counter the novel-within-the-novel Moeurs, he willfully kept himself blind to what was really going on. Not that Darley could have known. No one knew the truth back then, although they all find out later on in book four, Clea. But Darley really looks like an egomaniac, one happy to let his imagination run wild—a portrait of the artist as a statement about all artists on Durrell’s part, one which is merciless, but not spiteful; one that shows how many works of art are built on lies and self-delusion, and nevertheless yield beautiful glosses on the surface of sharp, cold facts.
We get to see what was really going on behind all the vague gestures, phone calls, running around and so forth that Darley interpreted as signs of love. It is disappointing to find out that even in this endlessly romantic tale of mystery and longing those in power, the rich and the politically well-connected, have really been running the show. But Durrell even undercuts this point in Clea, as the war later ends and the powerful end up as vulnerable and mortal as the impoverished artists, prostitutes, children, and others.
Central to all of this is the religious and political situation between the Copts and Jews and the Egyptian government. A British general named Maskelyne believes there is a “Conspiracy Among the Copts,” to overthrow the Royal House of Egypt. Mountolive doesn’t believe it, because he’s old friends with Nessim, and of course in love with Nessim’s mother, Leila. But Durrell writes that, “The brains of Egypt, as you know, is its foreign community.” Nessim is bent on getting Copts into the Egyptian government, their rightful place, as he sees it. And Nessim criticizes “the stupid and backward Arab National element” because “they are already flirting with Hitler.” So, the story is not all sex, sighing, and exotic foods anymore. We’ve got old hatreds among races, imperialism, a brewing world war, the beginnings of the Holocaust, carpet bombing and atomic weapons, secret police, arms deals, assassinations. It all intrudes very suddenly into the middle of this experimental series of novels about romance.
Mountolive ends with a terrifying scene where Mountolive gets drunk and wanders into the city, only to end up in a brothel filled with little girls. It is so simple and nightmarish, I sort of wish I’d never read it. There is also a wonderful scene later on, set at dusk, with Narouz drunk off whiskey and using a bullwhip to kill bats in mid-air as he stands on a high balcony of the Hosnani family estate.
Near the end, Durrell gets to laugh a little about the novelistic maze he’s created. He drops the line: “Love is every sort of conspiracy.” It’s a loaded statement, the fuse of which was lit and has already exploded by way of Mountolive exploding all of Darley’s love-addled myths.
Book 4: CLEA
We are back in Darley’s hands now as narrator, but not before the fourth and final author’s note from Durrell:
This is the fourth volume of a group of novels intended to be judged as a single work. It is a sequel to Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive. Together the four novels constitute The Alexandria Quartet; a suitable descriptive subtitle would be “a word continuum.” The prefatory note to Balthazar has already described my intentions as far as the form of the books is concerned.
Among the workpoints at the end of this volume I have sketched a number of possible ways of continuing to deploy these characters and situations in further installments—but this is only to suggest that even if the series were extended indefinitely the result would never become a roman fleuve (an expansion of the matter in serial form) but would remain strictly part of the present word-continuum. If the axis has been well and truly laid down in the quartet it should be possible to radiate in any direction without losing the strictness and congruity of the continuum. But to all intents and purposes the present set of four volumes may be judged as a completed whole.
As I’ve said, Darley wises up in this novel, which is a bit sad. Alexandria’s not so dreamy after being bombarded during the war: “For my part I had come to see it as it must always have been—a shabby little seaport built upon a sand-reef, a moribund and spiritless backwater.” But even this assessment seems forced. By the novel’s end, this too changes in Darley’s mind.
The grand turn hidden in this last book hinges on the title character, Clea. She is a painter, and to try and prove his belief that pain acts as a freeing mechanism for artists, Durrell has Clea lose one of her hands. It’s a scene that made me want to reach into the book and strangle Balthazar and Darley for their stupidity. Durrell then, not plausibly—but how much of that has there been in this word continuum anyway?—makes Clea happy about her new mechanical hand. And her words to Darley, as he is now alone and suffering at an indecisive point in his life, show Durrell perform a very nice trick: He manages to gather up the threads he’s been flinging into the air and makes something solid and whole. He shows Darley’s launch as an artist, based on a renewed sense of belief in himself as a writer, and in doing so, Durrell offers a line that unmasks Darley as his narrative persona. Durrell appears, with his Darley mask turned up, and speaks to us directly to deliver a line he hopes will make us go out and be artists, or something like that:
Yes, one day I found myself writing down with trembling fingers the four words (four letters! four faces!) with which every story-teller since the world began has staked his slender claim to the attention of his fellow-men. Words which presage simply the old story of an artist coming of age. I wrote: “Once upon a time. . .”
And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!
Without the context of the preceding 1,200 pages, this last line—and that inexcusable exclamation point to end the entire Quartet—seems deeply cheesy. It’s embarrassing to say I like it now that I’ve typed it out and made it plain here. It had a rousing little effect on me when I first read it.
To Durrell’s great credit, I cannot say I liked any one book of the four best. They are a whole. They seemed to gain value with each successive book. Yet they can each stand on their own. So perhaps Durrell did accomplish something technically that no one else has ever done in quite this way, in terms of an account of an experience, “the life of an echo,” as Clea puts it near the end of book four.
As for my early love of Durrell’s work, which took such a blow, I offer Darley’s judgment of himself for having been so foolish as to love Justine, who used him: “The real culprit was my love which invented an image upon which to feed.”
If we are to advance as readers (and writers, if you’re the type), to learn to see more clearly, we occasionally must reappraise the tools we use to read. Does being a critic and a writer help or hinder? Is my nostalgia too costly? And—careful here—do I care? Last of all, am I not in some way meant to learn something about my humanity from this reading and writing experience? I have to say yes. I am pushed to say there is something to learn. Though I feel I am fighting what it is exactly.
Accusations of anti-Semitism and the sexual abuse of children are too serious to gloss over; to do so would be arrogant, self-serving, irresponsible, and impossible. In feeling ambivalent about this project’s success I can only say for now that once again reading and writing about books has made a difference in my life. Sure. And something else. Maybe, in homage to Durrell and his horrific failings as a person I could say, “It has brought me sad delight at the world’s complexity.” But even that sounds like a staged remark. I suspect that even these final doubts and throat-clearings are part of a fairly convenient final analysis.
Then again, part of me doesn’t care what it might mean. It just wants to mourn the death of some indistinct thing that once meant something to me. Beyond that idea, too, I want to stop all this. There is only room and time for so much analysis. There’s been far too little enjoyment. And there is so much else to read. So much else to write.
Lesson learned. Something lost, something gained. (I hope.) Onward.
Postscript: This essay was first published in 2010 at The Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal that no longer exists. My thanks to Veronica Esposito for the editorial support at that time.