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RevisitingLawrenceDurrellsTheAlexandriaQuartet
PaulM.Curtis
Addcomments
2013,Essays,
Nonfiction,NumroCinq
Magazine,Vol.IV,No.5,
May2013

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Like Paul Curtis, as a young writer I was enthralled by Lawrence Durrells four
astoundingnovelsJustine,Balthazar,Mountolive&Clea together knownas
TheAlexandriaQuartet.Icantcountthevividsnippetsofsceneanddialoguethat
still float up in my mind: especially the end of Clea when the painters wounded
handcansuddenlypaintasherehealthyhandhadneverbeenabletodoorthe
momentwhenthefecklessjournalist(aminorcharacterthroughout)returnsfrom
war in the desert, a tan, golden warrior who has suddenly found his place in
existence. Yes, I love the transformations at the end of the quartet, when time
suddenlymovesforward.Ilovedthemysteriousandineffablysadhandprintson
the brothel walls, Justines mad search for her stolen child, and Pursewardens
epigrams (I began to learn to write epigrams reading The Alexandria Quartet).
There are so many things I tried to copy here as a beginning writer (the faux
EinsteinianstructureandthePursewardenendnotes,forexample),somanyideals
inhaledandtransformedtomyownuses.
I met Paul M. Curtis during my East Coast reading tour last November and we
discoveredabondoverbeerattheTide&BoarinMoncton,abondthatincluded
dogsandDurrell.Heoffershereanalltoobriefglancebackwardatthenovelofhis
youth. He began the project half afraid that what he had remembered so
passionatelymightnotholdupintheyearsofwisdom.Buthisessaysentmeback,
andwhenIwenttomybookshelvestogetthebook,Irealizedmycopywasgone,a
gifttooneofmysonsinwhomIhopeitignitesthesameconflagrationitdidinmy
heart.AndIhopethisessaysendsourreaderstotheQuartetaswell,anexperience
you should not miss, the brilliant, elaborate structure, the explosive lava flow of
language,thestarkviewofmodernlove,theredemptionofart.
dg

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Benjamin Boo-dard
@woodardwriter

6h

As a teacher, I would never force a


student to contact an author for a
graded project. That's unfair to both the
student and the author.
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22h

Otto Edouard Pippel


Piano la lueur des Bougies
1941 pic.twitter.com/qn5F52wSUZ
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.

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pianist
@PianoAndVideos

At the time when we knew [Pursewarden] he was reading hardly


anything but science. This for some reason annoyed Justine who took
himtotaskforwastinghistimeinthesestudies.Hedefendedhimselfby
saying that the Relativity proposition was directly responsible for
abstract painting, atonal music, and formless (or at any rate cyclic
formsin)literature.Onceitwasgraspedtheywereunderstood,too.He
added:IntheSpaceandTimemarriagewehavethegreatestBoymeets
Girlstoryoftheage.(B,142)[1]

6h

F. Chopin, Tarantelle in A-flat major, Op.


43 [Aldo Ciccolini, piano] is.gd/2xo7Qy
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@Libroantiguo

6h

"Morbidus and the sea monster", Jean


of Wavrin, Recueil des croniques
dEngleterre. France, c.1470-1480.
pic.twitter.com/tSLuAievMJ
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you might try a fourcard trick in the form of a novel, passing a


commonaxisthroughfourstories,say,anddedicatingeachtooneofthe
four winds of heaven. A continuum, forsooth, embodying not a temps
retrouvbutatempsdlivr.
PursewardentoBrotherAss(C,135)

heyear2012wasthecentenaryofthebirthofLawrence
George Durrell, and the event was celebrated with The
Guardians online reading group of The Alexandria
Quartet(195760),thepublicationby Faberofanewedition
of the Quartet (with a specially commissioned intro by Jan
Morris)andanimportantconferenceinLondonsponsoredby
theInternationalLawrence DurrellSociety. Durrell wasborn
inJullundurinthePunjab,India,27February1912,thesonof
AngloIndian parents who had never been to England. The
circumstances of Durrells birth, while distant from the
mother country, pluralized his identity as AngloIndianIrish
(Irish on his Mothers side). Born into colonial exile, the
religious and political ideologies of Edwardian England,
Home of the eccentric and the sexually disabled (M, 85),
hauntedtheyoungDurrellthroughhisfirstthreenovels:Pied

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Benjamin Boo-dard
@woodardwriter

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@jilltalbot @MrBearStumpy
@NumeroCinq555 Thanks so much, Jill!
That means so much to me. Glad you
liked it.
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PiperofLovers(1935),PanicSpring(1937)andtheTheBlack
Book(1938).[2]Sinceoneishauntedonlybywhatthesenses
cannotperceive,Durrellhadtoturnuponhisinnerselfandto
exorcisemuchofhisEnglishnessinordertobecomeanartist.
Through the creation of his symbolist knstlerroman, The
Black Book, he first heard the sound of [his] own voice
(Preface,TheBlackBook, 1960, 13).[3] As a young bohemian
intheLondonofthelate1920s,Durrellwaspolymathicinhis
ambition, a lover of Elizabethan literature, an alluring
presencewithapowerfulsexuality.Yet,hegrewintoamanof
contradictions,bestsummarizedbyMarcAlyn:
Here is a recluse who loves being surrounded by people a hedonist
whose great pleasure is asceticism a lazy man who never stops
working a man who finds joy in despair a traveller who enjoys
nothingmorethanquietcontemplationadandytrulyathiseasein
the company of tramps and vagrants a novelist whose major
preoccupationispoetryanenemyofliteraturewhogivesthebestof
himselftohiswork.[4]
IncelebrationofthecentenaryIhadthe
good fortune to embark upon a fresh
readingofThe Alexandria Quartet with
several

upperyear

undergrads

at

lUniversit de Moncton, and we were


joinedbyseveralmembersofMonctons
veryvibrantandbilingualcommunityof
readers. Celebration aside, the objective
of the reading was to determine if the
Quartetstillhaditthepowertohold
todays reader in an intimate and
potentially redemptive connection with
the work. I remember clearly thirtytwo
yearsagowhenIreadtheQuartet,myfirstcontactwithDurrell.Ispent
one uninterrupted week in a glut of reading Justine, Balthazar,
MountoliveandClea.Thesetpiecesareunforgettable:thehuntonLake
Mareotis,theCarnivalinallitsexcess,ortheSitnaDamianacelebration
andtheslaughterofthecamelsinthedesertencampment.Inthewakeof
thereadingIrememberfeelingasifIwereheldinacocoonofsensation
generatedbytheexoticismofthesettinginparticularAlexandria,the
greatwinepressoflove,thecapitalofMemory(J14, 188), thecradle
ofallourscientificideas,[5]theAlexandriaofthehumanestate(C,223)
and being moved equally by the literary ambition of the series. Rarely
have I had such an intense reading experience, and I was aware at the
timethattheoriginalityoftheQuartetsformhadmarkedmeasareader.
I was not aware to what extent, however. With the help of our Moncton
reader/criticsIwantedtodetermine,inthewakeoftheEgyptianSpring,
iftheQuartet would produce a similar effect on firsttime readers, and,
secondly, to test if the seductions of Durrells prose would leave me
vulnerable and critically lame as they had the first encounter. As our
readingproceeded,theeffectonthefirsttimerswasstrongandpositive,
andthis in spiteof the apparentdevaluation ofDurrellsreputation as a
lateModernistwritersincehisdeath,aconfirmedBuddhist,7November
1990.Fromapersonalperspective,IcametorealizethattheQuartethad
beenmyaestheticstandardforthenovelistictreatmentsoftimeandlove,
and, even more destabilizing to realize, that this standard had been in
silent, unconscious but continuous operation since my first reading. No
smallclaimforonewhosejobisprofessingobjectively.Thenagain,ifthe
QuartetsRelativitypropositionholdstrue,thestartingpointforevery
reader,amateurorprofessionalalike,partakesofarelativityparticularto
eachandwhosedictatesdetermineeachreading.

The scope of the novel is grand with


various settings in Alexandria, Cairo and
an unnamed island in the Cyclades. The
novel begins with the Englishman
DarleysarrivalinAlexandriain1933and
concludes in 1945 after his second stay
there through the war.[6] The grandness
ofthesetting,however,islittlecompared
toDurrellsambitionsfortheformofhis
novel.

Durrell,

poet,

novelist,

playwright, painter (as Oscar Epfs) and


a

playful

philosopher

(an

Epfsistentialist!), is everywhere concerned with form. As laid out in his


importantPrefacetoBalthazar,thesecondvolume,hewantedtowritea
fourdecker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition.
Durrelllatercalledthisambitionpompouspresumablybecausethelinkto
early TwentiethCentury physics is tenuous. I remember one waggish
critic commenting that surely one couldnt fly to Mars after reading the
Quartet.Durrelllaterexplainedthathewantedtocreateabridgebetween
Einstein and Freud, whom he cites in the first epigraph to Justine. The
young and aspiring writer Darley is the firstperson narrator of the
eponymous Justine. The narrative point of view is crucial here because
DarleynarrateshisloveaffairsfirstwithMelissa,atuberculardancehall
girl of serene resiliency, and then concurrently with Justine, the deeply
flawed mythical figure who is also a powerful and powerhungry
AlexandrianJewess.Whenitcomestomenwhogenuinelylikewomen,
Durrell once observed, each of them is quite simply a mythical being
(Conversations, 30). Melissa is described as washed up like a half
drownedbirdwithhersexbroken(J,24).HoweverpowerlessMelissa
might be over her life and lovers, the acceptance of her solitude
transformsherintoapowerfulforceofagape.[7]Justinesmythicalbeing,
by contrast, is aligned with beauty and a deathdealing political power.
She has the austere mindless primitive face of Aphrodite (J, 109)
divine beauty, yes, but beauty unblemished by a conscience. Whereas
Melissas presence is positive and loving, Justines influence is death
propelled (M, 197), hence thanatic. [Justine] was not really human
nobodywhollydedicatedtotheegois(J,203).
At the conclusion of the first volume,
JustinedisappearsandDarleyretreatsto
an island in the Cyclades to lick his love
wounds. Once there, he writes an MS
whichbecomes,metafictionally,thenovel
Justine, the first novel of the Quartet.
The Balthazar of the second volume is a
homosexual Alexandrian doctor and
cabalistwholivesandworksatthecentre
of the novels expat society. In
Balthazar, related again from Darleys
point of view, Durrell creates the device
of the great interlinear (B, 21), a
massiveanddetailedcommentarywrittenbyBalthazaronwhatmustbe
DarleysMSofJustine.ThegeniusofDurrellstechniqueistorelativize
or,betterstill,recreatetheeventsofthefirstnovelthroughthedevice
of Balthazars interlinear. Balthazar has an eye for association and the
logic of continuum over that of sequence: But I love to feel events
overlapping each other, crawling over one another like wet crabs in a
basket (B, 125). From Balthazars interlinear the reader infers that her
taskisdoubled:oneshouldreadbetweenthelinesofbothBalthazarand
the Justine it destabilizes. As Darley comes to realize that Justine has
used him for political ends and that she loves the other older writer

LudwigPursewarden,thereadershareshisdeceptionwithanontological
frisson.
But

the

relativism

continues

with

Mountolive.Thethirdnovelisremarkable
for the political overlay it provides to the
previous two, and especially because its
apparently banal naturalistictechnique is
heldinsharpcontrasttotheinventiveness
of its content. Durrell called Mountolive
theclou[8] of the series, and in it he re
shuffles the fourdecker yet again.
Within

the omniscient

thirdperson

narrative technique, Darley becomes an


objective character, much as he thought
theothers had been from his firstperson
perspective in Justine and Balthazar. Pursewarden, the political officer
servingAmbassadorDavidMountolive,getscaughtintheknotofplotand
takes his own life, but not before he has revealed the cause of his
deceptionbywritingamessageonamirror.Themessageisthepolitical
and symbolic crux of the novel: politically, because it reveals
PursewardensunwittingselfdeceptionwithregardtoJustinesFaustian
compact (M, 201) on behalf of the nascent Jewish state symbolically,
because the surface of this mirror reveals for once its depths that have
been hidden in plain sight. As implied within Keats famous epitaph,
HereliesOne/WhoseNamewaswritinWater,thecarefulreaderhasa
momentary and awful glimpse of the depths below the surface of reality
that, to the more casual, has always seemed to be everywhere intact,
constant, reliable. As we read very early on in Justine, Our common
actionsinrealityaresimplythesackclothcoveringwhichhidesthecloth
ofgold the meaning of the pattern. Once we catch a glimpse of this
meaning, we behold what Durrell has called the Heraldic Universe, the
natural home of the imagination from where it makes sudden raids on
theinarticulate(Conversations,136).
The first three novels are siblings, as Durrell explains in the note to
Balthazar,andarenotlinkedinaserialform.Theyinterlap,interweave,
in a purely spatial relation. Time is stayed. The fourth part alone will
representtimeandbeatruesequel.
You see, Justine is written by Darley. Its his autobiography. The
second volume, Balthazar, is Darleys autobiography corrected or
revised by Balthazar. In Mountolive, written by me, Darley is an
objectintheoutsideworld.Cleawouldbethenewautobiographyof
Darley some years later, in Alexandria once again (Conversations,
41).
In Clea, the maturer Darley returns to
Alexandria now engulfed by the Second
World

War.

The

Vichy

frigates,

symbolising the western consciousness


(B,105),lieunderarrestatanchorinthe
harbour the crew members, however,
havethepermissiontocarrysmallarms.
The blonde blueeyed painter Clea,
modelled after Durrells third wife, the
Alexandrian ClaudeMarie Forde, has a
significant presence in all three previous
novels. Like Darley, she too is an artist
evermoreabouttobe,andshepaintsthe
portraits of several characters including that of Justine, with whom she
had an affair. The tetralogy holds forth the promise of redemption by

means of Cleas transformation into the artist at the novels conclusion.


Only art has the power to free humanity from its own perversions,
eminentlythecaseinAlexandriabeforeaworldrunriotwithfascistego.
In Cleas apartment, defenceless against a nighttime bombing raid, she
andDarleybecomelovers.Howevergenuinetheirlovemightbe,itcomes
from a mismatched readiness and founders temporarily. Their love
succeeds ultimately, however, through Darleys newfound willpower of
desirelessness (Conversations, 119), the Taoist posture from which one
respects,contemplatesandyetengagesNature.
WhenyoureadCleaIhopeyouwillfeelthatDarleywasnecessarily
as he was in Justine because the whole business of the four books,
apartfromotherthings,showsthewayanartistgrowsup.Iwanted
toshow,intheflounderingDarley,howanartistmayhavefirstclass
equipmentandstillnotbeone.[9]
BeforeClearealizesherselfasanartistatthenovelsconclusion,Durrell
creates a remarkable parable of rebirth. The scene takes place in an
underwater gallery off the legendary islet of Timonium, where, in the
ruinsoftheirworldwelllost,AntonyandCleopatrafledafterActium(C,
227). Cleas right wrist, her brush hand, is pinned underwater
accidentally. Darley must deform the hand to release her and to regain
thesurface.Inalifesavingactofresuscitationthatisthesimulacrumof
lovemaking, the forces of eros and thanatos are held in momentary
equilibrium over the unconscious Clea before she splutters back to
consciousnessand,subsequently,tohernewlifeasartist.

The second epigraph to this essay occurs in the second chapter of the
secondBookofClea,[10]andappearsinPursewardensdiaryentitledMy
Conversation with Brother Ass. His imagined interlocutor is Darley. In
additiontobeingtheQuartetsforemostnovelist,Pursewardenservesas
Durrells artistic consciousness of the series. On Pursewarden as
character, Durrell observes teasingly, You must become a Knowbody
beforeyoubecomeaSunbody(Conversations,73). Pursewarden knows
thedifficultlessonsoflove,evenincestuouslove,andhisribaldwitshines
throughtheentirenovel.Thereadersreflexistogiveweighttoeverything
hesayssincehe,ineffect,compelsit.Welive,hedeclaimsearlyonin
Balthazar, lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is
conditionedbyourpositioninspaceandtimenotbyourpersonalities
as we like to think (B, 14). Pursewarden is the first to articulate the
fictionofpersonalityand,inparticular,thedangerposedbytheego.My
Conversation is the greatest concentration of Pursewardian apothegms
that litter the novel,[11] and its addressed to the Darley of his
imagination,orBrotherAss,theaspiringauthorintheQuartetandthe
authorofthefirstpersonautobiographiesJustine,BalthazarandClea.
DarleyreadstheconversationintheMSafterPursewardenhastakenhis
ownlife,ostensiblyforadiplomaticgaffewithinternationalreverb.With
a wink at the forthcoming literary postmodernism, Pursewarden

describes neatly the sprawling structure of the Quartet from within its
fourth and final volume. Such a metafictional irony enhances Durrells
interest in the relativity proposition as he set out in the forward to
Balthazar.Unwiseasitistotrustanyauthorsselfevaluation,thefour
deckernovelistheQuartetsprincipleconceit,anditarrangesacrossthe
four novels, as we shall, see several moments of connected
recollection.[12] Darleys attempt at reading the past in order to
understandhisloveforJustineandMelissaistrue,howeversubjectively.
WhatDarleydoesntrealizeinthefirsttwonovelsisthathecannotescape
his own subjectivity in a multidimensional universe. By the time the
reader has reached the fourth volume, she has been trained to read
retroactively,thatistosay,withaforwardviewoftheplotathandaswell
assimultaneouslyofitspriorlayerings.Theoveralleffectistoholdbefore
thereadersmindavalenceofseveralstories.Moretothepoint,thebook
teaches us to look forward to looking back. The overall effect of these
alternantplotsistomakethereader,thisreaderatleast,thinkaboutthe
Quartet less as a sequence and more as a wordcontinuum(Authors
NotetoClea).[13]Thereadingexperienceisquiteunlikeanyotherseriesof
novels. As we shall see, each narrative layer contains a purposeful
misconception on Durrells part. And as each layer dissolves with the
informationsuppliedbyeachsucceedingvolume,thereaderexperiencesa
sudden awareness that is compelling because an event first interpreted
innocently must be reinterpreted through the powerful catalysis of each
narrativedevelopment.Eacheventinthestoryisdynamicasifithasalife
ofitsown,theplotofwhichwediscoverasweproceed.Each,therefore,
has the potential to become an opening into time rather than a reified
pointinsomeFreytagianprogression.Letusturntoonesuchexampleof
narrativelayeringthatwillservetoillustrateDurrellsfinessewithform.
The first example depends upon the agency of a telescope. The scene
occurs in Justine at the summer house of Nessim and Justine Hosnani,
andIcitetheexcerptatlengthinthehopethatthereaderwillsensethe
planes of emotion Durrell evokes and superimposes as the passage
proceeds. Darley is anxious that Justines infidelity has been discovered
byherhusbandNessimwhoisalsoDarleysclosefriend.
This further warning was given point for me by an incident which
occurred very shortly afterwards when, in search of a sheet of
notepaperonwhichtowritetoMelissa,IstrayedintoNessimslittle
observatoryand rummaged about on his deskfor when I needed. I
happened to notice that the telescope barrel had been canted
downwards so that it no longer pointed at the sky but across the
dunestowardswherethecityslumberedinitsmistyreachesofpearl
cloud. This was not unusual, for trying to catch glimpses of the
highest minarets as the airs condensed and shifted was a favourite
pastime.Isatonthethreeleggedstoolandplacedmyeyetotheeye
piece, to allow the faintly trembling and vibrating image of the
landscapetoassembleforme.Despitethefirmstonebaseonwhich
thetripodstoodthehighmagnificationofthelensandtheheathaze
between them contributed a feathery vibration to the image which
gave the landscape the appearance of breathing softly and
irregularly.Iwasastonishedtoseequiveringandjumping,yetpin
pointclearthelittlereedhutwherenotanhoursinceJustineandI
had been lying in each others arms, talking of Pursewarden. A
brilliant yellow patch on the dune showed up the cover of a pocket
KingLearwhichIhadtakenoutwithmeandforgottentobringback
hadtheimagenottrembledsoIdonotdoubtbutthatIshouldhave
been able to read the title on the cover. I stared at this image
breathlesslyforalongmomentandbecameafraid.Itwasasif,allof
asudden,inadarkbutfamiliarroomonebelievedwasemptyahand
had suddenly reached out and placed itself on ones shoulder. I
tiptoedfromtheobservatorywiththewritingpadandpencilandsat

inthearmchairlookingoutatthesea,wonderingwhatIcouldsayto
Melissa(J,1689).
The passage begins by establishing an earthbound perspective as the
perspective descends from sky to minaret to hut, and the agency of the
telescope serves to conflate the vision of Nessim and Darley. The
telescopes magnification brings to Darleys eye the precise scene that it
had previously brought to Nessims, and with an eerie irony Darley
becomesaneyewitnesstohisownadulteryasherummagesaboutinhis
hosts private quarters. The lovely personification of the breathing
landscapeincontrasttoDarleysbreathlessnessbringstobeartheweighty
hauntedness of the scene. Seeing through Nessims eyes magnifies, of
course,Darleysownblindnessvisvistheaffair.Suchshiftingofvisual
perspectives is the Quartets primary motif, and the characters often
encounter each other through the beguiling surface of a mirror, at one
remove from unmediated vision.[14] Darleys ostensible reason for his
presenceintheobservatoryisforpapertowriteMelissa,hisotherlover
but one cant help but wonder how sincere Darleys motivation to write
her might be if he pursues it in the wake of a beachhut encounter with
Justine. The copy of King Lear is a clever device developed with
increasingeffectivenessbyDurrellinhisfirstthreenovels.Shakespeares
play resonates powerfully in this scene more from an ambiguity of
symbolicreferencethanthroughpreciseallusion.DoesDarleysrevelatory
moment of telescopic vision imply Gloucesters blindness and fall to
anotherbeach?Oristhereferencemoregeneralstill,aboutthepowerofa
genuine love unperceived, as is Cordelias by Lear and Melissas by
Darley?TheexampleisoneofDurrellspainterlytoucheswhereanimage
creates a plane of emotion that haunts a scene rather than appearing in
fulloutline.
The telescope returns in the fourth volume, Clea, but with purposeful
differences. The Egyptians have begun to expropriate Nessims things in
punishment for his political adventurism, and his friends defend him in
the interim by buying his possessions. Now Mountolives, the telescope
reemerges on the verandah of the British summer legation overlooking
the Corniche. Clea, with time to kill, sees Mountolive and Liza
Pursewarden, the dead writers sister (and former lover), opposite the
legationwalkingalongtheStanleyBayfront:
As I had time to kill I started to fool with the telescope, and idly
traineditonthefarcornerofthebay.Itwasablowyday,withhigh
seas running, and the black flags out which signalled dangerous
bathing. There were only a few cars about in that end of the town,
andhardlyanyoneonfoot.QuitesoonIsawtheEmbassycarcome
roundthecornerandstopontheseafront.LizaandDavidgotdown
and began to walk away from it towards the beach end. It was
amazing how clearly I could see them I had the impression that I
could touch them by just putting out a hand. They were arguing
furiously,andshehadanexpressionofgriefandpainonherface.I
increased the magnification until I discovered with a shock that I
couldliterallylipreadtheirremarks!Itwasstartling,indeedalittle
frightening. I couldnot hear him because his face washalf turned
aside,butLizawaslookingintomytelescopelikeagiantimageona
cinemascreen.Thewindwasblowingherdarkhairbackinashock
from her temples, and with her sightless eyes she looked like some
strangeGreekstatuecometolife(C,117).
Undoubtedly,Durrellwantsthereadertotelescopethetwoscenesacross
the fourdecker novel, and in so doing to see the one through the other.
Whereas Darley in Justine is haunted as if by a hand on his shoulder,
Clea,inhermindseye,extendsherhandasiftotouchtheloversonthe
beach. Darleys blind love for Justine reemerges as Lizas physical

blindnessbut,whereastheblindLizahasinsightintolove,Darleymust
earn his insight through trial and experience. Such a compression of
formal symmetries works with a crisp logic. If Darley can be the
eyewitness to his own love affair in Justine, Cleas view of lovers on
another beach seals her own love Darley since, with a curious optical
democracy,[15]shebecomesDarleysspecularand,therefore,fullpartner.
Theextensionofatelescopefromvolumeonetofourpromotestheeffect
of looking forward to looking back and creates the illusion of the
suspension of time, what Durrell calls disparagingly, the Western
deity.[16]Itsasifeachoftheselocalsmallerstorieshasalifethattakes
form within the larger narrative of the Quartet. As Darley considers
Balthazars interlinear: It was crosshatched, crabbed, starred with
questionsandanswersindifferentcolouredinks,intypescript.Itseemed
tomethentobesomehowsymbolicoftheveryrealitywehadshareda
palimpsestuponwhicheachofushadlefthisorindividualtraces,layerby
layer (B, 212). Each reader might enjoy the layers singly or in their
shiftingensemble.

IfonereadstheinterviewswithDurrellaboutthetimeofthepublication
of the Quartet, Durrell raises constantly the question of form. It must
have taken considerable daring or confidence and financial need for
Durrelltopublishthenovelsseparatelysincetheformofthetetralogywas
unalterableoncethefirstcametolight.
I suppose (writes Balthazar) that if you wished somehow to
incorporate all I am telling you into your own Justine manuscript
now,youwouldfindyourselfwithacurioussortofbookthestory
wouldbetold,sotospeak,inlayers.UnwittinglyImayhavesupplied
youwithaform,somethingoutoftheway!NotunlikePursewardens
ideaofaseriesofnovelswithslidingpanelsashecalledthem.Or
else,perhaps,likesomemedievalpalimpsestwheredifferentsortsof
truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one obliterating or
perhaps supplementing another. Industrious monks scraping away
anelegytomakeroomforaverseofHolyWrit(B,183)!
Whenoneattemptstoaccountforforminanovel,thenecessaryphrase
narrative technique might sound commonplace to the ear, especially
afterthemetafictionalironiesofAckroyd,Calvino,DonColes,andDavid
Foster Wallace, to name but a few. Narrative technique is everywhere
apparent in the Quartet because of the overlay of diary, letter, novel
within novel, commonplace book, and the great interlinear which
informsmuchofBalthazarandJustine.Thecharactersaswellhaveabit
oftheartistaboutthem:Clea,NessimandPursewardenarepaintersthe
first professional, the latter two amateur. Pursewarden, Arnauti, and
Darley are writers again, the first two professional, the latter coming
intobeingthroughthestoryofQuartet.Durrellwasveryconsciousofthe
difficulties of writing a great book in the wake of Proust and Joyce. He
chose not to write a novel of temps retrouv or a roman fleuve. Each

novelintheQuartetisasiblinghencegeneticallykinratherthanrelated
through, say, religion, philosophy or the logic of cause and effect. The
principal beauty of Durrells narrative technique lies in its enactment of
relativity rather than an invocation of it at one remove by means of
description.Inamanifestlycomplicatednovel,peopleandeventsoccupy
a single time, often a single moment. Each occupation of the moment
createsconsiderablenarrativemomentumsinceweseethesamemoment
repeatedly, but differently with each repetition, the familiar made fresh.
AsDurrelloverlaysnarrativebitsintheQuartet,eachbitaccruesaboutit
its own story, such as Scobies apotheosis from a crossdressing
transvestiteandalcoholictothesaintlyElScobwithhisannualfeastday.
Each overlay aligns planes of emotion that produce a greater impact in
theirensemblethanmightanyincidenttakensingly.LikeBalthazarswet
crabs each incident has a narrative life as it expressed through the
contact with or awareness of another incident. Examples come to mind
such as that of Balthazars gold ankh (J, 94), a key he uses to wind his
pocket watch and the loss and discovery of which triggers its own
narrative. Justine has an eburnine ring (B, 200). During the masked
Carnival,whenringsorweddingbandsserveassignsofidentity,Justine
gives her ring to a minor character, Toto de Bunuel, so that she might
pursueanunknownmissionanonymously.Toto,mistakenforJustine,is
murderedthatverynightwithherringonhisfinger.Uponhisreturnto
Alexandria, Darley glimpses Clea for the first time by chance, not
design:
My heart heeled halfseas over for a moment, for she was sitting
whereonce(thatfirstday)Melissahadbeensitting,gazingatacoffee
cup with a wry reflective air of amusement, with her hands
supportingherchin.TheexactstationinplaceandtimewhereIhad
once found Melissa, and with such difficulty mustered enough
courage at last to enter the place and speak to her. It gave me a
strange sense of unreality to repeat this forgotten action at such a
great remove of time, like unlocking a door which had remained
closedandboltedforageneration.YetitwasintruthCleaandnot
Melissa, and her blonde head was bent with an air of childish
concentrationoverhercoffeecup.Shewasintheactofshakingthe
dregs three times and emptying them into the saucer to study them
astheydriedintothecontoursfromwhichfortunetellersskrya
familiargesture(C,767).
As Darleys and the readers consciousness of the overlay grow, so does
the potential for meaning. The story of Balthazars ankh so redolent
withsuggestionsoftimewindsthetimeofitslossanddiscoveryintoa
recursiveloop.Justinesring,exhumedfromanancienttomb,partakesof
death and confers it, however unintentionally. Darleys vision of Clea
superimposed upon the memory of Melissa refund[s] an old love in a
new (C, 112). Melissa is the most vulnerable, marginalized and yet the
strongestfemaleintheQuartet,andCleamustberebornbeforeassuming
her nature as artist. As Darley remarks to himself, as if speaking of a
grammaroftheheart,Andinmyownlifethethreewomenwhoalso
arrangedthemselvesasiftorepresentthemoodsofthegreatverb,Love:
Melissa, Justine and Clea (C, 177). Enacting the relativity proposition
across episodes, then, has everything to do with form. As Balthazar
comments,Tointercalaterealitiesistheonlywaytobefaithfultotime
(B,226).Or,inDurrellsownwords:
The root [of the mirror game] is relatively banal like an Agatha
Christienovelbutbychangingthelightingtherealityofthethingis
changed.MyprimarygamewastowriteaTibetannovelratherthana
European novel. I attempted to bring together the four Greek
dimensions, which are the basis of our mathematics and the five
skandasofChineseBuddhism.Forustheindividualconsciousnessof

eachpersonisfilteredthroughfiveperceptionsandnotions.Iwanted
toobservewhatwouldbecomeanordinarynovelifonechangedthe
lighting and if individuality became blurred. What seems stable in
Mountolive in the Quartet is simply the collection of states that are
alwaysinagitation.InChinesephilosophydestinyisnotlimitedtoa
single life it is well known that you dont learn anything in one life
(Conversations,1978).

AnessaysuchasthisiscanofferbutaglimpseoftheQuartetbecausethe
novel lends itself to multiple types of reading. We can read it for the
exoticismofitssetting,foritstreatmentofmodernloveandforDurrells
skillsasaliteraryinnovator,Anassassinofpolish.[17]AsDurrellhimself
remarked:
Thethingwas,Iwantedtoproducesomethingthatwouldbereadable
onasuperficiallevel,whileatthesametimegivinghereadertothe
extent that he was touched by the more enigmatic aspectsthe
opportunity to attempt the second layer, and so on Just like a
housepainterheputsonthree,fourcoats.Andthenitstartstorain,
and you see the second coat coming through. A sort of palimpsest
(BS,66).
DurrellnotedoftenandbrilliantlythattheEnglishlanguagehadonlyone
wordforlove.Therichestofhumanexperiencesisalsothemostlimited
initsrangeofexpression.Wordskillloveastheykilleverythingelse(M,
48).OneparadoxofDurrellstreatmentofmodernloveisitspowerto
convince Darley of his own objectivity while he is in the midst of the
purestegotism.Forobservationthrowsdownafieldabouttheobserved
person or object (M, 160). His reading of events, however sincere as a
seekeroftruth,isstillboundunwittinglybytheemotionalperspectiveof
theloving,andaching,self. [18]WelearnaswereadinJustine,Egotism
is a fortress in which the conscience de soimme, like a corrosive, eats
awayeverything.Truepleasureisingivingsurely(53).Thenotionofthe
impossibleego(Conversations, 214), moreover, is the thematic bridge
between the investigation into modern love with the birth of Darley and
Cleaasartists.Darleydiscovershistruerexpandedselfbylettinggoofhis
egoandbylettinggoofCleaandhisloveforherattheendofthefourth
volume. The letting go of his love, and Cleas intuitive acceptance of the
gesture,servesinparttotransformbothDarleyandCleaintoartists.Such
a pleasure in loving without attachment is the novels concluding
redemptivemoment.
In the investigation, the selfishness of modern love is so necessary,
because through the narcissism one comes to the poetic realization
and at the end they (Clea and Darley) are both fit to marry each
other,sotospeak.Theyhaveevaluatedsexualityandattachmentas
its true function and they use it in the most spiritual way possible,
because its information, its the algebra of love theyve discovered
(Conversations,243).

Durrellsinsistenceonthespiritualityoftheirloveexplainshischoiceof
De Sade for the epigraphs of each novel. De Sade is as infantile as
modernmanis:cruel,hysterical,stupid,anddestructivejustlikeusall.
[DeSade]isourspiritualmaladypersonified. [19]Inordertoreleasethe
love and the art within, one must conquer the ego in a Taoist sense.
Another contemporary novelist obsessed with form is David Foster
Wallace. In reference to the writers attitude to her work, he once
commented,Theobviousfactthatthekids[youngwritersofthe1990s]
dontWanttoWritesomuchasWanttoBeWritersmakestheirlettersso
depressing.[20]ThephraseWantto BeWriters, in effect, erects statues
inhonourofandsubmissiontothedemandsoftheego.ThesecondWant
toWritepresupposesanIwhocreatesfrombeyondtheboundsofego,
asdidBlake,soasnottobeenslavedbythecreationsofanotherman.The
Quartetconcludesinapositionofspiritualequilibrium.CleaandDarley
areinlovebutarenottogether.Theirloveexistsallthemorepowerfully
intheegolessplenitudeofitspossibility.Thenudgefromtheuniverse
felt by Darley at the novels last page prompts him to begin a story with
thewordsOnceuponatime.ThetimehascomeforDarleytowritefrom
a posture of serenity, of actionless action. To those few artists who can
perceivewiththeTaoistsmileintheirmindseye,suchacosmicnudgeis
neverthelessthemostfurtiveandyetthemostenduring.
Totheluckynowwhohaveloversorfriends,
Whomovetotheirsweetundiscoveredends,
Orwhomthegreatconspiracydeceives,
Iwishthesewhirlingautumnleaves:
Promontoriessplashedbythesaltysea,
Groanedonindarknessbythetram
Tohorizonsofloveorgoodluckormorelove
AsformenowImove
ThroughmanynegativestowhatIam.[21]

PaulM.Curtis

Bibliography
Alyn, Marc. The Big Supposer: A Dialogue with Marc Alyn. Trans. Francine
Barker.London:AbelardScuman,1973.
Durrell,Lawrence.ASmileintheMindsEye.London:WildwoodHouse,1980.
_______________.TheAlexandriaQuartet. 4 vols. New York: E. P. Dutton &
Co.,Inc.,1961.
_______________. Collected Poems: 19311974. Ed. James A. Brigham. New
York:VikingPress,1980.
Haag,Michael.OnlytheCityIsReal:LawrenceDurrellsJourneytoAlexandria.
Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 26, Wanderlust: Travel Literature of
EgyptandtheMiddleEast(2006):3947.
Hitchens,Christopher.Arguably.Signal/McClelland&Stewart,2011.
Ingersoll, Earl G. Ed. Conversations. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University
Press,1998.

Kaczvinsky, Donald P. When Was Darley in Alexandria? A Chronology for


The Alexandria Quartet. Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 17 No. 4 (Spring,
1991):591594.
MacNiven, Ian A. Lawrence George Durrell. Oxford Dictionary of National
Biography. Online (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/39830). 11 July
2012.
______________. Lawrence Durrell: A Biography. London: Faber & Faber,
1998.
Max, D. T. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.
NewYork:Viking,2012.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West. New
York:VintageInternational,1992.
Morrison, Ray. A Smile in his Minds Eye: A Study of the Early Works of
LawrenceDurrell(Toronto:UniversityofTorontoPress,2005.
____________. Mirrors and the Heraldic Universe in Lawrence Durrells The
AlexandriaQuartet.TwentiethCenturyLiteratureVol.33No.4(Winter,1987):
499514.
Wedin, Warren. The Artist as Narrator in The Alexandria Quartet. Twentieth
CenturyLiteratureVol.18No.3(July,1972):175180.
Wood,Michael.SinkorSkim.LondonReviewofBooksVol.31No1,1January
2009.http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n01/michaelwood/sinkorskim

PaulM.CurtisisDirectoroftheEnglishDepartmentatlUniversitdeMoncton,
New Brunswick, Canada, where he has taught English Language and Literature
since 1990. He has published numerous articles on the poetry and prose of Lord
Byron. Professor Curtis is preparing the first digital scholarly edition of Byrons
correspondence.
m
m
m
Footnotes(returnstotext)
1. AllcitationsarefromTheAlexandriaQuartet,4vols.(NewYork:E.P.
Dutton&Co.,Inc.,1961)andareindicatedbytheinitialofthevolume:J,B,
M,Candpagenumber.

2. ThankstoECWPressattheUniversityofVictoria,thefirsttwonovelshave
beenrecentlyrepublished.IntheTheBlackBook,theprotagonistLawrence
Lucifertransformshimselfintoanartistbyliberatinghimselffromthe
mindforgdmanaclesofEnglandsmanufacture.RayMorrison,inhisA
SmileinhisMindsEye:AStudyoftheEarlyWorksofLawrenceDurrell
(Toronto:UofTPress,2005),istheonlycriticwhohascometotermswith
theLGDsdebttoTaoism.
3. QuotedinIanMacNivensbiographicalarticleintheODNB:
http://www.oxforddnb.com/templates/article.jsp?articleid=39830
4. TheBigSupposer:ADialoguewithMarcAlyn,trans.FrancineBarker
(London:AbelardScuman,1973)11.
5. Conversations,ed.EarlG.Ingersoll(Madison:FairleighDickinson
UniversityPress,1998)207.HereafterConversationsfollowedbypage
number.Thiscollectionofinterviewsisessentialreading.
6. Onthechronologyofthenovelsee,DonaldP.KaczvinskysWhenWas
DarleyinAlexandria?AChronologyforTheAlexandriaQuartet,Journalof
ModernLiteratureVol.17No.4(Spring,1991):591594.
7. Monsieur,jesuisdevenuelasolitudemme.MelissatoPursewardenas
theydance(M,168).
8. IanA.MacNiven,LawrenceDurrell:ABiography(London:Faber&Faber,
1998)466.
9. QuotedinWarrenWedin,TheArtistasNarratorinTheAlexandria
Quartet,TwentiethCenturyLiteratureVol.18No.3(July,1972):175.
10. MyattentiontothedetailofnarrativedivisionsintheAQisoutofrespectto
LGDsformalintentions.Ifoneweretocasthereyeovertheentiretetralogy
anddivideeachnovelintoitssubheadingsofnumericaldivision,bookor
chapternumber,andthencalculatethenumberofpagescontainedineach
bookssmallestdivision,thereaderwouldbegintogettheimpressionofthe
formal(a)symmetriesandnarrativerhythmsthatLGDexploits.
11. MichaelWood,SinkorSkim,LondonReviewofBooksVol.31No1,1
January2009.http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n01/michaelwood/sinkorskim
12. TopilferoneofChristopherHitchensphrases,seetheessayRebeccaWest:
ThingsworthFightingFor,[2007]inhiscollection,Arguably
(Signal/McClelland&Stewart,2011)194.
13. SeeConversations,Ifyourememberscenesorcharactersandcantquite
rememberwhichbooktheycomein,itprovesthatthefourareonework
tightlywoven,doesntit?Thejoineristhereader,thecontinuumishis
privateproperty.Onedimensioninlightoftheother.(71).
14. AsRayMorrisoninformsus,mirrorsoccur120timesintheAQ.Mirrors
andtheHeraldicUniverseinLawrenceDurrellsTheAlexandriaQuartet,
TwentiethCenturyLiteratureVol.33No.4(Winter,1987):499514.
15. ThisbrilliantphraseisoriginaltoCormacMcCarthyinhisBloodMeridian
orTheEveningRednessintheWest(NewYork:VintageInternational,
1992)247.
16. DurrellsnotebookACosmographyoftheWomb,LondonJan1939,is
quotedinMichaelHaagsOnlytheCityIsReal:LawrenceDurrellsJourney
toAlexandria,Alif:JournalofComparativePoetics,No.26,Wanderlust:
TravelLiteratureofEgyptandtheMiddleEast(2006):42.
17. Style,CollectedPoems:19311974,ed.JamesA.Brigham(NewYork:
VikingPress,1980)2434.
18. Thenintherelativityfieldyougettherelationofsubjectandobject
completelychanged.Inotherwordsyoucantlookatafieldwithout
influencingit.Averysingularthing(Conversations,121).
19. MacNiven,LawrenceDurrell,433.
20. SeethefirstfulllengthbiographyonDFWbyD.T.Max,EveryLoveStoryis
aGhostStory(NewYork:Viking,2012)178.
21. Alexandria,CollectedPoems,154,lines19.

TheShapeOfThingsTo
Come:TheMayIssue
In"2013"

DouglasGlover:Building
Sentences4Epigrams|
NationalPost
Thisisthelastinaseries
ofshortessayson
"buildingsentences."I
wrotethisseriesforthe
NationalPostinToronto.
In"2013"
Theyallappearedinthe

NightWork:Fiction
RobertMiner
In"2013"

3ResponsestoRevisitingLawrenceDurrellsTheAlexandriaQuartetPaulM.Curtis

1.

steveaxelrod52says:
May16,2013at4:57pm
IdidmyMFAcriticalthesisonDurrell.IwishIdtakenyourclassfirst.Butthisisanexcellentexcuseto
readtheQuartetonemoretime.
Reply

2.

Stephensays:
October6,2014at6:21pm
IfirstspiedTheAQinthePeaceCorpsreadinglockerattheUSEmbassyinTunisiain1971.Mycomplit
colleagueshadalludedtoitandnowitwasmyturn.ThoughmylifeinSoukelArbacamenowhereclose
tothe30sinAlexandria,therewasasprinklingofparallels:youngteacherofEnglish,NorthAfrican
nation,robustandoveractiveromanticperspective(probablyglandular).Tothisday,afterreadingthe
fourtomestwiceandJustineathirdtime,Icontinuetorespirethesameair,smellthesaltsprayatthe
villa,sensethetighteningofthestomachattheintrigueandsuspense,feeltheexcitement.ifeelIknow
Nessim,Justineandtheothers.Thevividimagerycontinuestoinfluencemypen.
Reply

3.

ElcuartetodeAlejandraPINNsays:
March10,2015at5:28pm
[]respectodelarelatividad,aqutenisunartculomuyinteresante(eningls)queanalizala
estructura[]

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