A View from Jason Pontin
I am re-reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Reading a book that you once admired, and which was once read by millions, but which is now known to be bad and pretentious is a very odd experience. The Alexandria Quartet…
I am re-reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Reading a book that you once admired, and which was once read by millions, but which is now known to be bad and pretentious is a very odd experience. The Alexandria Quartet - a tetraology consisting of Justine, Balthazar, Mount Olive, and Clea - was the most commercially successful “literary novel” of the 1950s. The novels recount the erotic adventures of the Greek, Jewish, Coptic, and British upper-classes of Alexandria, when that city was still a cosmopolitan metropolis. Durrell had been a press attache and school teacher in Egypt during and after the Second World War, and the novel combines both real historical persons like the Greek poet Kavafis, lightly fictionalized society figures of the era, and Durrell’s own inventions. The novels were applauded in their time for their experimental use of different points-of-view to depict the same events, as well as for their prose - which was usually described by critics with adjectives like “lush,” “haunting,” or “sensual.” The psychology of the books was popular Freudianism. The novels struck readers of the 50s as wonderfully frank - more, very sexy.
But reading the books now…Oh, Lord. Oh, man. Begin with the much-vaunted writing. Here is a typical prose-poem from Justine: “Notes for landscape-tones… Long sequence of tempera. Light filtered through the essence of lemons…” etc. etc. But forget the writing: the characters are trivial and silly - and while one would not like to make too large a point about this, there is something politically suspect about Durrell’s exclusion of the great, Arab mass of Alexandria. The “experimental” elements of the novels are pointless - we learn in due course that people cannot agree about what happened to them. The psychology is ridiculous. Most of all, however, the tetraology is loathsomely self-regarding. On page after page, Durrell gestures to himself and more-or-less whispers, “Aren’t I a devil of a writer? Hasn’t my art redeemed the past?”
But when I was an adolescent I positively thrilled to the exotic millieu of The Alexandria Quartet, the novels’ overwrought sentences, their characters’ bizarre couplings. This, I thought, was what literature was all about. Discovering that I could no longer read the books without dismay was sad - like meeting a girl whom you once adored, but now recognize to be meretricious and vulgar.