I attacked my assignment as a Middle East correspondent with the alacrity of a baying hound running down a wanted man. I loaded up on historical accounts by A-list experts: Hitti, Hourani, Nutting, Glubb, Fromkin, Shlaim, Lewis. I consumed their separate narratives, cross-referencing one against the other and triangulating each for bias. I was a machine in perpetual motion; the more I read, the more I needed to know. By the end of my three-year stint, I had accumulated a working library of Levantine history from the caliphates to the Second Intifada. In 2001 I took leave to write my own book.
Before my departure, I paid a final visit to the American University’s bookshop in Cairo where I came across Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Many of my Egyptian friends had recommended it (while simultaneously dismissing it as E. M. Forster on Viagra), but I had been too disciplined to be distracted by a short story, let alone a novel sequence that weighs in at 884 pages. But now I was seduced by the image on the book’s front cover, a water-colour of a neo-Palladian villa so common to Alexandria’s cornice and narrow byways. I plucked a copy from the shelf and added it to my basket, which was filled with non-fiction books. I immediately felt guilty. This is what it must be like to commit adultery, I thought.
Consummation would take several years, however, and even then the affair began awkwardly. Accustomed as I was to the linear progression of history and current events, I was unprepared for the Quartet, which is as elliptical in approach as it is epic in scope. The tale unfolds as a tetralogy of novels, set in the late 1930s, about expatriate and native habitués of what was one the world’s most cosmopolitan and romantic cities. Like louvered shutters that open and close to unveil different images, Durrell weaves first-person accounts with omniscient narrative, projecting varying interpretations of the same events. An illicit affair as recounted by one narrator, for example, is revealed later on to be a smokescreen that conceals another.
Durrell called his work ‘a four-dimensional dance’ and claimed that he had applied the theory of relativity to a work of fiction. At the very least, he succeeded in animating Einstein’s principle that time and distance change matter, in this case the stuff of myth and imagination. The author introduces his characters fully formed and in mid-stride, demanding that the reader follow along by intuition and extrapolation until he is well in the work. At first I was intimidated by this, and at times I felt like discarding the book in the next departure lounge. But as I soldiered on, I developed an uneasy bond with the principal storyteller, who we learn midway through the Quartet’s second book is named Darley. So intimate and uninhibited is Darley’s narrative that the reader feels vaguely complicit in the relentless violence, intrigue, betrayals, cabals and carnal desires that linger in the ‘cobwebs of Alexandrian society’.
Durrell wrote the book at lightning speed, much of it in his cottage in Provence. He had known Alexandria only as an expatriate. Evacuated in 1940 from Kalamata in southern Greece just ahead of the German invasion, he had fled to British-controlled Alexandria, where he worked in the Foreign Press Department. His insights into the city’s diplomatic circles leaven the Quartet with barbed reportage that rivals Graham Greene for irreverence. An English consular group ‘has the disconsolate air of a family of moulting turkeys’. Darley’s French comrade, Pompal, is ‘a rare figure within the diplomatic community who appears to possess a vertebral column’. A particularly oafish senior official should have engraved on his headstone: ‘His mediocrity was his salvation.’
The Quartet dazzles with the kind of histrionic, inscrutable and exhibitionist creatures that seasoned expatriates – particularly those from the Mysterious East – will comfortably recognize. There is Justine, the Mediterranean sea nymph, a self-described ‘tiresome, pretentious, hysterical Jewess’ and Nessim, her husband, a Coptic financier who plots to empower his minority sect by conspiring with the Nazis. Balthazar, a homosexual mystic, is the conscience of the group, and his narrative is a helpful corrective to Darley’s self-absorbed one. The urbane Purswarden is a successful but self-loathing writer. Then there is Mountolive, a dashing if deluded diplomat, living symbol of Western imperial conceit; and finally Clara, the saintly portraitist, maternal confessor and den mother to all the little monsters who tear through the whole torrid mess. (Clara also does a turn as Justine’s lover.)
Durrell was a product of his time, and the Quartet is peppered with references that today would be considered anti-Semitic, misogynistic and racist. He publicly described Arabs as ‘apes in nightshirts’, and his view that Islam is intolerant and backward permeates the work. The book also traffics in the worst kind of last-century Orientalism, with Nessim marveling at ‘the Oriental woman’s true obsessions – power, politics and possessions’. Jews are depicted as predatory – sexually, in the case of Justine – and atavistic; her first husband remarks that ‘it takes a Jew to sniff out a Jew’.
However unsavoury such language is, it gives the Quartet a coarse credibility that thrusts the reader into the multi-layered and anxious world that was Egypt on the eve of Europe’s collapse. Alexandria is cast in all its pre-war magnificence as a brassy conurbation of commerce and culture. In Alexandria, Darley tells us, ‘fidelity is an unheard-of state of affairs’. The city is ‘a hybrid, a joint’, both princess and prostitute, sacred and profane. Only here, in a city that predates Ptolemy, could a novelist knead together characters of such varied ethnicity, race and religion. Greeks, Italians, French, Britons, Jews and Arabs fraternize intimately in every pocket and pore of the Quartet, as they did in real-life Alexandria until only a few generations ago. ‘Alexandria is still Europe,’ Mountolive remarks to himself, ‘not the Egypt of rags and sores.’
As war clouds converge, Alexandria’s foreign community and exiles are engulfed by ‘the Arab-Muslim tide’ – a portent of the Islamic revival to come – and the story transforms itself from a chronicle of expatriate voluptuaries into a thriller that entwines Nessim’s doomed cabal, Justine’s self-destruction and Purswarden’s martyrdom amid revelation of his love affair with his blind sister. In a masterly display of literary gymnastics, The Alexandria Quartet lands feet-first as a love story.
Like most great novels, the Quartet endures not so much for what it tells us about a particular time and place, but for the familiarity of its characters. In the reckless Justine, the vulnerable Darley, the worldly Balthazar and the proud Nessim, we see composite portraits from our own lives, particularly those of us who live abroad. Characters in the Quartet frequently stop to view their reflection in mirrors, a brief interlude for measuring the gap between their self-image and reality. With his world in free fall, for example, Nessim ‘caught sight of his own face in the great pier-glass and was surprised to notice that it wore an expression of feeble petulance’. As Durrell’s creations submit to introspection, they also dare us to consider ourselves through the same glass, however darkly.
Durrell, a jazz pianist and painter, was also a master scene-setter. God-like, he summons a heavy downpour that scrubs clean Alexandria’s soiled streets, only to extinguish it so lovers may stroll across a slick but sparkling corniche. Justine, startled by Nessim’s invitation to treason wrapped up as a marriage proposal, retreats to the nearest coffee shop, where she orders a cup of hot chocolate; ‘She drank it with trembling hands. Then she combed her hair and made up her face. She knew her beauty was only an advertisement and kept it fresh with disdain.’ All that’s missing is a packet of Lucky Strikes and a three-day old copy of the International Herald Tribune.
In Alexandria not long ago, I met Dr. Galal Araf, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Alexandria. He was summering with his family in their bungalow at Montazah, formerly the royal compound of the Egyptian monarchy before it was nationalized in 1954 by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Montazah was recently privatized and is now run by a developer as a gated beach resort. While his grandchildren played in the sand and his sons and daughters talked to their spouses and friends, Dr. Araf sat upright in a lounge chair. He wore pleated gabardine trousers and a pressed short-sleeved shirt – common dress, I have found, among well-educated Mediterranean men of his generation.
Dr. Araf was old enough to remember the twilight of Alexandria’s golden age and had lived through the mayhem and degeneration that followed it. ‘Alex was a city of the world,’ he said. ‘It was filled with Greeks and Maltese, Italians and Jews. There was a quarter of the city where residents spoke only Greek. People from all over came to Alexandria to see the latest fashions from Europe.’
I asked if he had read The Alexandria Quartet. Like so many Alexandrians, he seemed to regard the book as more a burden that a blessing. His late wife, it turned out, had been a professor of English literature at the University of Alexandria, and her Ph.D dissertation was on Durrell and his masterpiece. It was titled ‘Lawrence Durrell: the Fabulist’, and she used it as a basis for a lecture she gave in 1997 to the Lawrence Durrell Society when it convened in Alexandria.
‘Her thesis’, said Dr. Araf, ‘was that Durrell chose Alexandria simply because it appealed to the romance of Western readers. The story could have taken place anywhere, because it doesn’t follow the facts of the city literally.’
The literalist in me agreed. The Quartet is not the place to go for a primer on Alexandrian history. But I silently disagreed with Dr. Araf on one point: if Alexandria resonates among romantic Occidentals, it is precisely because it is truly one of the Cities of the World. No other place has blended different cultures and mores so successfully, and no writer has interpreted their trace elements – passion, envy, grace and intrigue – like Lawrence Durrell. Let the historians and pundits work their side of the Arab street, and let the novelist work his.