- The Alexandria QuartetA Reconsideration
As I remember, and lived, the fifties were not nearly as dull as much of the fiction of the time depicted them. Not everyone aspired to middle-class mobility and morality: from an apartment in the city to a ranch house in the suburbs to a mock Tudor in a subdivision in the country. And not everyone was angry because such a trajectory was impeded by moral slips such as adultery or public intoxication. Tax loopholes, after all, could eventually cover such lapses. But finding fiction occupied with other concerns was difficult. This is why I am indebted to Herbert Howarth.
As a graduate student in the Irish Studies Program at the University of Kansas (Kansas was also a great deal livelier than its usual depiction), I was fascinated by Yeats, Joyce, O’Casey, and O’Brien. The real change for me occurred when Herbert Howarth came to talk with us about his new book, The Irish Writers, 1880–1940. His most animated talk was devoted to a series of novels by his friend Lawrence Durrell—The Alexandria Quartet. Howarth and Durrell had served abroad for King and Country; but, while Howarth dutifully slogged away, at the desk next to him, Durrell was nonchalant about his official duties and spent most of his time working on the novels that would bring him fame. To exist in separate realities was intrinsic to Durrell’s life and writing, and not simply because he was bipolar, though that duality is immeasurably important. Perhaps being Anglo-Indian gave him a sense of conflicting realities, or maybe it was because he was smarter than anyone else and chose not to go to university. Whatever the cause, he had a magician’s understanding of the world: give the audience (or the lover) something to concentrate on while creating the reality that is really important. Ah, misdirection.
And the reality he gives us in the Alexandria of his narrator Darley is fascinating as much for the justification of the place and people as for what actually occurred. From the beginning of the [End Page 381] beginning that is the opening of Justine, we are told that we are not in the literature of the suburbs anymore:
Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them. The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body—for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying—I think he was quoting—that Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets—I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.
At this point one could easily say, except for the penchant for orientalism, Durrell could be writing about Lawrence, Kansas, in 1959. But there is the orientalism, perhaps stained deep in the psyche, and certainly in the prose style, of a man who never forgot his birthplace in the Himalayas and who would return to write about the Levant with all the fascination of someone watching a catastrophe so extensive that only martial law could regain moral order. And armies don’t impose moral order. In fact they seem to relish the absence of a moral order or the presence of one so estranged from their own as to seem nonexistent. In the exotic estranged culture of Alexandria, Durrell allowed his narrator Darley to tell his version of its flora and fauna, those who thought they lived and loved without the restraint of local customs, who thought they were protected by their wealth or by their protective coloration as expatriates, people who could be ignored even if they thought the sun was theirs and theirs alone.
Their world is a small one in which everyone has a...