It’s time for the classics again, this time one which is heralded as one of the greatest works of English prose in the last century. Being a place I had visited (in the distant past), Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet held beguiling (though intimidating considering its size) appeal for me. ‘An exploration of modern love’, the endorsement on the cover jacket tries to further entice the foolhardy reader who has decided to take on this mammoth work. Though now mostly considered as one great work, it was originally published as four separate volumes detailing life in wartime Alexandria.
An exploration it surely is – but definitely not just of love and relationships. Sure, love (and lust), in its various forms runs its mysterious course through most of the numerous strands of this book, but it also encapsulates intrigue, politics, betrayal, sadness, family and most importantly, perspective via the unreliable narrator/s. And Durrell plays with his prose as only a master who knows he has the power of language dripping from his fingers can – almost mocking the reader with his descriptive and metaphorical diarrhea at various points in the book. It’s all very beautiful writing, though there is the danger that at times it can get eternally frustrating to keep up with it. But keep up with it one should do, as the potential rewards can be many fold.
The first book is, in some ways, the ultimate vindication of the cover endorsement (you know, the exploration of love bit) – It is an intense, densely described recollection of the affair the narrator, Englishman L.G Darley, had with the inscrutably beautiful Justine Hosnani who was the wife of his friend, Nessim. As Darley battles with the moral ambiguities and repercussions of this on both his friend and Darley’s partner, Melissa, we are also introduced to some of the other major players in the quartet, like Balthazar, Clea, Scobie etc. This one was probably toughest in some respects to get through. The repeated descriptions of his love/passion for Justine and their shared guilt reminded me at times of Orhan Pamuk’s dreary Museum of Innocence, though this book is definitely of a much higher quality than that one.
However, it’s in the next one that the tangled web of intricacy and deceit that this volume is starts to come out into force. Suddenly, we (And Darley) are confronted with the possibility that what was read up till then was nothing but a smokescreen built on Darley’s naïve longings and gullibility. And with the next story, Mountolive, which is described in a conventional linear storyline, we decide everything we learn may need to be taken with the utmost suspicion. As the web of double cross and relationship intricacies widen, political machinations (with respect to the war in Palestine) comes into the picture and we realize that a lot of the heartache presented in the first two volumes was in fact directly influenced by this. The final volume, Clea, deals with the repercussions of whatever went on in the previous volumes, and is in effect the only real sequel in the series. The other books all provide backstory and perspectives on the same incidents.
I was struggling over what to rate this. In the end I decided this needed to be higher in regard because of the ambition, the grandeur of its plot and machinations, the sheer beauty of its prose but mainly because of the way it expects the readers to rise to the occasion to tackle this work. Only the dedicated reader can grind through this work of art, and only then can one enjoy the fruits of the labor. Also, the vision Durrell provides of a city which so obviously bewitches him in its thrall makes us long for the forgotten memoirs of times and places associated indelibly in our own psyches and consciousness, and ponder on long lost loves and people.
On second thoughts, I think the endorsement is absolutely spot on – this is indeed an exploration of modern love.