Lust, Obsession + Intrigue in a Lasting Midwar Masterpiece

Lust, Obsession + Intrigue in a Lasting Midwar Masterpiece

Why you should care

Because one story told four times, four different ways, may be one of the quicker ways to figure out both modern Egypt and modern love.

When novelist Lawrence Durrell was up for consideration for the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature for his four-novel series, The Alexandria Quartet, a curious thing happened.

On his way to losing — as he did that year, to John Steinbeck — Durrell was judged by the Nobel Committee to be more of a wait-and-see kind of candidate. Which, under normal circumstances, when the best of the best are being weighed in the balance, is not that unusual.

Hothouse soap operatics aside, the Quartet details difficult adult issues …

Not unusual at all, until you get to why the committee felt that way. The quartet of novels — 1957’s Justine, then 1958’s Balthazar, followed that same year by Mountolive and ending in 1960 with Clea — had been examined the year before, when the committee ruled Durrell out on the grounds that he gave off “a dubious aftertaste.”

Due in large part to … ? His “monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications.”

SOLD.

An Indian-born Brit, Durrell was a known associate of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and had a wartime perch as a press attaché to the British Embassies in Cairo and then Alexandria during WWII. While there, he began scribbling notes for his four novels, attempting to capture what he saw from his front-row seat on an era that would redefine the region.

Setting his first three novels in cosmopolitan, multicultural Alexandria just prior to and during World War II, Durrell presents an exploded view of one set of events from three different characters’ perspectives. The fourth book is a coda set six years later, on the eve of the Egyptian Revolution.

The series details the doings of Darley, a starving artist/writer and schoolmaster, and his affair with Justine, a Jewish woman married to a rich Egyptian Copt named Nessim, who also happens to be Darley’s friend. All three are mired in a slowly emerging political intrigue based in Alexandria, and extending up to and throughout Europe.

…readers may have been primed for a little kinky transgression.

Hothouse soap operatics aside, the Quartet details difficult adult issues — love, politics, infidelity, belief, contrivance and survival — which, while they were as present during the 1940s as they were during any other time in human history, rarely had been written about as frankly. Frankly and with a detailed attention to the throes of a lustful but possibly doomed affair, that only a true obsessive could give.

An obsessive or someone who had been there. Painstakingly, lovingly and with a tortured abandon, the characters experience the world war coming down around their heads like an expression of the same sort of corrupted finality worming its way through their personal lives.

A skyline photo of the harbor city of Alexandria, Egypt with fishing and sailboats in the foreground

The skyline and harbor of Alexandria, Egypt.

Source Robert Harding/Alamy

The Alexandria Quartet was impossibly audacious in its scope and aspiration,” says teacher, author and NPR culture commentator Jimi Izrael. “The Rashomon of literature, if that analog works, but it doesn’t, really, does it? Because that film is (relatively) accessible and is more entertaining, whereas — due respect to Kurosawa — the Quartet requires a good deal more stamina. It is a different type of challenge.”

When the books were published on the doorstep of the ’60s, readers may have been primed for a little kinky transgression: The Quartet not only made bank, but was also declared an artistic triumph. According to The Guardian’s Jan Morris, “French critics adored it. Americans lapped it up.” Reviewing Clea in The New York Times, Orville Prescott sniffed that praise for the author had been extravagant, yet the works displayed “bravura skill.”

In the years since, the books’ style and grand self-regard have sometimes been derided — Anthony Burgess called them “sadistic-sentimental exotic escapism” — but Durrell scholar Dr. Michael Diboll has argued that these ambitious works strive for a layered, historically sensitive portrait of an emerging postcolonial city. The books give students of history a glimpse into an Egypt on the cusp of a secular nationalist revolution, an Egypt not yet riven by sectarian violence.

As Durrell himself put it in a 1972 interview, he chose Alexandria as the setting for his novels and much of his poetry, because the Mediterranean is “the capital, the heart, the sex organ of Europe.” For this writer, geography, history, politics and sex are inextricable and utterly relative:

“We live … lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time — not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.”

— Pursewarden in Balthazar

Even in the face of critics who called it vulgar and a Nobel Committee looking for something a little less sexy, the Quartet abides. Ranked No. 70 in the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, it is still read and reviewed today, and Egyptians’ relationship to Durrell and his work is such that as recently as last year, activists were trying to save his house, Villa Ambron, as part of Alexandrian heritage. Through Facebook, no less.

“I read him when I was quite young, in Chicago, in whatever year it was that the Beatles first played there,” says Stanford professor emeritus and award-winning poet W.S. Di Piero, “and I read it while listening to late interstellar Coltrane. Olive trees, Alexandria, gummy Chicago summer and Coltrane — what a mix.”

Or as Izrael concludes, “No one thing is absolutely right about the Quartet — it’s confounding, disturbing, necessary reading.”

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