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The Alexandria Quartet: A twentieth century jewel

A world in four volumes...
A world in four volumes...
Michael Christani

With the publishing in 1957 of 'Justine', Lawrence Durrell set into play the first of four novels, followed by 'Balthazar', 'Mountolive', and 'Clea', which complete the Alexandria Quartet, which, according to Durrell "may be judged as a completed whole". It is a world in which truth spins as if on an axis, bringing the realities of different characters into ever further depths and contradiction.

"The central topic of the book is an examination of modern love" as Durrell notes in 'Balthazar'. The books are set in Alexandria, Egypt, on the eve and outbreak of the second World War. The anxiety and threat of war are the veiled backdrop of the story. The city itself plays upon the characters, and is itself a sort of character. Its weight is palpable on the dissipated passions of its citizens, where ennui and sex are often bedfellows in the wearying heat and dust. Yet the sparks of passion and loves themselves are the life of the story.

The lines of reality are blurred where even characters from real life (C.P.Cavafy, for example) are among the living and the dead. The story is not mainly philosophical in nature, though it digs through much philosophy, Cabal, and Western. But its main impetus is from great observation. It is startlingly original and replete. There is a world here. It displays a great spectrum of emotion alongside great insight, and the writing is exemplary, sending one to the dictionary often but worth the effort.

This is a real jewel of the twentieth century which seems not to have found its place. It is as entertaining as it is investigative, searching, with characters who will remain with one. It is a world where a little bit of everything may be found, from the most profound insight and pathos, to the most fantastic interlude, and great humor. In Justine, a character, a writer says, "I would set my own book free to dream." Durrell may well have achieved this here.