The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell

81AC5F9E-34A5-4057-A7E0-C3FA3F3D908CI shall soon real-time review THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET by Lawrence Durrell – the first challenging work of fiction that I experienced.
In fact, I was still at school in the mid 1960s when I first read it…

My previous reviews of older or classic books:

Covfefe permitting, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

35 thoughts on “The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell

    **Part One**

    “, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes….”

    I have only so far re-read up to…
    “I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child — Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word ‘escape’. The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way….”

    Unmissable opening paragraphs. Literally.
    Or at least bits of those paragraphs shown above.
    I shall try in future to experience more sweeping bouts of re-reading this book, before reviewing each of these lengthier sweeps in real-time.

  2. 95A4119B-E4CC-4BD7-81A8-CFAC0E5B533F“, I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.”

    “Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern.”

    I had forgotten how inevitably inevitable the make-up of this text was ever meant to BE, each tactile and sensory and sexbomb word destined to be placed where it is in relation to each other from those distant times before destiny was even invented as a concept. The main character is of course Alexandria itself. The as yet nameless narrator and his Proustian memories so far merely woven together to serve that genius loci.
    The character names he gives us are sacrosanct, too, even though — unless you have read it before (and remembered it properly!) or have instinctively guessed from some retrocausal gestalt — they have yet to gain that “meaning of the pattern”, that TRIANGULATION OF (narrative) COORDINATES (or viewpoints) that I have explicitly spoken to you about quite regularly in all my gestalt real-time reviewing since I started experimenting with this process in 2008.

    I have now read this prehensile text up to:
    “The shops filling and emptying like lungs in the Rue des Soeurs.”

  3. “….the nasal chipping of a Damascus love-song; shrill quartertones, like a sinus being ground to powder.”

    This evocation so far is even better than I remember it, and needs to be eked out and savoured. The narrator on his balcony seeing Justine is a scene you will never forget. The description of his French housemate – which Rousseau? – is characterful beyond measure. As is his, the narrator’s, loss of confidence in his own writing! The latter phenomenon feels like my own watershed back earlier this century when I mostly gave up writing source works and began to create confirmation that there are new personal worlds to be found in others’ works, works judiciously chosen, as I am doing now…

    Read up to: “Occasionally I turn over a bundle of manuscript or an old proof-copy of a novel or book of poems with disgusted inattention; with sadness, like someone studying an old passport.”

  4. Pingback: A sinus being ground to powder… | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS: Wood, Metal, Stone

  5. ‘This intimacy should go no further, for we have already exhausted all its possibilities in our respective imaginations: and what we shall end by discovering, behind the darkly woven colours of sensuality, will be a friendship so profound that we shall become bondsmen forever.’

    This feels like me and the book I happen to choose to read. Gestalt real-time reviewing is the nearest one gets to sex without it being sex. And it is often something else, something better than sex. Especially when you get too old for it, like the old man as rival of the narrator vis à vis Melissa. Or like myself. I was a young man when I first read these passages. Although the text has not changed, I HAVE!
    And so the text has tantamount to changed, too!

  6. ‘You talk as if there was a choice. We are not strong or evil enough to exercise choice. All this is part of an experiment arranged by something else, the city perhaps, or another part of ourselves. How do I know?’

    “…and knew her for a true child of Alexandria; which is neither Greek, Syrian nor Egyptian, but a hybrid: a joint.”

    “Herself pushing open the shutters to stand on the dark balcony above a city of coloured lights: feeling the evening wind stir from the confines of Asia: her body for an instant forgotten.”

    I also stand at my dark or Last Balcony – reading this book again or thinking outside the box, as I am trapped within it by Cavafy… or Covfefe or Covid.
    You can’t think outside the box unless you are within that box when you do that thinking.

    I have now read up to: “, he repeated softly under his breath the words: ‘Not I.’”

  7. “White cloths had been spread over us by a small black boy while in a great Victorian moustache-cup the barber thwacked up his dense and sweet-smelling lather before applying it in direct considered brush-strokes to our cheeks. The first covering complete, he surrendered his task to an assistant while he went to the great strop hanging among the flypapers on the end wall of the shop and began to sweeten the edge of an English razor.“

  8. “Capodistria has the purely involuntary knack of turning everything into a woman; under his eyes chairs become painfully conscious of their bare legs. He impregnates things. At table I have seen a water-melon become conscious under his gaze so that it felt the seeds inside it stirring with life!”

    “; the burning stupid metaphor of Berenice’s hair glittering in the night sky above Melissa’s sleeping face. ‘Ah!’ said Justine once ‘that there should be something free, something Polynesian about the licence in which we live.’ Or even Mediterranean, she might have added, for the connotation of every kiss would be different in Italy or Spain;
    My bold.

    The narrator — (“I did not know how to reply for all ideas seem equally good to me; the fact of their existence proves that someone is creating.”) — allows us to see these characters accretively, the talk of aGnosticism and Gnosticism, the sexuality, the procuring, the idiosyncrasies, to see all this and more not only as the Alexandria Gestalt but also, through his naïve eyes but complexly rich words, his nameless self and he reminds me, with his view that all people’s ideas are equally good, of a quote that I think I, alone, a few years ago, made more famous than it perhaps deserves, a quote from another Durrell work I admire (see below the stars)…


    “From the cosmic point of view, to have opinions or preferences at all is to be ill; for by harbouring them one dams up the flow of the ineluctable force which, like a river, bears us down to the ocean of everything’s unknowing. Reality is a running noose, one is brought up short with a jerk by death. It would have been wiser to co-operate with the inevitable and learn to profit by this unhappy state of things – by realising and accommodating death! But we don’t, we allow the ego to foul its own nest. Therefore we have insecurity, stress, the midnight-fruit of insomnia, with a whole culture crying itself to sleep. How to repair this state of affairs except through art, through gifts which render to us language manumitted by emotion, poetry twisted into the service of direct insight?”
    – from ‘The Avignon Quincunx’ by Lawrence Durrell (‘Constance’ 1982)

  9. A scene in an establishment for child prostitution you ought to forget – if you can! I think it is here deemed to have a “horrifying beauty.”

    Read up to: “Mareotis turns lemon-mauve and its muddy flanks are starred by sheets of radiant anemones, growing through the quickened plaster-mud of the shore.”

  10. Good luck reading this at the same time Pale Fire! Both unbelievably complicated novels about meta-narration.

  11. “‘You are falling in love with Justine’ and I answered as sincerely, as honestly, as painfully as I could: ‘No Melissa, it is worse than that’ — though I could not for the life of me have explained how or why.”

    The words continue to flow as if they were composed by some gestalt of archetypal memories, rather than by the author who typed them out. Agonising comparisons of self with self in the choreography of love or sex. Within the frame of genius loci. Picked out with an articulated tactility of emotion as well as formal semantics/ phonetics and with a certain freedom of descriptivity rather than prescriptivity.

    Read up to: ‘This is nothing of medical interest — a small chill. Diseases are not interested in those who want to die.’

  12. We learn more of the narrator’s relationship with Melissa, and he likens her dancing to “(the air of a gazelle harnessed to a water-wheel)”…
    I shall in future refer to the narrator in shorthand as I and me for the purposes of this gestalt real-time review.

    “Then she would begin to cough with her uncollapsed lung…”

    And we hear how Melissa and I first met via a co-tenant called Pursewarden in Pombal’s place, a character who I somehow recall becomes important later in the plot of this book… Pursewarden has been told I am a doctor, and there is a sick woman (Melissa) in his convivial room…while “Somewhere out of sight someone was being slowly, unctuously sick.”

    I have now read up to
    ‘Spanish fly. He gave it to her.’
    and, due to how I recall the nature of Melissa’s ailments, I wonder preternaturally whether this is a tellingly oblique reference (disguised as a typo) to Spanish FLU, which, as a global pandemic, was the forerunner of our Covid-19 today.

  13. Read up to: “We idled arm in arm by the sea that afternoon, our conversations full of the débris of lives lived without forethought, without architecture.”

    …followed by a kiss.
    An idyllic romance that I have started with Melissa, after helping her be rescued from a truly serious sickness, as if my own pending sickness in real-time (should THAT sickness be what it is!) is wishfully somehow diverted in its course away from me by that very rescue, too! Though, incredibly, I do mention to her my own venereal troubles as an excuse not to make love to her today! Blame Pursewarden’s Syrians he lent me, I say. Or did I even confuse myself about all that? Pursewarden, by the way, has the appropriate name for someone who actually does keep lending me money!

  14. “And everywhere the veils, the screaming, the mad giggle under the pepper-trees, the insanity and the lepers.”

    “— a death of the self uttered in every repetition of the word Alexandria, Alexandria.”

    Those Proustian ‘selves’, as we all become today’s potential real-time ‘lepers’!

    If it were not for a story I read a year or so ago using ‘Cicisbeo’ as its title (reviewed here), this would be the first time my current self had encountered this word. Of course an earlier self of mine must have encountered it back in the mid nineteen sixties when I first read this The Alexandria Quartet! And ‘cicisbeo ‘ is of course the perfect word for me as the narrator.

    Then we come to the splendid Nabokovian Pale Fire meta-ness of literature with ‘Mœurs’ by Jacob Arnauti, that I begin to read…
    Arnauti’s words ARE indeed NAUGHTY, when talking of “racial osmosis” and other racial matters and descriptions. The brexits and the breasts. “Their hippopotamus-like womenfolk, lightly moustached, have jingled off to bed in their jewellery.”
    The meta-novel deals, too, with loving an earlier version of Justine in cognito, as I once did.

    Read up to:
    “We have left Europe behind here and are moving towards a new spiritual latitude.”

  15. “It may be imagined with what breathless, painful anxiety I first read this account of a love-affair with Justine; and truly after many re-readings the book, which I now know almost by heart, has always remained for me a document, full of personal pain and astonishment.”

    And so, with genuine bated breath, I read more of Arnauti’s version of Justine…
    “Later the hazards of one of those awful English dances, called the Paul Jones I believe, left me facing her for a waltz.”

    Yet, I wonder still about the nature of this meta-fiction as a variety of otherwise unreachable truth, and Arnauti’s novel seems to briefly assume my own perspective not his…
    “It is idle to go over all this in a medium as unstable as words. I remember the edges and corners of so many meetings, and I see a sort of composite Justine,..”

    That gestalt again as composite, I guess. That triangulation of coordinates I mentioned earlier above in this review as a phenomenon I have boringly kept going on about since starting these reviews in 2008!
    Here Arnauti, meanwhile, has a singular clumsy surveillance of Justine (here, to remind you, she is known incognito … as Claudia) and he even mentions a possible “illicit” Sapphic affair and another man she kept seeing, too, but neither with any foundation in sex. Arnauti seems subsumed by ambiguities. A quest for requital while trying to resist a genuine love for Justine, a love that he calls an “evil genius”. Even ‘love’ backwards as the ‘evol’ in the choice of ‘revolt’ or ‘evolution’!

    Read up to (or thereabouts):
    “…a sinking numbness such as one might feel on leaving a friend in hospital, to enter a lift and fall six floors in silence, standing beside a uniformed automaton whose breathing one could hear.”

  16. Pingback: The Quest for the Literary Gestalt, its goal finally in sight… | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS: Wood, Metal, Stone

  17. “…real people can only exist in the imagination of an artist strong enough to contain them and give them form. ‘Life, the raw material, is only lived in potentia until the artist deploys it in his work. …’ […] But of course one cannot escape so easily from the pattern which he regards as imposed but which in fact grows up organically within the work and appropriates it.”

    This is so utterly amenable to what I dream of doing with as yet invisible elements of gestalt real-time reviewing, should I live long enough. I, the narrator, test Justine’s diary for notes on Arnauti and there are not many especially when taking into account such a significant meta-work quoted within my work about her. Justine (or Claudia) as the pure Alexandrian, and cannot be criticised for her faults, as she simply IS.
    Political correctness predicted but here transcended?

    Read up to:
    “It is perhaps what the Freudians would call a screen-memory of incidents in her earliest youth.”

    ‘Screen-memory’ perhaps prophesies a gestalt today of our own personal on-line memories of a singular real-time on-line life separate from or contiguous to the ‘real’ one?

  18. “What! Every time she lay in my arms she could find no satisfaction save through this memory?”

    We learn — via Arnauti, then via the Narrator, then via Durrell, now, here, via me — of Claudia’s or Justine’s true ‘screen-memory”, regressive to her childhood … carried like a virus into every future affair….

    Read up to…
    “We carried her disease backwards and forwards over Europe like a baby in a cradle until I began to despair,…”

  19. D208C4F4-1A9B-452D-ABA9-107676663169 “After all, somewhere in the world he must be now, his hair thinning and greying from business worries or excesses, wearing a black patch over one eye as he did always after an attack of ophthalmia.”

    How did I already know that James Joyce commonly wore an eye patch? Well, most of my life, I have suffered sporadically from IRITIS in the left eye, just like him! But that Durrell (the freeholder of the narrative leaseholders here) might have placed this writer he was supposed to admire in the rôle of Arnauti’s Justine’s Freudian bugbear from her past, is at least arguable.

    “I am puzzled indeed to remember how long and how vainly I searched for excuses which might make her amorality if not palatable at least understandable.”

    The later scenes in this section have a perfectly couched scene of I, the narrator, throwing off the trammels of Melissa and Justine shedding similar ties of Nessim – Justine and I together.


  20. **Part Two**

    I have now read up to: ‘We are all hunting for rational reasons for believing in the absurd.’

    I now realise this is where I first came in when I read this book back in 1964 and still at school …. and a tiny few years later after that learnt about Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy from Anne Cluysenaar, and I was callow-eyed then (still am!) and much must have gone over my head. Yet, I today recognise the above quoted statement and how it has been with me since then. And these opening pages of Part Two tell of the ‘homosexual’ or ‘pædorast’ Pan whose name is Balthazar, another key to Alexandria, another member of this book’s triangulated coordinates of coterie that include so far: myself, Melissa, Nessim, Justine, Pombal, Pursewarden… anybody I have forgotten?

  21. “‘Today is Saturday’ he said hoarsely ‘in Alexandria.’ He spoke as if a different sort of time obtained here, and he was not wrong.”

    Balthazar loses his ankh key, otherwise an intrinsic part of his watch, just as this book is the key TO as well as PART OF the literary gestalt, and I feel I must have been naively exercising a form of literary Gnosticism with an instinctive process in these reviews since 2008, as I read more here about Alexandria’s Cabal, and the various beliefs that characterfully people it.

    “All this was not very comprehensible to me, yet vaguely I felt a sort of correspondence between the associations he employed; and certainly much of what he said seemed to — not explain, but to offer a frame to the picture…”

    And an explicitly recognised ‘confusion between ideas and intentions’. I have long written about the preternatural yet fey balance between clarity and confusion with regard to this review site.

    “…ability to perceive an inherent order in the universe which underlay the apparent formlessness and arbitrariness of phenomena.”

    I, as narrator, also now receive different coordinates upon Arnauti and his own coordinates upon Justine…
    And I relish the word ‘boustrophedon’ and its meaning, as given here!

    I have now read up to or narrated up to: “Passionate love even for a man’s own wife is also adultery.”

  22. “— the long pull of the train into the silver light reminds me of the sudden long pull ot the vertebrae of her white back turning in bed. ‘Melissa’ I call out, but the giant sniffing of the engine blots out all sound.”

    09801446-64DE-49DF-800E-FEA6AAF66860 But does not blot out all memory…

    “I write and relive that night which has taken its place in the enormous fund of the city’s memories.”

    I see where I first learnt the lesson of the gestalt. THIS BOOK. Above is a photo of me dwelling on such deep thoughts in 1968! By then, they had already percolated in my mind for a few years?

    “‘What a horrible disease’ he said under his breath,…”

    Whatever the disease. We now have some more evocatively tactile scenes of Alexandria. But metaphorically, also scenes of me, as narrator, meeting me as an old man in an explicitly critical-care bed in hospital…

    “It terrified me to think that this old man, at such a point in his life, had been unable to conjure up an instant’s tenderness by the memory of anything he had said or done:”

    “But now confusion began to set in, and holding me gently by the hand he led me into the dense jungle of his illusions, walking among them with such surefootedness and acknowledging them so calmly that I almost found myself keeping company with them too.”

  23. “What interested me was the extraordinary fidelity with which he reproduced this whole conversation which obviously in his memory ranked as one of the great experiences of his life.”

    I still talk, in this critique, to the old man in a critical-care bed, the man that is me, and other old men like me, as if today is the first chance to do so, under this book’s lockdown.

    I have now read — or narrated — up to…
    “Now neither the wife nor the woman who is his mistress wants to see him. […] ‘We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love.’ […] We have been told so often that history is indifferent, but we always take its parsimony or plenty as somehow planned; we never really listen….[…] hunting for the meaning to the pattern.”

  24. “, I walk stiffly sheathed in wind by a sealine choked with groaning sponges hunting for the meaning to the pattern.
    As a poet of the historic consciousness I suppose I am bound to see landscape as a field dominated by the human wish — tortured into farms and hamlets, ploughed into cities. A landscape scribbled with the signatures of men and epochs. Now, however, I am beginning to believe that the wish is inherited from the site; that man depends for the furniture of the will upon his location in place, tenant of fruitful acres or a perverted wood. It is not the impact of his freewill upon nature which I see (as I thought) but the irresistible growth, through him, of nature’s own blind unspecified doctrines of variation and torment. She has chosen this poor forked thing as an exemplar. Then how idle it seems for any man to say, as I once heard Balthazar say: ‘The mission of the Cabal, if it has one, is so to ennoble function that even eating and excreting will be raised to the rank of arts.’ You will see in all this the flower of a perfect scepticism which undermines the will to survive. Only love can sustain one a little longer.
    I think, too, that something of this sort must have been in Arnauti’s mind when he wrote: ‘For the writer people as psychologies are finished. The contemporary psyche has exploded like a soap-bubble under the investigations of the mystagogues. What now remains to the writer?’”

    Sorry to quote so much today. But I as pretentious reviewer AND I as the narrator seem encapsulated, in all our conflicts as selves. Also TODAY is encapsulated by this book’s then prophecy.
    Repeat: “…the irresistible growth, through him, of nature’s own blind unspecified doctrines of variation and torment.”

  25. “And yet, strangely enough, it is only here that I am at last able to re-enter, reinhabit the unburied city with my friends; to frame them in the heavy steel webs of metaphors which will last half as long as the city itself — or so I hope.”

    The city being a different metaphor for … for whom?

    “(What I most need to do is to record experiences, not in the order in which they took place — for that is history — but in the order in which they first became significant for me.)”

    And we learn more of my falteringly growing gestalt of Pursewarden, two writers or two old friends on the point of self-twilight, or worse. Meeting in a rained-upon ‘pissotière’ at night to discuss our love of women and erstwhile life. “…heavy with a sense of different failures.”
    And with my own erstwhile cancer treatment as reviewer, if not narrator…
    “For sex is dying. In another century we shall lie with our tongues in each other’s mouths, silent and passionless as sea-fruit. Oh yes! Indubitably so.”

    It’s the way you tell ‘em! Or at least the way you say ‘indubitably’. This is Pursewarden upon the point of death, I guess, but like all great books, he will live on in it, be lived through again, I recall. But I can never be certain. Memory is a false gift.

    A Constructive Congeries of the Conceits, Coronas, COincidences, COinspirancies, Confirmation-Biases and Connections in Imaginative Fiction. In the pitiless passion of the reading-moment, often raw, often gnomic, often wordy, but always heartfelt. All books bought. (Now in the new light of Covid, there is some golden sphere in fey balance between clarity and confusion.)

    I have read up to:
    “These are the sort of fragments which tease the waking mind…”

  26. “The noise of her voice is jumbled in the back of his brain like the sound-track of an earthquake run backwards.”

    And then we get one of those literary portraits, that all writers, of whatever skills, would envy should they ever read it and need to emulate it. The portrait in words of a real ‘character’, Scobie, nearly 70. Telling also of another portrait of him, this time in paint by Clea.

    “And somehow in England one doesn’t feel free any more.”

    In those days to be nearly 70 was of decrepit age. And those times are now due to come back. I already feel that, personally, for real!

    “Frankly Scobie looks anybody’s age; older than the birth of tragedy, younger than the Athenian death. Spawned in the Ark by a chance meeting and mating of the bear and the ostrich;”

  27. “As for Clea herself: is it only my imagination which makes it seem so difficult to sketch her portrait?”

    From the beginning of ‘Nemonymous Night’ (2011) that chimes with above and now obliquely elucidates it…
    ‘And if anything is deemed unimagined or unimaginary or unimaginable then it is incapable of existing in fiction, fantasy or dream—but merely in real life.‘

  28. “Love is horribly stable, and each of us is only allotted a certain portion of it, a ration. It is capable of appearing in an infinity of forms and attaching itself to an infinity of people.”

    Love as the new gestalt, individual become covidual.
    A concept that now makes sense about much I have seen in life and literature about love but not, till, now fully hawled.
    Part of a portrait of a friend of mine, Clea, obsessive but non-serious painter. She has painted Justine’s head for me… and has done medical drawings for Balthazar….

    “— abdomens blown like fuses, skin surfaces shrunken and peeling like plaster, carcinomata bursting through the rubber membranes which retain them….”

  29. “For my part I remained always stupefied and mumchance at all the avenues opened up by these thoughts;”

    My heartfelt thoughts on the precarious Justine and on our equally precarious relationship, cross-referenced, as I always cross-reference things, with Arnauti’s written views on her.
    [We all have our own mumchance to be parented by the constraints of tongue-tied social non-distance but there is no damage done if we are not tongue-tied in the public print of literature…. Our way of talking as thinking thus crystallised, if crystallised sometimes, hopefully, with the gift of spontaneous flair.]

    Read up to:
    “Justine surrounded by her philosophers is like an invalid surrounded by medicines — empty capsules, bottles and syringes.”

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