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THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET, LAWRENCE DURRELL AND THE COPTS رباعية الإسكندرية والأقباط

April 2, 2011

Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990)

The Alexandria Quartet is the most famous and successful book of the British author Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990). Durrell published his four-part novel in the period 1957-1960: Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960). Its events occur mainly in Alexandria, Egypt, in the period 1933-1945.[i]

The story is complex, and sometimes difficult to read, but has acclaimed international fame, due to its unique style and structure, in addition to its fascinating and some exotic characters. While many critics regard the novel as a masterpiece, and some stating that it is the one book they would take with them to a desert island,[ii] others loathe it, and think it reflects an overblown style, artificiality, and lack of historicity.[iii]

John A. Weigel in his Lawrence Durrell[iv] talks about the novel in three adequate chapters: The Alexandria Quartet as Story; The Alexandria Quartet as Experiment; The Alexandria Quartet as Oracle. Grove Koger gives an adequate summary of the Quartet in Literary Encyclopedia.[v] The reader can, read these two, or other literary reviews, to learn more about this huge novel. Better still is to read the Alexandria Quartet.

But why does a Blog dedicated to Coptic nationalism get interested in a literary work undertaken by a British novelist? It is because some of the main characters of the Quartet are Coptic. We come across the wealthy and fascinating family of Hosnani: Falthaus, head of the family, who is physically invalid; Leila, his wife; Nessim, the elder son; Narouz, the younger son; and Justine, a Jewish woman, and wife of Nessim. As we read the tetralogy, the social and sexual life of the family unfolds, the details of the latter many Copts will find shocking to accept and not reflective of their traditional values. But the most interesting aspects of this family is their political life and thoughts, which somehow get them involved in anti-British activity in Palestine in support of Zionism, and which ends up by their downfall, an activity, called ‘Coptic conspiracy’, which is atypical of the Copts, and which has been criticised by some as ludicrous and unhistorical,[vi] but other literary critics have postulated the possibility of its happening, if one considered the political scene in the period.[vii] Nonetheless, there are some parts of the novel which the Copt will find very much interesting and relevant. It is a shame that the Copts haven’t paid this novel enough attention. One would hope that those of us who have studied literature to do some work on this novel and to come, from a Coptic point of view, with a literary and historical criticism of The Alexandria Quartet. This Blog will be happy to receive any comments or articles about the novel, and will publish it.

Here is a summary of the work:[viii]

Justine: the first volume of the Alexandria Quartet


Justine is intentionally kaleidoscopic, a serendipitous excursion through the immediate past of a British schoolteacher and would-be writer we come to know in subsequent volumes as Darley. Darley has “escaped” from Egypt to a Greek island in the Aegean with a child, the daughter of his late lover Melissa. Here he sorts out his memories of pre-war Alexandria, a tawdry Levantine port made glamorous by his love affair with a beautiful Egyptian femme fatale named Justine and by his friendship with a host of Egyptians and expatriates thrown together by the approach of World War II. These characters include Darley’s languorously lecherous roommate Pombal; Justine’s sleek banker husband Nessim; novelist and bon vivant Pursewarden, whose enigmatic suicide emerges as one of the pivotal events of the Quartet; and homosexual doctor and cabalist Balthazar, who actually knew Cavafy. Perhaps most colourful of all is aging policeman Scobie, whose ultimately fatal “tendencies” involve dressing up as a woman during the full moon and trolling for British sailors on shore leave.

A story line gradually emerges from the welter of notes, impressions, aphorisms, characters, and events. Justine attends a lecture Darley is giving on Cavafy, “the old poet of the city”, and the two begin an affair that can only end badly. The increasingly troubled Nessim surely knows of the affair, and the two lovers fatalistically await his next move. The duck hunt given every year on one of Nessim’s estates seems the perfect opportunity, but when death comes the victim is Capodistria, who we learn raped Justine when she was a child, setting in motion her restless nymphomania. Justine disappears – to Palestine, it is later revealed.

Balthazar: the second volume of the Alexandria Quartet


A character from Justine steps forward in Balthazar to correct Darley’s many misapprehensions about events in Alexandria. Having read Darley’s manuscript – presumably the novel we ourselves have just finished – Balthazar visits him in the Cyclades to set the record straight. A heretofore unsuspected political dimension emerges, as Darley learns of a conspiracy against the British in both Egypt and Palestine involving Nessim’s Coptic family, especially his passionate and unpredictable brother Narouz. Most astonishingly, according to this new version of events, Justine instigated her relationship with Darley as a cover for her “real” affair – with Pursewarden!

In other developments, Scobie is kicked to death by outraged British sailors, but is elevated to sainthood by his Muslim neighbors; his bathtub, in which he was wont to prepare a lethal “Mock Whisky”, becomes a holy relic. The painter Clea, a seemingly secondary character in Justine, emerges with greater clarity as we learn of her growing friendship with Darley and her dismay at Narouz’s unwelcome advances. A gala masked ball becomes the scene of another death as a friend of Justine, Toto de Brunel, is stabbed while wearing her ring. Explanations abound, but as Balthazar warns Darley, “Each fact can have a thousand motivations, all equally valid, and each fact a thousand faces”. This warning applies equally well, of course, to Balthazar’s own emendations.

Mountolive: the third volume of the Alexandria Quartet


The third and longest volume in the series, Mountolive, is narrated in the third person, and might well convince unsuspecting readers that it reveals the “truth” about the events of the first two volumes. The novel reaches further back in time than its predecessors to describe David Mountolive’s early years in Egypt, particularly his friendship with Nessim’s family and brief affair with Nessim’s mother Leila. Emotionally immature, Mountolive finds his imagination kindled by Leila, and the two correspond through all the years of Mountolive’s increasingly successful diplomatic career, which eventually returns him to the scene of the most formative events of his life.

In Egypt once again, Ambassador Mountolive retains Pursewarden on the embassy payroll despite warnings that the latter is ignoring Nessim’s anti-British machinations. When the plot is eventually revealed, Pursewarden kills himself and Mountolive finds himself under increasing pressure to act against his old friends. Leila intercedes for her family, but Mountolive is aghast to find the woman he loved so many years ago transformed into a scarred crone. Nessim and Justine are impoverished, but the Egyptian government acts most brutally against Narouz. The novel ends with a Coptic wake, as Nessim sits beside the coffin of his murdered brother, pondering the wreck of his ambitions.

Clea: the fourth volume of the Alexandria Quartet


Although it seems to “clarify” many of the events in the preceding volumes, Clea nevertheless advances the Quartet through time, as Darley returns to Alexandria. The war is nearing an end, but most of Darley’s friends are now mere shadows of themselves. His passion for Justine is spent, as is hers for Nessim, who has been reduced to driving an ambulance. Clea comes into her own, and she and Darley become lovers. Balthazar, who once stood at a comfortable remove from the romantic entanglements of other Alexandrians, has made a fool of himself through love for a young actor, although he has been “rehabilitated” by his friends. Darley finds himself treated as “Brother Ass” in a series of extracts from Pursewarden’s notebooks.

In the climactic scene of this final novel, Darley saves Clea’s life on a swimming party when a harpoon gun (once the property of Narouz!) carelessly handled by Balthazar pins her hand to the hull of a sunken ship, forcing Darley to hack her loose. Her ruined hand subsequently replaced with a mechanical one, Clea discovers that she has been freed as a painter. Darley himself undergoes a similar metamorphosis, ending the Quartet on an expansive and affirmative note:

Yes, one day I found myself writing down with trembling fingers the four words (four letters! four faces!) with which every story-teller since the world began has staked his slender claim to the attention of his fellow-men. Words which presage simply the old story of an artist coming of age. I wrote: “Once upon a time. . . .”

And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!



[i] Donald P. Kaczvinsky: When Was Darley in Alexandria? A Chronology for “The Alexandria Quartet”. Journal of Modern Literature; Vol. 17, No. 4 (Spring, 1991), pp. 591-594.

[ii] The British politician and ex-leader of the Conservative party, Iain Duncan Smith, who named the Quartet as the one book he would take with him to a desert island.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Desert_Island_Discs_episodes_%282001%E2%80%932010%29

[iii] Literary Encyclopedia: The Alexandria Quartet http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=10820

[iv] John A. Weigel: Lawrence Durrell. New York (1965).

[v] Grove Koger: The Alexandria Quartet. Literary Encyclopedia (2002) http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=10820

[vi] Manzalaoui, Mahmoud (1962). “Curate’s Egg: An Alexandrian Opinion of Durrell’s Quartet.” Etudes Anglaises 15.3. pp. 248-260.

[vii] Haag, Michael (2004). Alexandria: City of Memory. Yale University Press. See also  G.S. Fraser in his Lawerence Durrell, A Study (1968).

[viii] Excerpts taken aken from Grove Roger: The Alexandria Quartet.

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