Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Alexandria Quartet is the story of the life and loves of a young British man, Darley, who lives in Egypt during World War II. Darley has love affairs with three women: Justine, the sensuous Jewish wife of a rich Egyptian banker, Nessim; Melissa, a dancer in a cabaret who develops tuberculosis and dies; and Clea, a beautiful artist who eventually becomes Darley’s soulmate.
The central topic of the The Alexandria Quartet is “an investigation of modern love.” Durrell believed in the idea, whose origin is in Platonism, that by studying and experiencing the varieties of love, one can ascend from raw physical contact to higher forms of spiritual connection. In an interview, Durrell describes the role of love:The sexual act becomes identified with all knowledge, all knowing; and the act . . . seems a sort of biological contraption whose object is not only the race’s survival, but also the awakening of the psychic forces latent in the human being.
Thus Eros is the “motive force in man,” a “vibration” that is meant “to wake some of the engines of understanding” in men and women. Each of the major characters in The Alexandria Quartet embodies one or more aspects of Western love. Justine represents the power of sexual passion, and Melissa, charitable affection. In keeping with Durrell’s view that Western love is bankrupt, the characters seek but fail to find passionate love relationships that will...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Justine. A young Anglo-Irish writer, L. G. Darley, reflects on his life in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of World War II, and on his three great loves: Melissa, Justine, and Clea. Darley resides on a Greek island, writing and gaining perspective on his love affairs.
He first recalls Melissa, a poor cabaret dancer who sometimes engaged in prostitution. They begin their love affair as “fellow bankrupts”: He is a writer who cannot write, and she is a dancer with no talent. They have nothing in common, except that they have both been through Alexandria’s “winepress of love.”
While living with Melissa, Darley meets his second great love, Justine, who attends one of his lectures on Alexandria’s famous poet, Constantine Cavafy. Justine, “solitary student of the passions and the arts,” is a modern incarnation of Cleopatra. She captivates men with her esoteric searchings into the nature of knowledge and with her magnificent body. After the lecture, Justine invites Darley to her home, so that he can meet her husband, Nessim, a fabulously wealthy Coptic banker, who also shares in her metaphysical speculations.
Although Darley respects Nessim, he cannot refrain from falling into an affair with Justine. She rules his mind to such an extent that Darley seeks insight into her nature from the novel Moeurs, written by Justine’s ex-husband, Arnauti. In Moeurs, Arnauti created an emotionally complex character like Justine, who was sexually abused by an uncle. Arnauti fails to unravel Justine’s secrets, and Darley, too, is tormented by the decline in Justine’s affections and by his belief that Nessim learns of the affair. Tensions reach a climax at a duck shoot that Nessim arranges at Lake Mareotis. Darley fears that he will be murdered by the jealous husband. Instead, another body is found floating in the lake. The corpse turns out to be Capodistria, the relative who abused Justine. When the hunters return to shore, they discover that Justine fled. Darley feels as if the whole city crashes around his ears. Later, Darley hears through Clea that Justine is working on a Jewish kibbutz in Palestine and that Capodistria is still alive.
Darley takes a job teaching English at a school in Upper Egypt for two years and keeps in only limited contact with Melissa, who is in a clinic to cure her tuberculosis. Melissa dies before Darley can see her for a last time. He agrees to adopt her child, who is the issue of Melissa’s brief liaison with Nessim after Justine’s departure.
By the end of the novel, Darley draws closer to Clea, a lovely artist who is recovering from a lesbian affair with Justine. Together Clea and Darley analyze the events that have transpired, recalling the wisdom of their enigmatic literary friend, Percy Pursewarden, who recently committed suicide.
Balthazar. On the Greek island, Darley completes his manuscript, presumably...
(The entire section is 1206 words.)