The Alexandria Quartet Summary
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 somehow transform their lives. Trapped in Alexandria’s great “winepress of love,” they cannot escape their egos’ obsessive delusions; they all are “deeply wounded in their sex.” Only Clea, who pulls Darley along with her, transforms her life and art—the two are inextricably mixed in Durrell’s view.
Clea’s transformation occurs on a boat trip when Darley accidentally releases a harpoon that pins Clea’s painting hand to an underwater wreck. To save her life, Darley is forced to cut off her hand. The anguish, physical pain, and empathy that the two characters experience dissolve the petty, selfish concerns that their egos had previously placed at the center of the relationship. They experience a transforming vision that gives them a sense of their belonging.
Durrell also investigates Western relativity. The Alexandria Quartet is structured to correspond to Einstein’s theory of relativity: “Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern.” The first three volumes explore differing perspectives on the novel’s events; Clea moves the story along in time.
The Alexandria Quartet ends with Clea’s recovery and with both Darley and Clea feeling reborn as artists. They decide to separate after the end of World War II, as they both make plans to go to Europe. In an interview in 1986, Durrell assumed that they would eventually reunite. He claimed that “they’re preparing to make a child.” They are ready to give birth as artists and as human beings.
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...
(The entire section is 1,698 words.)