The Alexandria Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell

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The Alexandria Quartet (Justine, 1957, Balthazar, 1958, Mountolive, 1958, Clea, 1960) presents a procession of characters as rich and diverse as any work of twentieth-century fiction. At first glance, they all seem terribly exotic, in part because of their Alexandrian setting, which seems to shape character in mysterious ways. Then readers realize that they have met most of these characters before, in life and in literature, and they are quite conventional: diplomats and politicians whose lives are lived at the center of power and who yet remain curiously powerless; inept intelligence agents who seem to lack, above all, intelligence and the ability to fathom their own plots; prostitutes with hearts of gold; writers and artists who talk too much and create too little, whose creative struggles are frustrated for a variety of reasons; and lovers of all persuasions who remain, for the most part, incomplete lovers.

Most of the characters may seem quite conventional yet what is fresh about the presentation of character is the prismatic diffusion of identity, the multifaceted quality, whereby all the characters blur and mingle. Early in the first volume, Justine sits in front of a multiple mirror (one of many in the work) and declares: "Look! five different pictures of the same subject." If she were a writer, she says, she would "try for a multi-dimensional effect in character, a sort of prism-sightedness. Why should not people show more than one profile at a time?" This kind of Picassoesque fragmentation is one major aspect of character presentation. Even more important is that sense of relatedness through which discrete, separate, established identity is shattered or denied. All the characters "throw down a field about each other." They can be known only through their relationships.

Justine, for example, seems, by turns, exotic and passionate, nymphomaniacal and sexless unless sex is yoked with political intrigue. Readers may think they know her when they understand that her sexual activity amounts to an attempt to exorcise the fact that she was raped as a child. Or, when one realizes that all of her sexual encounters may be rooted in espionage, one is invited to conclude that she is merely Nessim's spy, a tool in her husband's anti-British conspiracy. Even her psychoanalysts are unable to discover the one true face behind the multiple masks. Of course, as readers work their way through the simultaneity of the complete Alexandria Quartet, and learn that the basic facts of the first volume are a kind of hoax, readers finally come to understand, with Darley, the romantic young narrator in the process of learning how and what to see, that Justine does have one identity, one face: "the primitive face of mindless Aphrodite."
Perhaps the most important character group, in this or any other Durrell fiction, is that of the artists, the writers and painters: Arnauti, Pursewarden, Darley, Keats, and Clea. Some of them, after great suffering and struggle, come through to wholeness, to a genuine and elemental creativity which is the terrain of art and love. One of the more unique and memorable characters, one whose outlines are not blurred, is Scobie, who has been celebrated by some critics as one of the great comic originals of literature, on the order of Falstaff or Uncle Toby. On the one hand, he represents, in his homosexuality and transvestism, one of the work's sexual extremes. On the other hand, he is the exemplar of childlike innocence and goodness. He is, Durrell would have one feel, Saint Scobie, the "holy fool" as G. S. Fraser has put it, "who knows nothing and everything."

Finally, it bears repeating that Alexandria, "the capital of memory," the source and intersection of everything in Western culture is, as Durrell suggests, a major character, the least "unreal" character of the work.

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