Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912

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Beginning with the publication of Lawrence Durrell’s first serious novel, The Black Book, in 1938, perceptive readers recognized his innovative genius. T. S. Eliot praised The Black Book as “the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction.” The Alexandria Quartet marks a turning point in the development of the twentieth century novel. In its pages, modernism makes the transition into postmodernism. Modernist concerns with the privileged role of art, the mythic quest, and the hero’s search for meaning give way to postmodern concerns: indeterminacy, relativity, and the hero’s unstable ego.

The Alexandria Quartet is experimental in style and metaphysical in content, so readers are often confused by the lack of narrative structure. Durrell is a meticulous craftsman; the novel is based on what he calls an n-dimensional structure, based in turn on Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. The theory of relativity, Durrell believed, accurately defines the reality of time. Einstein destroyed the old Victorian material universe. Science shattered any coherent view of the cosmos, Durrell points out in the preface to Balthazar. Modern literature therefore offers no unities either. The book’s relativity in its point of view is a reflection of the central advance made in human understanding in the twentieth century. Thus, the first three novels of The Alexandria Quartet present three dimensions of space, and the last novel, Clea, moves the story ahead in time. How the reader should, ideally, read such a novel is illustrated by a cartoon, which appeared around the time of The Alexandria Quartet’s publication. A man is shown reading The Alexandria Quartet by means of a machine that allows him to read all four volumes simultaneously.

In addition to incorporating relativistic ideas into his novel, Durrell suggests that Sigmund Freud destroyed the idea of the stable ego. Describing such a personality in fiction or in love is complicated by the fact that many perspectives can be taken on the subject. Balthazar points out this notion to Darley: “Each psyche is really an ant-hill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion—but a necessary illusion if we are to love!

By focusing on love relationships in The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell addresses issues raised by Freud and Einstein. The central topic of the novel is an investigation of modern love. Durrell believed that “the sexual act becomes identified with all knowledge.” In other words, eros is the “motive force” in humans. Eros awakens the “psychic forces latent in the human being.” Durrell’s characters are interesting in their own right, but they are also metaphysical pawns in the search for metaphysical knowledge. Such knowledge must take into account the cosmology of the age: Personality is not fixed, and space and time are relative. Thus, Darley’s adventures in love are the key elements in his progression toward greater self-awareness and knowledge not only of himself but also of the world around him.

His first lover, Melissa Artemis, encounters him at his lowest point of self-awareness. They meet at a party. Melissa has passed out, from exhaustion and from the ingestion of Spanish fly. Darley takes her home and nurses her back to health. They begin a relationship based on the fact that they are “fellow bankrupts,” without a “taste in common.”

During this period with Melissa, Darley gives a lecture on Constantine Cavafy. After the lecture, a beautiful society woman approaches him with questions. This woman is Justine, who becomes his second great love. Justine is married to the immensely wealthy Coptic Christian banker Nessim Hosnani. Darley is instantly intrigued by the dark Justine, who has the remarkable ability to expel “people from their old selves.” Darley is willing to be led and follows after Justine, despite the fact that he meets her husband and strikes up a friendship with him. When Justine abruptly leaves both of them, Darley is forced to reevaluate the relationship and himself; this act increases his awareness of self and others.

Darley seeks solace in his third and most important relationship, with the painter Clea Montis, who also suffered through a sexual relationship with Justine. Darley and Clea work together as they attempt to determine the right way to live as artists and as human beings. Rejecting the ego-dominated, narcissistic concerns of their past lives, they try to live a more tender existence, which their mentor, Pursewarden, claims exists in the “primal relation between animal and plant, rain and soil, seed and trees, man and God.”

Before Clea and Darley reach this state of being, however, they must pass through a terrible trial. When Clea is accidentally shot by a harpoon, Darley must suddenly transform himself from a man sunk in passivity to a man of action. In saving Clea’s life, he transforms himself as well. By the end of The Alexandria Quartet, his self-awareness and confidence allow him to take his place in the community of authors.

Durrell’s goal in the novel is twofold: First, he attempts to address the major philosophical questions regarding the nature of reality and the right way to live and love, and second, he shows that there is an ideal spiritual realm in which to live. Durrell believes in an existence that abandons selfish cravings and ambitions and that enters a state of oneness with the universe. His characters begin their journeys in Alexandria but metaphorically become reflections of their age.

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The Alexandria Quartet