The Alexandria Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell
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The Alexandria Quartet

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

Darley, a writer, becomes involved with Justine, the wife of Nessim, a wealthy Egyptian Copt. Eventually, it is revealed that Nessim and Justine are engaged in smuggling armaments to Palestine and that Darley is a secret agent. Surrounding this basic plot and involved in it with greater or lesser degrees of awareness are Mountolive, the British Ambassador and former lover of Nessim’s mother; Melissa and Clea, Darley’s mistresses; Balthazar, a doctor who treats Justine; and various characters who flesh out the community of Alexandria.

The tetralogy’s substance and appeal issue from its ever-changing points of view on the action. The first three novels cover the same events, but do so from different viewpoints. Darley is the narrator of Justine (1957) and of Balthazar (1958), which presents, however, the interlinear notes of its title character and corrects Darley’s limited version of events. In Mountolive (1958), which is written in the objective third person, Darley becomes a character. CLEA (1960) serves as a commentary on the whole and advances the narrative forward. Thus, each novel corrects the one before by providing more information from a different perspective.

The structure of the tetralogy, rather than its content, reflects Durrell’s interest in the nature of reality and of knowing. This is reinforced further through the use of writers as characters and of journals, letters, diaries, and memoirs. The spirit of place, Alexandria, is also exploited by references to the poet Cavafy to suggest that perceptions of reality are affected not only by who we are but also by where we are.

Bibliography:

Begnal, Michael H., ed. On Miracle Ground: Essays on the Fiction of Lawrence Durrell. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1990. In a transcript of a 1986 lecture, Durrell explains his life and art. Other essays in this volume give mythological, Buddhist, and narratological perspectives on The Alexandria Quartet.

Durrell, Lawrence. A Key to Modern British Poetry. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952. In the context of the book’s subject, Durrell presents the philosophical, artistic, and scientific ideas that underlie The Alexandria Quartet.

Friedman, Alan Warren, ed. Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Contains the most comprehensive selection of essays on Durrell’s work. Included are early reviews of The Alexandria Quartet.

Friedman, Alan Warren. Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet: Art for Love’s Sake. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. Shows that love presents “an endless potential for variations on a theme.”

Pine, Richard. Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. The first book-length study of Durrell’s work to appear in the past twenty-five years. Based on Durrell’s diaries and notebooks.

Unterecker, John. Lawrence Durrell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. A brief, incisive explanation of The Alexandria Quartet’s themes, such as love, the nature of reality, and the role of the artist.

Weigel, John A. Lawrence Durrell. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A good summary of Durrell’s life and work. Selected bibliography.

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Critical Evaluation