Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
The narrator, identified as L. G. Darley later in the quartet. All the events in this book are filtered through Darley’s understanding. After the central events recounted in the novel, Darley moves to an island (with Justine, the daughter of Melissa Artemis and Nessim Hosnani) and begins the write the narrative of Justine. He uses his own memories, Justine Hosnani’s diary, and another book,Moeurs, written about Justine by Justine’s former husband, the Albanian-French Jacob Arnauti. Darley recounts how he, a poor schoolteacher and later minor British War Office official and spy, began to have an affair with Justine, grew obsessed with her, and worried that Nessim, Justine’s husband, was going to have him killed. Darley experiences guilt over cheating on his lover, Melissa Artemis, and on his friend Nessim. He also believes that Justine loves him. In one memorable sequence, he goes with Nessim to help Justine leave a child brothel, where they find her nearly hysterical.
Justine Hosnani, the title character. Attractive to all, multifaceted, wildly promiscuous, impressionable, and intelligent, Justine is also a staple of literature, the deceptive fatal woman. She begins an affair with Darley after hearing him deliver a lecture on poet C. P. Cavafy. She tells of being raped as child. It appears that her sexual escapades are attempts to re-enact that experience. Before marrying Nessim, she was very poor and apparently lost her one child, a daughter, perhaps as a result of kidnapping. She is Jewish, although she converted to Coptic Christianity upon marrying her second husband, Nessim. She takes part in the Cabal, a study group of the ancient religion of gnosticism. She goes to a kibbutz in Palestine after Paul Capodistria is killed.
Nessim Hosnani, an extremely rich and influential Copt from an old family. Nessim is quiet, efficient, businesslike, and Oxford-educated. He seems to tolerate Justine’s many affairs, but Darley grows worried when he sees that Nessim is under great stress. Darley is invited to a duck shoot at Lake Mareotis that Nessim arranges. Justine tells Darley that he may be killed in a shooting “accident.”
Melissa Artemis, a Greek cabaret dancer. Although her life is generally sordid, she remains comparatively innocent (as reflected by her ironic last name). In some of her aspects, she is a stock character, the poor but honest prostitute who dies. The former mistress of Cohen, a rich man, she becomes Darley’s lover and is deeply distressed by his emotional unfaithfulness, of which she is aware from the start. Later, she has an affair with Nessim and has a child by him, whom Darley adopts. Suffering from malnutrition and other health problems, she dies alone at the end of the novel, of tuberculosis.
George Gaston Pombal
George Gaston Pombal, Darley’s French flatmate, also a minor consular official.
S. Balthazar, a Jewish doctor and leader of the Cabal, the group that studies gnostic metaphysics.
Clea Montis, an ascetic painter who devotes her life to her craft. She is blonde, benign, and calm, unlike most of the characters in the novel.
Paul Capodistria, an ugly, rich lecher and evidently the man who raped Justine as a child. He is also referred to in the novel as Da Capo. He, not Darley, is killed at the duck shoot.
Joshua Scobie, an old British imperialist and ostensibly minor Egyptian police official. He is an alcoholic and a cross-dressing homosexual. In his official police capacity, he hires Darley to spy on the Cabal, warning Darley that its members are involved in a conspiracy that will result in war. Darley finds this laughable, knowing that the Cabal is merely a group studying religious metaphysics, but he keeps a straight face and takes the job because he needs the money.
Percy Pursewarden, a successful novelist and minor official. He irritates the blocked writer Darley. Before committing suicide, Pursewarden wills Darley five hundred pounds, which Darley uses to quit teaching, move to an island in the Cyclades where he can live cheaply, and begin to write Justine. Darley is mystified by the suicide of Pursewarden, who had seemed content and was successful.
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S. Balthazar, a Jewish doctor and leader of the Cabal. He narrates approximately half of the novel. Darley sends him the manuscript of Justine, and Balthazar returns it with commentary, referred to in the novel as the Great Interlinear. The central events of Justine are not as Darley interpreted them. Balthazar argues that Justine did not love Darley; she began the affair with Darley, with the prior consent of Nessim, as a means of spying. The Hosnanis hoped that Darley could inform them if the British knew of the Hosnani conspiracy for the Zionist cause, traitorous in Egypt. The Cabal, with its open meetings and religious focus, was the cover for a cabal of Zionists. Balthazar was the doctor called to the scene of Pursewarden’s suicide, which he describes. Nessim arrived before Balthazar and hastily erased a message about the Cabal that Pursewarden had written on his mirror. Balthazar caught sight of a word or two but did not fully understand, being innocent of the conspiracy although aware of Nessim’s having political interests and secrets.
Justine Hosnani, who made her flight to the kibbutz to avoid arrest—not, as Darley first supposed, for psychological reasons. Justine is revealed as a political, more than sexual, creature, with a yearning for power and an absolute commitment to the creation of Israel.
Narouz Hosnani, Nessim’s younger brother. He is ugly (with a harelip), passionate, fanatical in politics and religion, impulsive, and unwesternized. Narouz falls in love with Clea, who is almost a complete stranger to him. She, virginal, is repulsed. Narouz is violent and skilled with weapons, especially his whip. At a street fair, Narouz falls into a spell under the influence of a fanatic Muslim preacher and sees in a vision what happened to Justine’s child: She drowned. Narouz tells this to Nessim, who tells Narouz never to tell Justine.
Percy Pursewarden, who, Balthazar recounts, had an affair with Justine, who doted on him. The novel ends with an old letter from Pursewarden to Clea in which he advocates, in his own satirical way, mercy, understanding, and kindness.
Joshua Scobie, now an important, if secret, public official. He asks Darley’s help in maintaining appearances. Scobie asks Darley to take his dress away; he is determined to forgo his “tendencies.” Scobie is later kicked to death at the docks, where he goes, in drag, to cruise for sex. Balthazar, called because he is a doctor, helps remove the dress from the corpse before the press arrives. Scobie is buried with honors according to the story that is concocted about his death; namely, that he fell down some stairs while on official duties.
Leila Hosnani, the mother of Narouz and Nessim, among the first Coptic women to abandon the veil. When young, she dreamed of a Western education and a Western woman’s freedoms. After the death of her rich old husband, Falthaus Hosnani, smallpox blights her face, and she returns to the veil and a secluded life.
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Sir David Mountolive
Sir David Mountolive, the British ambassador. A conventional third-person limited-omniscient narration follows Mountolive through his diplomatic career, concentrating on his stays in Alexandria. A proper, repressed, and well-mannered young Englishman beginning a career in diplomacy, he goes to Alexandria to improve his Arabic and stays with the Hosnani family. Mountolive is entranced by the overwhelming beauty of Alexandria and Egypt. He becomes close friends with Narouz and Nessim. Mountolive also begins an affair with Leila. Although socially adept and intelligent, he is also callow and inexperienced, and he regrets betraying his host. Leila tells him that her husband, an aged invalid, gave her permission to have an affair with the young man. He is surprised to learn that Leila’s attraction to him is based on her comically bookish, romanticized view of the British. At dinner with the family one evening, Mountolive commits a gaffe for which he, a diplomat-in-training, berates himself: He calls the family Muslims. Later, Mountolive leaves Egypt for service elsewhere. He returns as ambassador at a time roughly contemporaneous with the events in Justine. He is soon made aware of the Hosnani conspiracy and finds himself torn between duty, which calls for him to ask the Egyptian government to kill Nessim, and friendship with Nessim. Mountolive does not waver: He pressures the Egyptian government to kill Nessim. The king is deathly ill, however, and Nessim, aware of the danger he is in, is able to play for time by bribing the Egyptian minister of the interior, Memlik Pasha.
Falthaus Hosnani, the family patriarch. On hearing Mountolive refer to the Hosnanis as Muslims, he begins a long denunciation of the British. Mountolive receives a history lesson on how the Copts (who are Christians) were, since ancient times, great leaders in Egypt, until the British removed the Copts from power. The old man makes a convincing argument that the British, still harboring the ignorance and prejudice of their crusader forebears, who hated the Copts, distrusted a Christian denomination able to live in peace with Muslims. Thus, the old man’s passionate hatred of the British springs from the British colonial policy of excluding Copts from public service. It is clear that Nessim shares his father’s views.
Percy Pursewarden, whose story is revealed. Before committing suicide, he not only wrote a message uncovering the conspiracy on his mirror but also wrote a letter describing the Hosnani conspiracy that reaches Mountolive, along with documents from Palestine about arms shipments. Pursewarden had found himself caught between duty to state and friendship with Nessim; he opted to kill himself rather than continue his betrayal of Nessim.
Melissa Artemis, who unwittingly proved to be the link from Cohen to Pursewarden that contributed to the discovery of the conspiracy. Cohen, who loved her pathetically, told her, to impress her, that he was buying German arms and selling them to the Jews of Palestine. Cohen was a member of the Cabal. Presumably unaware of the information’s significance, she related it Pursewarden during a tryst.
Narouz Hosnani, who has grown resentful of Nessim’s position as the family’s man of the world, largely as the result of his falling in love with Clea (who represents to him life beyond the Hosnani country estates). He begins to involve himself in politics, braying revolutionary excesses at secret meetings. Word reaches Nessim that Narouz’s wild statements are likely to reach the wrong ears, and Nessim goes to the estate to tell Narouz to be silent. Narouz, drunk, refuses to obey his older brother. Nessim, nearly mad with rage, nevertheless promises himself that he will not harm his brother. One day, however, Narouz goes out for a ride on his horse, mildly surprised that his servant is absent. He becomes aware that someone is trailing him. Confident of his powers, he turns and waits with pistol and whip ready. He is gunned down by assassins. Nessim, at the house, hears the shots and finds Narouz, whose repeated last request is to see Clea.
Memlik Pasha, the minister of the interior, who is put under pressure to kill Nessim but is able to delay as long as the king is too ill to order him to do so. Memlik wishes to delay because Nessim is paying him bribes. Eventually, an aide gives Memlik the idea that Memlik, as leader of the domestic investigation, should “discover” that the British have the wrong Hosnani—that the outspoken Narouz, not Nessim, is the conspirator. By sacrificing Narouz, Memlik is able to satisfy the powers above him and continue to take bribes from Nessim.
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L. G. Darley
L. G. Darley, who returns to Alexandria from his island retreat in the last year of World War II. Mnemjian, a barber and minor character in all the novels, tells Darley what has happened. The conspiracy has collapsed: Justine is under house arrest, and Nessim, who is working as an ambulance driver for the duration, has become poor. Darley visits Justine and discovers his passion for her is gone.
George Gaston Pombal
George Gaston Pombal, the sensualist, who has fallen in love with Fosca but not gone to bed with her, a novelty he finds delightful. She is killed when their sailboat comes too close to a warship, and they are fired upon from the ship with a rifle.
Sir David Mountolive
Sir David Mountolive, who also has fallen in love, with Liza, Pursewarden’s blind sister. Mountolive considers rejecting her because of the impropriety of having a blind ambassadress at social functions, but eventually he accepts his love for her.
S. Balthazar, who is in disgrace for being associated with the Cabal. After a nearly successful suicide attempt resulting from the unrequited love of a worthless actor, he is helped by his friends, especially Mountolive, to return to life and society.
Paul Capodistria, who, it is revealed, faked his own death. He did so because the conspiracy, in which he was involved, was becoming known, and he wished to escape arrest. He has left Egypt.
Clea Montis, who, with a sense of joyful destiny, becomes Darley’s lover. They find their love rehabilitating. While on a boating excursion, Balthazar accidentally fires a spear gun. The spear pins Clea’s right hand to a submerged wreck. Darley dives in and is forced, to save her, to cut her hand open with a knife. Her hand proves too damaged to be saved, and she is fitted with a prosthesis. She adjusts to it in her usual accepting manner, even with some pleasure when she finds that she is able to paint well with it.
Percy Pursewarden, whose notebooks come into Darley’s hands. He finds more satirical attacks on himself. Pursewarden’s troubled genius is revealed in the notebooks, and Darley finds himself inspired and enlightened by them. According to Pursewarden’s record, Justine’s lost daughter was found dead, in a child brothel. The incident was recorded, from Darley’s point of view, in Justine. Darley reluctantly helps Liza burn Pursewarden’s marvelous letters to her, in part to keep the secret that the two lived in incest for some time.
Joshua Scobie, the British imperialist homosexual drunkard, now dead. As a result of confusion in the neighborhood of his name with that of a local Muslim holy figure, Scobie has become a saint, and his bathtub a shrine.
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*Alexandria. Egyptian port city whose position, on the Nile Delta, has made it one of the most important trading cities in the Mediterranean and a magnet for an extraordinary mix of peoples and travelers. If one theme unites the complex web of political and sexual liaisons and betrayals layered throughout Durrell’s intricate sequence of novels, it is memory. Durrell calls Alexandria the “capital of Memory” and a place where “the wind blew out one’s footsteps like candle-flames,” making it the perfect setting for the rememberings and forgettings that are explored in his books.
A press attaché at the British embassy in Alexandria during World War II, Durrell describes with colorful vigor the city’s crumbling buildings, stultifying heat, and especially the mix of peoples—Jews, Copts, Greeks, English, and French as well as native Egyptians—who make up the city. It is this racial stew that provides the main impetus for Durrell’s story, as various English visitors—the teacher L. C. Darley, the author Percy Pursewarden, and the diplomat Sir David Mountolive—are seduced by Alexandria’s exotic atmosphere and sexual freedom. The theme of an inhibited Englishman becoming free in the warm, easy-going Mediterranean atmosphere was popular in postwar British fiction; it was a theme that Durrell would explore again and again.
Around his three Englishmen, Durrell assembles a cast of characters who represent every aspect of Alexandria: the Coptic financier Nessim Hosnani who, with his Jewish wife Justine, is revealed to be involved in political plots; the doctor S. Balthazar, whose cabalistic studies stand in for the extraordinary belief systems that are rife in the city; the exotic dancer Melissa who, as Darley’s lover, provides his entry into this society; the French sensualist George Gaston Pombal; the artist Clea Montis; and the garrulous old transvestite spy chief Joshua Scobie, who, in one of the novel’s more bizarre twists, evolves into a local saint. Between them, these characters represent not only the various races making up Alexandria’s population, but also the entire social mix from the very wealthy to the very poor. Moreover, the large cast of characters are not merely players in the drama but also aspects of the city itself. The characters move freely from high-society balls to the dark and threatening lairs of child prostitutes; from the cool, detached air of the British embassy to the fervid gossip-mongering of cafés and barber shops. Each fresh location casts a fresh light upon them, and each of the four Alexandria Quartet novels is named after one of them.
The overwhelming impression of the city projected through Durrell’s four novels is of a disturbing, almost threatening place in which betrayal at every level is a matter of course. Although the narrator, Darley, repeatedly feels guilty about betraying Melissa Artemis through his affair with Justine Hosnani, it is a relationship that is almost forced upon him by the city itself, that is inescapable precisely because of the hot-house atmosphere of Alexandria. Likewise, Nessim and Justine’s plots are presented not so much as power plays but rather as part of a way of life imposed by the history and multiracial character of the city. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the characters are drawn again and again to the more unsavory parts of the city, and the multifarious betrayals of the plot result in one suicide and several murders, it is clear that Durrell considers this beady mix of beliefs and sexual infidelities to be life-affirming.
Island. Unnamed Greek island in the Cyclades group, where Durrell’s narrator, Darley, writes and then amends his memoirs of the city in Justine and Balthazar, and where he retreats at the end of Clea. The unnamed island may be related to the Greek island of Rhodes, where Durrell lived after his wartime experiences in Alexandria. Within The Alexandria Quartet, the Greek island serves to provide a clear emotional and spiritual contrast to the Egyptian city. Where Alexandria is full of named streets, buildings, and neighborhoods, the only detail revealed about the island is that it has no antiquities. Where Alexandria is described in a sensual language that is almost overly rich, the island receives virtually no description. Where Alexandria is crowded with characters, Darley is alone on the island, except for Justine’s daughter. The island, therefore, is a place of deliberate emptiness and silence to contrast with the only significant character in the book who is never described: life and excess of Alexandria.
Karm Abu Girg
Karm Abu Girg. Nessim Hosnani’s family estate outside Alexandria, vaguely located on the fringe of the desert, near Lake Mareotis. The most significant thing revealed about the estate is that visitors must abandon their cars and travel by ferry and horse to reach it. Like the Greek island, it contrasts sharply with Alexandria: It is a world of ancient, timeless rituals, quite unlike the twentieth century city. It is also a harsher, crueler world, in which Narouz Hosnani, Nessim’s brother, deals on equal terms with the desert Bedouin and crazed religious fanatics, and where he demonstrates his ability with the whip by using it casually to kill wild animals. Here the old lecher Paul Capodistria is apparently murdered after the set-piece shoot on Lake Mareotis that is the climax to Justine, and here Narouz is brutally killed in Mountolive. By the time the estate is revisited in Clea, it is decaying, nearly deserted, and fallen on hard times as a result of Nessim’s plotting and being left behind by the twentieth century.
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Throughout his fiction, Durrell's narrative stance is to record experiences "not in the order in which they took place — for that is history — but in the order in which they became significant to me." Commentary on technique, form, structure in The Alexandria Quartet usually attempts to come to grips with Durrell's "relativity proposition" announced in his head note to Balthazar: "Modern literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition. Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum." The first three parts, he stresses, are "deployed spatially," they are not "linked in a serial form." This leads to the interlapping, interweaving effects of the work. He stresses also the "subject-object relation" which is crucial to relativity and insists that the Quartet does not reflect "Proustian or Joycean method — for they illustrate Bergsonian 'Duration' in my opinion, not 'Space-Time.'" Some commentators have seen all this as a valuable key to the method and technique of the work, and others have tended to regard it as pretentious mystification of familiar techniques of the Modern or Postmodern novel. In any case, Durrell's relativity proposition does provide a kind of premise for the shifting perspectives, the narrative hoaxes, the narrations within narrations which are the essence of his fiction, as well as for the image-patterns which bind the works: Justine, for example, is a book of mirrors, Balthazar a book of masks.
The point of all this might be made in a much simpler fashion, and again, Durrell provides the key when he says, in a lighter mood, "ideally, all four volumes should be read simultaneously." That is, he is after "stereoscopic narrative with stereophonic personality." Some of the implications of these preoccupations of technique have been discussed above, under the headings of character presentation and thematic concerns.
Durrell's style is rich, baroque, lyrical (sometimes "over-lush" and "too juicy," he admits), and it provides a striking contrast to the characteristic modern mode of stark understatement. Indeed some critics feel that virtuosity of technique and style chokes his work, obscures rather than clarifies his material, his vision. Durrell, however, is a master of many modes, and is quite capable of writing the straight naturalistic novel (e.g., Mountolive). Still, unlike many modern writers, he refuses to surrender any of the resources of language, thought and feeling.
Finally, it should be noted that one of the conventional mainstays of Durrell's technique is the set-piece, especially the landscape set-piece, the apostrophe to place, a technique finely honed in his travel or "place" books and effectively used in his novels.
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The question of literary precedents and influences is a bit trickier with Durrell than it is with other writers who, by virtue of an English university education and a literary career pursued in London, say, seem to stand in a clearer relation to tradition and the mainstream. Durrell is, of course, a born Colonial and a lifelong expatriate who began his literary career with a proclamation of his contempt for the "English death." However, that may be misleading for he is, as he once said, "as English as Shakespeare's birthday." Indeed the very pattern of his life and work suggests his very English literary forebears, Norman Douglas and D. H. Lawrence. If one says, then, that he is very much an English writer, despite his paradoxical relationship with the place and its traditions, it is necessary to add at once that he is also Irish, French, Greek, and Indian. Influences from all of these streams are visible in his work: Joyce, Proust, Cavafy, and the Tantric wisdom of the East.
The question of influence is further clouded by the best-known mentor in Durrell's career: the American novelist Henry Miller. One would be hard-pressed to pinpoint stylistic or formal indebtedness, Durrell to Miller. Indeed, the effects and techniques, the voices and visions of Durrell's mature works are quite distinct from, if not polar opposites of, Miller's. Clearly, Miller served the apprentice-writer Durrell as an emblem of liberation — aesthetic, sexual and linguistic — but the student of influences would do well to pay close attention to another Durrell mentor, T. S. Eliot, who, in every respect, is worlds apart from Miller.
Asked with which modern writers he found himself most naturally in sympathy, Durrell replied: "In France, with Montherlant and Proust; in America with Henry Miller; in Greece with Kazantzakis; in Argentina with Borges; in Italy with Svevo." He does not mention England. Affinity, of course, is not necessarily influence. The safest assumptions concerning Durrell's literary precedents would be the following: His work is a disciplined assimilation of the best of his forebears and contemporaries, English and European; and he learned important lessons from Joyce, Proust, Eliot, Miller, and D. H. Lawrence. Charting influence is, at best, a hazardous enterprise, and it may be that the Marquis de Sade, Freud, Groddeck, Jung and Tibetan Buddhism are just as important. The best course for the student of Durrell is to examine carefully his critical work, A Key to Modern British Poetry (1952), along with the extensive Durrell-Miller correspondence, which by the 1950s had come full circle, with Miller, once the mentor, saluting Durrell as the master.
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Justine, the only Durrell work made into a major Hollywood film, was directed by George Cukor (Twentieth Century Fox, 1969). It received unfavorable reviews and was regarded as a failure, both as film and as an effort to capture the spirit of the fiction. Hollywood has purchased the film rights to Tunc and Nunquam, which remain unproduced. Recordings and B.B.C. radio programs involving musical settings of Durrell's poetry and fiction have been produced.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228
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.