I’ve been meaning to read these books for at least fifteen years and I finally got around to it over the last couple months. Some observations:
Briefly: The books tell (sort-of) the story of a group of friends, rivals and lovers in pre-war Alexandria: back when the city was a cosmopolitan, permissive, polyglot swirl of religion and culture and race. Each book deepens the story and casts the character’s motivations in a new light. The overall plot is clever and complex, and is often closer to a political thriller than the ‘exploration of relativity and the notions of continuum and subject–object relation,’ that Durrell describes in his introduction to the second book (Balthazar).
They have a reputation for being difficult: The first book (Justine) is rather hard to read. They get easier, except for a long, boring section on the British Foreign Service in book three and an extensive incredibly pretentious dull excerpt from someone’s notebook in book four: a section I was tempted to skip, and I suspect most readers do, but which contains a crucial plot twist.
The prose is amazing: GoodReads has a selection of quotes. But the highlights are the descriptive set-pieces: long sequences describing say, a duck-hunt on a lake, a masked ball, a horse-ride through the desert or a bombing raid on the Alexandria harbour. The only thing I’ve read that compares to them is War and Peace with its battle scenes, the wolf-hunt, Natasha’s dance, etc.
Durrell is a misogynist, which is problematic because his books are supposed to be an extended meditation on the subject of love but are filled with lines like: ‘There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.’ The finest compliment Durrell can pay to any of his female characters is to compare them to a man. ‘She had a mind like a man,’ or ‘She had a man’s sense of humor.’ I doubt this attitude led to many happy relationships, and (for me) casts his role as an authority on romance, love and sex into some doubt. His female characters tend to die or be horribly mutilated.
C P Cavafy is referenced often in the books as ‘The Poet of the City’, and quoted extensively. Durrell’s books played a large role in introducing him to a western audience. His most famous work is Waiting for the Barbarians. I also like Ithaca and think about it often.
Some critics claim that these books represent the ‘influence of quantum mechanics on creative writing’. When I read that a few months ago I thought, ‘Wow!’ And that theory is what made me finally read these books. But aside from some vague musings about ‘the observer and the observed’ in book four (Clea) I really don’t see any any influence of quantum theory at all. According to Wikipedia this interpretation of the novels was argued in a paper entitled Quantum Fiction: Relativity and Postmodernism in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. I can’t find this online anywhere. But the title itself is a bit weird. Quantum theory and relativity are different theories. And they’re incompatible with each other. Like, famously so. Maybe all the quantum theory in he books went over my head, but I don’t think there is any. Also, these books were published in the late 1950’s and I wonder how accessible quantum theory was to non-physicists back then?
Relativity: Durrell certainly thought he was writing about relativity, or rather special relativity. The book contains passages like:
“We live lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time – not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.”
Well, okay. But our positions in space-time aren’t very different from each other in relativistic terms. We’re not light-years away from each other or accelerating at near light speed. Also, apparently the first three books represent the three spatial dimensions and the third represents time. I can sort-of see this. Sort of. But it doesn’t mean anything to me. Sometimes writers give their books a visible structure, like The Luminaries with its astrology or Ulysses with its correspondences to The Odyssey; most of the time the structure is ‘invisible’ and is just there to inspire the author. The work itself stands apart from it. Maybe that’s the case here?
I went to Alexandria in early 1999. It was winter and there had recently been a spate of terrorist attacks in tourists in upper Egypt so the only other tourist in my hotel was a gay American Doctor working for the WHO in Sudan who had read Durrell and Cavafy and convinced himself that Alexandria was still a wild, swinging town. He was bitterly disappointed to find that Alexandria under the Mubarak dictatorship was a very quiet, totally Arabic city; that all the decadent Greeks and Jews and European expatriates that form the backdrop to Durrell’s novels had been gone for half a century and that his only companion during his long-awaited sex holiday was a sunburned heterosexual New Zealand backpacker. He loaned me a book of Cavafy’s poetry and we spent a few days travelling around the city together: I now realise that many of the places we visited were important locales in The Alexandria Quartet (Mareotis, the bar at the Cecil Hotel).
So the city I visited was very different to the one in these books. Egypt isn’t a very safe place nowadays, and if I ever go back to Alexandria it’ll be a very different place yet again.
Final Analysis: Horribly flawed but still an astonishing masterpiece. Probably as flawed as a masterpiece can get and still remain one.