A medium as unstable as words

The Alexandria Quartet
Book 1: Justine
by Lawrence Durrell

I had sort-of vaguely heard of the Quartet and then a couple of years ago I stumbled across these beautiful old Faber editions in Bristol’s excellent Beware of the Leopard book shop.

The Alexandria Quartet

Except they only had two of the four books. By chance, a few weeks later I found a matching third in another secondhand book shop. But no sign of a fourth. Cut forward almost two years to Tim buying me the the fourth book from Abe Books and I could finally start reading! By coincidence, 2012 would have been the year Durrell turned 100 years old so the Guardian Reading Group chose The Alexandria Quartet as its book for March (these days it is published as a single chunky volume), and through that I was able to garner some insights from people much cleverer than me as I went along.

Which helped. Because this is not a straightforward book. It is a pensive, thoughtful musing upon events an unknown time ago, in an unclear order, narrated by an unnamed narrator. The language is beautiful, evocative, poetic even. The true main character is the Egyptian city of Alexandria, at a guess in the 1930s, and Durrell lovingly brings to life the streets and waterways of this exotic mishmash of cultures. The people of the book are the city’s rich and educated few, so they come from all over the world and various walks of life.

The narration is jumbled throughout, but particularly so at the start. For several pages it skips from thought to thought, without explanation. Various names are mentioned but no-one properly introduced. Early on the narrator quotes the line “It is idle to go over all this in a medium as unstable as words” and later says “(I am inventing only the words.)”

And it continues like this, but with some of those thoughts being a memory, so that details are slowly filled in. Very slowly. It took me most of the book to figure out what its story is, and even then I feel a real pull to get started on the next book in the quartet to clarify some of the many details left partly obscured.

To give some idea of the story, the narrator was in a relationship with Melissa, an exotic dancer in a nightclub with frail health, but fell for Justine, the great Alexandrian socialite whose reputation for beauty and sexual intrigue goes before her, and who is married to the rich, powerful banker Nessim. The narrator and Justine embark on an affair, despite the narrator claiming to love Melissa absolutely and to be afraid of Nessim. From the start it is clear that things did not end well and the narration gradually gathers momentum as it builds towards the conclusion of this part of the story.

But the point isn’t the story. The point is the exquisite language. On the Guardian threads there was talk of the whole thing being more about psychoanalysis than characters in a story and perhaps if you know more than me about psychoanalysis that may be the case, but I loved all the characters and, unusually for me, was not bothered by the slowness of the emerging story. I was entranced by the words.

“Far-off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart.”

The narrator pulls his tale together from a number of sources, including his own journals, a novel written before he arrived in Alexandria about many of his friends there, and three of Justine’s diaries, which he has been given. He frequently quotes from these, even substituting names in the novel with those of his friends. So he is undoubtedly unreliable, and I am sure the subsequent books will contain multiple about-turns that will force me to re-evaluate what I have learned, or think I have learned, so far. I can’t wait.

First published 1957 by Faber & Faber.

See also: my reviews of
Book 2: Balthazar
Book 3: Mountolive
Book 4: Clea