Decades ago, I was a young nerd, obsessed with knowledge and metaphysics, with a not-too-problematic belief in great literature. When I picked up the Alexandria Quartet, leaning heavily on my 30% Barnes & Noble discount to pick up the box set of four novels, I was immediately enthralled by the idea of telling the same story relativistically, that is, through three dimension of time and one of space, as Durrell tried to do.
Years later, I forget this literary device in its entirety. This is because the first volume, Justine, is such a stunning work of literary art that it left a permanent imprint on my psyche. The novel is described as inspiring “religious devotion” among its fans, and I can see why. It’s a story of love and love affairs and intrigue and tension, told through the eyes of the narrator, a British expatriot, a writer and teacher, and overall average individual. The narrator finds himself captured in a spiderweb of love affairs, including his own with the titular character, Justine.
Justine is a mysterious and beautiful Jewish woman with a troubled and dark past, married to the wealthy socialite, arms-dealing Copt, Nessim. Justine puts the narrator under her spell and together they have a love affair that the narrator can’t quite figure out. He falls for Justine, but does not know why she is with him. In the later books, told largely through correspondence between the characters, it’s revealed: Justine was a pre-war activist attempting to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, and her closeness to Darley was a honeytrap, an attempt to find out whether the British secret service knew anything about her and Nessim’s plans.
Justine’s charm affects most of the characters of the book in some way. Among them is the young, bisexual artist, Clea. Here, Durrell writes passages that feel fresh even today, nearly 70 years later. The narrator describes Clea, writing,
But I see that I have foolishly spoken of her as “denying herself marriage”. How this would anger her: for I remember her once saying: “If we are to be friends you must not think or speak about me as someone who is denying herself something in life. My solitude does not deprive me of anything, nor am I fitted to be other than I am. I want you to see how successful I am and not imagine me full of inner failings. As for love itself—cher ami—I told you already that love interested me only very briefly—and men more briefly still; the few, indeed the one, experience which marked me was an experience with a woman. I am still living in the happiness of that perfectly achieved relationship: any physical substitute would seem today horribly vulgar and hollow.
Clea and the narrator, whose name is revealed in the second book to be Darley, would go on to have a brief affair in the fourth book, which bears her name. Set after the war, Clea and Darley reconnect and commiserate over their shared connections to Justine, Nessim, and the complex affairs that ran through their circles as World War II was looming. It’s at the end of the first book that Clea and Justine were together until Justine abruptly cut off their relationship to marry Nessim, for reasons revealed later to be related to Nessim’s ability to funnel weapons to Jewish settlers. At the end of the book, after a tragic and mysterious hunting accident, Justine suddenly disappears. As Darley and Clea comfort each other, Durrell writes:
“You will have guessed”, said Clea in the middle of all this, “that Justine was the woman I told you once I loved so much.” This cost her a good deal to say. She was standing with a coffee cup in one hand, clad in her blue-striped pyjamas by the door. She closed her eyes as she spoke, as if she were expecting a blow to fall upon the crown of her head. Out of the closed eyes came two tears which ran slowly down on each side of her nose… “Ah! let us not speak of her any more,” she said at last in a whisper “She will never come back.”
How Durrell could capture this essential, enduring image of femme bisexual pain, rendered so beautifully as it was in the 1950s, is a wonder. Who among us has never been in hopeless love with their best friend? Who among us, really, has never endured this kind of tragic, heartbreaking love, a love so painful it drives us to isolation, toiling alone among our art?
Am I still writing a book report, or am I writing a diary? At any rate…
Durrell’s art is today perhaps overshadowed by the allegations that came into the open after his death. His daughter, Sappho, was a writer who struggled to find light outside her father’s shadow. She took her own life in her early 30s and willed that her writing not be published until after her father’s death. In it, she insinuates that he sexually abused her. It’s likely that a lot of the sexual essence of Durrell’s writing is semi-autobiographical. The character Justine was based on his second wife, Eve Cohen, a Jewish Alexandrian, and the mother of their daughter, Sappho, and was, of course, named after the de Sade character in the identically-titled novel. Cohen and Durrell divorced eight years after they were married, after Cohen was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown in England. It’s easy with the hindsight and perspective of twenty-first century feminism to draw one’s own conclusions here. If one reads Durrell in Durrell, then one need not stretch the imagination to see how he might have treated the women around him in his real life.
Nevertheless, the author is dead, literally and metaphorically, and we can appreciate the Alexandria Quartet for the stellar piece of literature it is. As I re-read the books I couldn’t help by smile at my notes on the metaphysics of the story structure, and I can see much more clearly what resonated in the book for me twenty years ago. I’m not Alexandrian, but here I sit, an expat tangled in a spiderweb of love affairs, working a job for money while hacking it as a mediocre writer. Perhaps I knew then what fates had in store for me, or perhaps I drew my own destiny in this way.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.
The Alexandria Quartet
Photo by Farah Samy on Unsplash