The Alexandria Quartet: Mirrors and telescopes


“The first thing that everyone notices about the first book of the Alexandria Quartet is (to borrow a phrase from a Reading Group contributor) the lavishness of the narrator’s style. Those great reams of metaphors: ‘a Damascus love song, shrill quartertones, like a sinus being ground to powder’. The wonderful sounds: ‘the boom and slither of the sea and the whacking of palm-fronds.’ The yet more wonderful combinations of the two: ‘With a lithe swing of the pole Faraj drives us out into the channel and suddenly we are scoring across the heart of a black diamond. The water is full of stars, Orion down, Capella tossing out its brilliant sparks. For a long while now we crawl upon this diamond-pointed star-floor in silence save for the suck and lisp of the pole in the mud.’ It’s heady stuff – and this rich, perfumed prose can easily throw us off other scents. ‘What happens in the Alexandria Quartet?’ asked Shuggibear. ‘From memory, nothing … So, that leaves us with the beauty of language and poetry … ‘ Actually, plenty happens. But at this stage in the proceedings, I don’t want to go into too much detail; it would be a shame to spoil the numerous surprises. What’s more, “what happens” is highly questionable and remains in flux until you reach the last words of the last volume. (And even then, it stays contentious.) Instead, I thought it might be interesting to talk about ways of seeing through that thick haze of metaphor and allusion. One of the most enjoyable and profitable ways of investigating the Quartet is to play detective: to look out for meaningful clues scattered through the stories. If you know where to look, you can find many way-markers through the various and confounding mysteries and intrigues surrounding Balthazar, Justine, Clea and company. There are sentinels whispering to us about who is secretly making love to whom, about occult rites and – delightfully – about international espionage. There are even signs telling us how to read the books themselves. We could, for instance, talk about the meaning behind the descriptions of Alexandria as an ‘unreal’ city, already (as perceptive Reading Group contributors have pointed out) feeling like TS Eliot’s Waste Land. Or we could ask why, conversely, Durrell claims in a foreword that it is the only ‘real’ thing in the book. Or why (as contributors have also noted) Alexandria should be seen the ‘great winepress of love’, psychically damaging, always the fifth character in the four-way love affairs within its walls. …”
Guardian
The Alexandria Quartet: Reflections In Broken Mirrors
The Alexandria Quartet: From One Volume to Four

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Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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