The Alexandria Quartet: ‘Love is every sort of conspiracy’

Alexandria Castle, Egypt

“Lawrence Durrell claimed that the four books of The Alexandria Quartet were ‘an investigation of modern love’. It’s possible to take that idea at face value. Some have even used it as a stick with which to beat him. Notably, his Guardian obituarist (writing in 1990, at a time when Durrell’s reputation was possibly at its lowest ebb) said ‘a harsh judgment’ of his masterpiece might be that it was ‘a four-volume romantic novel written by a poet steeped in Freud and on nodding terms with Einstein’. I’m guessing from the warm response the books have had from this month’s Reading Group that most of you reading this will see that as an absurd rather than just a harsh judgment. Even if we accept that Durrell was only concerned with romantic love, that gives us endless scope for discussion – as Reading Group contributor Wheldrake has pointed out: How striking, the range of acceptance and inclusion in this ‘investigation of Modern Love’. It really is hard to name another novel from the 1950s with such broad vision of love and sex – a vision which is not framed by passing political fashions and easy slogans, but rather by a concern for the humane, for the treacherous, compromising ways of the heart. Love, even in this most straightforward of its senses, takes many forms; from Scobie’s tragic lusts to Balthazar’s brief purgative encounters with sailors to Darley’s obsessive, poetic idealisation of Justine. It also moves in mysterious ways. … Except, of course, this being the Alexandria Quartet, there is another way of looking at things. Even as the meaning of love appears to be broadening, it is also narrowing. Nessim’s political plans are restricted by and dependent upon his brother and his mother – and his love for them. Mountolive’s ability to engage with the problem Nessim’s ‘love’ presents is also constrained by his own loves for Nessim and for his mother … More entanglements! And then there is also the fact that by this stage in the proceedings it seems unwise to trust what anybody says about anything – especially that authoritative authorial voice … So where are we? Tangled in an intricate web. Little in the Alexandria Quartet is simple. Indeed, there are dozens of other strands this brief survey might have touched upon. I haven’t even mentioned Pursewarden’s sister, or his suicide note, or the book he claims to have started ‘all about love’ (the discovery of which made me, as a reader, feel ever more like he is standing in a hall of mirrors, looking into an infinity of reflections). I also haven’t mentioned the idea of Alexandria as the ‘winepress of love’. …”
The New Criterion: Alexandria, Durrell & the “Quartet”
‘Justine’ at 60: Revisiting Lawrence Durrell’s Great Love Novel
1960s: Days of Rage: The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell (1957-1960) Oct. 2018

Lawrence Durrell’s passport, with stamps for entry into Alexandria.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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