In the late 1950’s, Lawrence Durrell published four novels known as The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. They at once established his reputation as a major novelist and then sank with little trace in the literary sea.
Durrell described the work as an investigation into modern love. The books were released in paperback when I was in the U.S. Air Force and twenty years old; modern love was a big interest. Wow! Sex. Exotic locales in the Mediterranean. Descriptive fireworks on every page. Durrell was at the top of his game, unpatronizing, challenging—It is a paradox of love that the right one always comes too soon or too late … I thought about that for years. Is it true? Why “paradox?” He fires asides singly and in volleys.
‘Ah!’ said Justine once, ‘that there should be something free, something Polynesian about the licence in which we live.’ Or even Mediterranean, she might have added, for the connotation of every kiss would be different in Italy or Spain; here our bodies were chafed by the harsh dessicated winds blowing up out of the deserts of Africa and for love we were forced to substitute a wiser but crueller mental tenderness which emphasized loneliness rather than expurgated it.
Durrell said that he wrote Justine in seven weeks. He’d had half a life preparing; when he found the right voice, he let it fly. The books are a breathless tour de force. But. You’ve been waiting for the “but.” I went about my life and managed to write four novels of my own. Fifty years later, I wondered how the quartet had held up. No one reads it. “It’s too good,” I maintained. Well, maybe. Chiang Mai has a number of used book stores that serve the expat communities, mostly men, aging survivors of Durrell’s paradox. I found thee volumes in one, a more expensive version of the fourth in another, and began reading.
The first three books present the same characters and events from different points of view. The final book takes place a few years later, also about the same characters. Durrell said that the work reflected relativity—three physical dimensions and the dimension of time. This played well (faith in science was at a high point), but it is essentially bullshit.
The quartet is a failure as a novel; that is why it is rarely read. Any page chosen at random is at least as good as a page so picked from any other American novel; the writing is marvelous. How do those circus flyers do it? They are in the air; the catch is made. Safety. Before you can comprehend, the show goes on. But (that word again), the story does not embody the meaning of the work, the essential requirement (and glory) of fiction.
There is an investigation but no conclusions, even tentative ones. Sex, love, death, corruption, are discussed endlessly, but (again) for the most part they are offstage and oddly chaste for writing heralded for its sensuality. In the end, we are left with a construction built to showcase a brilliant and frustrated voice.
For some readers, the companionship of a brilliant voice is more than enough. If The Alexandria Quartet fails as a novel, it is most certainly not a failure as a book, as art. Many have set out to find a Northwest Passage and made other discoveries. Durrell claimed new territory for men (his women tend toward the mythological). If you are sensitive, passionate, and thoughtful, you will be frustrated. Durrell says,It’s O.K.; you can take it. It may even be good—driving you to fight back, to sing, however you sing. Someone might hear and carry the tune.