Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet consists of four novels—Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea—published by Faber (16s. each).

when the Alexandria Quartet struck into our critical dovecote, the cry that went up was very confused indeed. Mr. Hilary Corke (May Encounter) has said that this tells us more about the contemporary state of the dovecote than about the Alexandria Quartet, but the hawklike mercilessness of his own attack is little help towards a sympathetic or critical understanding of either. Nevertheless the first sea-wall of criticism has been badly and in most places deservedly shaken, and this may be no bad occasion for another “first” appraisal.

“The central topic of the book,” Durrell writes, “is an investigation of modern love”. This seems to me the best account that anyone has yet given of what the Alexandria Quartet is about, and yet many people have written it off along with Durrell’s other prefatory remarks—“the soup-mix recipe of a continuum”, “a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition”—as pretentious nonsense. They may be right, in fact, that the space-time talk adds very little, but this is because the essential idea is better suggested at the beginning of Balthazar, where Pursewarden (principal novelistwithin-the-novel and general repository for some of Durrell’s most striking intuitions) writes that “We live lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time—not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed”. And the relevance of this to the whole subject and technical structure of the Quartet becomes clearer when Darley, the novelist-narrator, goes on to comment that, “Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion—but a necessary illusion if we are to love” (his italics). Sartre once wrote that “Character has no distinct existence except as an object of knowledge to other people”. Durrell’s quartet, like Sartre’s own (Les Chemins de la Liberté), is a fictional exploration of just this proposition.

It is this that justifies the ‘sliding panel’ technique. Justine introduces most of the later characters and tells centrally of Darley’s love for Justine, the wife of his friend Nessim Hosnani, a rich Coptic businessman (though if she were simply this—or simply anything—the book would not be what it is: it is essential to it that almost none of the people are ‘characters’ in the familiar sense). When, in the second novel, the doctor Balthazar makes his interlinear comments on this story, Darley, still narrating, sees that he has been deceived and is forced to reinterpret everything from the beginning. The third novel centres on the British diplomat, Mountolive who has hitherto appeared only at the margin, and again confronts the earlier accounts with new knowledge that completely alters the picture, this time in an objective, third-person narrative. Only with Clea do we move forward in time.

To see why the novel demands to be cast in this form it is worth noticing another of Durrell’s prefatory remarks: “it would be worth trying an experiment to see if we cannot discover a morphological form one might appropriately call ‘classical’—for our time”. The question, of course, is why ‘for our time’? What is essential to Durrell’s form, I think, is not the literalistic idea of three dimensions of space and one of time—as he himself suggests, the characters could go on being deployed and redeployed ad virtually infinitum, and the cryptic workpoints at the end of Clea suggest some alarming new worlds—but rather the whole shifting chiaroscuro of viewpoints, the seeming elusiveness of the ‘real’ truth, the sense of the wild and ceaseless interflowing of appearances which finds its only possible expression in a brilliantly overloaded poetic language. Durrell seems hardly to believe in facts at all. And it is interesting that, for all the critical discord as to whether the Alexandria Quartet is a masterpiece or an appalling wreck (Mr. John Coleman: Spectator), two reactions have been almost universal: to credit Durrell with an unparalleled ‘sense of place’, with a magnificent poetic evocation of Alexandria, ‘the shining city of the disinherited’, but to insist that none of the characters is real, that there is no sense of interaction between them. (Is it an accident that just these points were commonly made of Nabokov’s Lolita?) Mountolive has been generally agreed to be the most satisfying of the four novels, because only here—it might be called a political novel—is there any continuous action, any crisis and resolution of the ‘traditional’ kind. This agreement in analysis but divergence of verdicts suggests that Durrell’s attempt to produce something classical for our time has at least produced a challenge to our critical standards.