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
Durrell’s characters have been described as “sometimes almost unbearably complex, sometimes flat, like a masked chorus”, “fables”, and in various other ways as having, in fact, “no distinct existence”. These are standard enough critical comments, and it could be that in this case they are quite simply true. But one comparison seems to me to be strikingly relevant: they recall the almost identical remarks that greeted the novels of D. H. Lawrence at the time of their publication. F. R. Leavis quotes Middleton Murry’s review of Women in Love: “we can discern no individuality whatever in the denizens of Mr. Lawrence’s world. We should have thought that we should be able to distinguish between male and female, at least. But no! Remove the names, remove the sedulous catalogue of unnecessary clothing . . . and man and woman are as indistinguishable as octopods in an aquarium tank”. If we consider the other affinities between Durrell and Lawrence it may be that this comparison will not seem too fanciful, and if we ask what it was in Lawrence that laid him open to such incomprehension we may get a clearer perspective on Durrell: there is a sense, perhaps, in which Durrell takes over where Lawrence left off. Except that Lawrence did not leave off: it is Women in Love of which this may be true, not the later obsessive ‘solution’ of The Plumed Serpent.
Central to Women in Love is, in Leavis’ words, “the question of the kind of success possible in marriage, and in life, for a pair that have cut themselves finally adrift. The society in which, if they had a place, their place would be, represents the civilisation that has been diagnosed in Gerald”. And it is for this reason that the deeper significances of the novel cannot be understood in the conventional terms of role-playing “characters”. Lawrence represents the crucial transition, from a society—and hence a novel—where purposes and values permeate the practical activities of life, to a situation where this identification has broken down, where emotions, no longer channelled into meaningful social interaction, develop an autonomous existence and significance which can provide the main current—and the key to the understanding—of the novel. It is in this way that character, loosened away from any decisive social determinants, begins to lose its objectivity. The difference with Durrell’s total cosmopolitanism is that—with the exception of Mountolive (and perhaps Nessim)—all his characters have, like Ursula and Birkin, ‘cut themselves finally adrift’, they are all disinherited. And it is because of this that they can seem to drift endlessly in and out of a poetic mirage of philosophy, theology and the theory of art with an openness and complexity that surpasses that of Women in Love, but without that recurrent return to the rejected realities of an actual society that may appear to us necessary to the strength and structure of a novel. (The difference is mirrored in their language: Durrell’s need to transfix each moment and make it altogether self-sufficient places a heavy weight on his prose which Lawrence’s rarely feels.) Only in Mountolive do the roots seem to regain their grip; only for Mountolive himself does the mauvaise foi of an integrated social existence have any direct meaning. The writers and artists of Durrell’s Quartet, like the intellectual world of The Mandarins, or the religious community of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, are all at one remove from social reality. In this, if not in the literal form itself, the Alexandria Quartet may indeed—for better or for worse—be ‘classical’ for our time. It is concerned, I think—as is perhaps all the great art, literature and philosophy of the twentieth century—with a world which has lost its meaning and where, in the anxiety of this meaninglessness, emotion and personal relationship have become consuming problems in their own right.