Durrell, Lawrence. The Alexandria Quartet. Faber and Faber, London, 1962. F;4/18.
Rereading part of this set of four novels from the 1960s reminds me of revisiting Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me from the same era, although Durrell’s famous stories are in a completely different league. Going to high school and then university as an English major through the mid-1960s these books were pretty well required reading for maintaining the pseudo-intellectual persona many of us felt we needed. I read the whole Quartet, I think in grade 12, but this time just read Justine and about half of Balthazar (I guess I wanted to get on with something else).
The writing, the characters, the tone, and what Durrell presented himself as doing make a great snapshot of the literary terrain in those years, focusing on romantic love (prime preoccupation at my age then along with drugs etc.). Durrell paired up with Henry Miller as sort of a UK version of Miller’s shock-troop approach to American culture. Sexuality and its at the time new “freedom” preoccupied both of these authors (they actually staged some sort of a lie-in at one point where they spent time in bed together although neither was ever considered gay). 1962 was only a few years after Peyton Place appeared, and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover although it was published in 1929 was still subject to an obscenity trial in 1960. What a fuss over how shocking both of these books were popularly thought to be for actually describing sex using words like cock and cunt.
Justine is the story, narrated by Darley, a writer and schoolteacher, of a beautiful troubled Jewish woman, having an affair with Darley but married to fabulously wealthy Nessim. I was reminded with this reading that the writing is so beautiful that at times the kind of murky plot lines don’t much matter. Beautiful, but to a modern ear maybe a bit self-important and overblown. I’m left with a kind of nostalgic déjà vu and a sense of what Alexandria might have been like in the 1930s: sleazy, multicultural, permissive, and not clean. And home to a menagerie of strange characters. That the writing itself was the most powerful part of Justine is supported a bit by a 1969 movie by the same title flopping like a dead fish.
Justine’s trouble has of course to do with love, marriage, and sex. Darley comments on her depression:
Each day she plunged deeper… (her) relationships… did not answer the needs of her nature. Just as a man knows inside himself from the first hour that he has married the wrong woman but there is nothing to be done about it.
There is throughout the novel a contemporary emphasis on subjectivity and point of view:
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 unique position. Two paces East or West and the whole picture is changed.
… I remember this quote (not verbatim) from 50 years ago, as well as another one, concerning a similar theme here, the sharp contrast between daily reality and the imagination: “… a prostitute may be unaware that her client is a poet who will immortalize her in a sonnet she will never read.” Full many a gem.
Balthazar, the second of the quartet, struck me this time as wildly comical, like some of Henry Miller’s writing and of characters in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Scobie is a ridiculous but still at times serious character that Darley can barely keep a straight face around. He’s a retired cop turned spy (making much of completely trivial espionage), who cross-dresses secretly and owns a parrot that recites Muslim liturgy and makes farting sounds, getting Scobie in physical trouble once in a bar he wasn’t aware was run and populated by Muslims. He describes in great detail and offers as seriously delicious “mock whiskey” out of his bathtub. Funnier than it sounds…
I’m not sure if I will go back and finish Balthazar, or even carry on to the other two books. I seem to be a bit preoccupied with the 1960s right now, looking into political events and some of the literary criticism that dominated English lit scholars when I was studying it.
What a surprise after finally getting into medical school and spending five years memorizing to surface into some sort of normal life and, picking up periodicals and social science nonfiction again, to realize how strangely things had developed. University arts academics that were just in the 60s waking up to what seemed to be an exciting left-of-centre alternative to the conventional life view of post-war adults had, by 1980, instead of leaving the left-right dichotomy behind and moving on with legitimate study and understanding of art and culture, gone off a completely wacko deep end into a kind of political correctness the strange excesses of which we are just now beginning to see the absurdity of. Deconstruction and other apparently serious theories were what this was all about superficially, but a terrible destructive bastardizing of reasonable liberal thinking was what it seemed to produce.
I’m calling these four novels, mostly in retrospect, 8.0 content, 9.4 style.