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Clea (Alexandria Quartet) Paperback – July 12, 1991
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About the Author
Lawrence Durrell was born in 1912 in India. He attended the Jesuit College at Darjeeling and St. Edmund's School, Canterbury. His first literary work, The Black Book, appeared in Paris in 1938. His first collection of poems, A Private Country, was published in 1943, followed by the three Island books: Prospero's Cell; Reflections on a Marine Venus, about Rhodes; and Bitter Lemons, his account of life in Cyprus. Durrell's wartime sojourn in Egypt led to his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, which he completed in southern France, where he settled permanently in 1957. Between the quartet and The Avignon Quintet he wrote the two-decker Tunc and Nunquam. His oeuvre includes plays, a book of criticism, translations, travel writing, and humorous stories about the diplomatic corps. Caesar's Vast Ghost, his reflections on the history and culture of Provence, including a late flowering of poems, was published a few days before his death in Sommières in 1990.
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Top customer reviews
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However, what I got was a literary book of florid prose and a deeply buried plot. It is said that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that the former is predicated on characters while the latter is predicated on plot. This book makes that distinction crystal clear. It is almost entirely about the characters, including Justine, a kind of Jewish manic-pixie dream girl; Nessim, Justine's Coptic long-suffering husband; Balthasar, a homosexual master of Kabbalah; Pursewarden, an author whose death leaves the narrator with a bequest; Scobie, a homosexual comic-figure; Pomby, an English diplomat; Melissa, the narrator's put-upon girlfriend; and the city of Alexandria itself. The story is told by the unnamed narrator who is kind of a poor English schoolteacher who gains access to this eclectic circle of friends and acquaintances.
The narrator tells the reader at length about the backstory of all of his friends and acquaintances, including their tastes and eccentricities and interconnections and gossip and taste in clothing and residence and on and on. The introduction I read said flat out that most people would skim this book, and I certainly did.
The writing is definitely luxurious. If you like descriptions, then this is your book. Personally, I enjoyed Durrell's idiosyncratic, varied and obscure vocabulary. I added phthisic, pegamoid, adventive, calcimined, tarbush, hebetude, and couloir to my vocabulary list. I also renewed my acquaintance with palpitant, adventive, antinomian, exiguous, etiolation, tenebrous, soutane and Corniche, although I had to look them up in order to really appreciate their use in a given sentence.
Durrell can turn a phrase. Let me share a few examples:
"I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together..." (p. 1.)
"The shops filling and emptying like lungs in the Rue des Soeurs." The shops filling and emptying like lungs in the Rue des Soeurs." (p. 6.)
"Balthazar said quietly: ‘Thank God I have been spared an undue interest in love. At least the invert escapes this fearful struggle to give oneself to another. Lying with one’s own kind, enjoying an experience, one can still keep free the part of one’s mind which dwells in Plato, or gardening, or the differential calculus." (p. 66.)
"‘The cocktail-party — as the name itself indicates — was originally invented by dogs. They are simply bottom-sniffings raised to the rank of formal ceremonies.’" (p. 124.)
"I meant of course the whole portentous scrimmage of sex itself, the act of penetration which could lead a man to despair for the sake of a creature with two breasts and le croissant as the picturesque Levant slang has it." (p. 135.)
Don't get me wrong. These, and some others, stand out sharp and crisp in long and often difficult passages, but these are good.
It also occurred to me that Durrell's writing style might have influenced that of one of my favorite writers, Roger Zelazny. The tone and the attitude seemed to correspond, and Zelazny came to prominence in the mid to late 1960s.
There is a plot, but it is often obscured by the descriptions of characters and place. The essence of the plot is based on the unnamed narrator's affair with Justine. For 80% of the book, this is mostly buried underneath the narrator's description of the city or of the activities of other characters. Because of the emphasis on telling the story as basically a series of introductions of this character or that character, without letting us know why any character is important, the story does not even stick to a chronological format. The narrator's girlfriend is introduced at one point, then, later on, the story of how he met her is presented, and at other points, she simply disappears from the story as if he had broken up with her.
Around ten percent toward the end, we get the inkling of a plot as it seems that Nessim knows about the affair and may take dire action into his hands. On the other hand, a lot of this seems to be going on in the head of the narrator because Nessim appears to quite friendly to him.
One of the difficulties in Durrell's writing style is his tendency to discuss a character for paragraphs without telling us who the character is. The character gets talked about as a "he" or a "she" and the reader has to discern from context who the character is.
Likewise, Durrell introduces a lot of characters whose importance is unclear. I get the sense that Scobie will be important in later volumes. Altogether too much interest was invested in him to be only something of a comic relief/plot device. Scobie does provide a source of money to the narrator, but, really, we don't see the narrator actually working to make money elsewhere. He seems to exist only to meet up with Justine at various places where he can have sex with her. Likewise, Pursewarden has a walk-on, then dies, leaving the narrator with money that will be useful at the end, but the way he is discussed seems to suggest that he is not supposed to be only a supporting character.
And the fascination with Justine, and the basis of the relationship between the narrator and Justine, are also a mystery. Their chemistry seems more stipulated to than demonstrated.
And maybe this is why this book is good literature. It has me thinking and questioning.
I was ready to drop the project of reading all four books midway into Justine, but the last ten percent of Justine seems to have hooked me and I intend to push on to Balthazar and see if I can get some answers to my questions.
Durrell's prose is some of the lushest in my acquaintance. Almost every chapter begins with a word-picture that sucked me in and seduced me with a strong sense of place. Throughout the work, there are phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that jump off the page and insist on being read aloud to whoever is nearby.
His characters are colorful and deep, but their depths are not accessible at a glance any more than with real people. Durrell used a fascinating technique that reminds me of Pointilism and Cubism combined. He puts thousands of dots of color on the canvas until you begin to see a picture in depth. But just when you think you've got it, he shifts perspective and you see new dimensions in the characters that were unsuspected by narrator and reader alike.
The adjective "painterly" occurs to me in connection with Durrell, as in 'This is a writerly book!' It connects with literature as diverse as Cavafy, Forster, Parachelsus, de Sade, Freud, and traditional Arab folklore, and echoes of Durrell are heard in works by the generations of writers who followed him. Also it is a book for writers and for artists of all stripes, as many of its characters are aspiring, successful, or failed artists.
This is also a study of "love" in all its forms. Of sexual entanglements there are plenty: incest, rape, prostitution, May-December romance, and adultery by the carload... but also loves of place, of friends, of service, of status, of ideals and traditions... and all the frustrations and tragedies that attend these loves.
I strongly recommend the Alexandria Quartet to those who have the vocabulary, patience, and love of elegant language necessary to the appreciation of a literary masterpiece.
Alexandrian passionate cult. So much has been written and said about the Levant and Egypt, so many sexual taboos have been set a
aside. I am no longer 20. The writing is exquisite. Durrell is a poet and so is always worth the effort.
nevertheless is a fascinating puzzle even today.
But even THAT masterfully executed literary stroke is but the framework - the matrix - on which hangs an intricate and exotic epic tale that is at once a creditable suspense novel; a bold exploration of the diverse expressions of human love; a chilling record of a crucial moment in the geopolitical history of Europe and the mid-east; a deeply personal history of individuals displaced onto a unique stage, where Durell is able to convincingly argue beyond Freud's "unconscious determinism" and Marx's "economic determinism" - for "geographic determinism", by a city that neither ancient poet nor modernday scholar can pretend to comprehend; and more - much more.
Revisiting _The Alexandria Quartet_ time and again, one always discovers "side streets and back alleys", as it were, that cast the whole of it into a new and deeper dimension, beyond, even, its original four.
Not for the weaker intellect; not for the prudish; and not for the faint of heart, Durell's "Alexandria".
Most recent customer reviews
The individuals - the 4 named by books, Darley, Pursewarden, Nessim and Lila and Narouz, sad Melissa, and all the...Read more