Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Ancient Egyptian Context of the Alexandria Quartet

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Ancient Egyptian Context of the Alexandria Quartet

Article excerpt

This essay discusses Lawrence Durrell's themes and characterizations as they pertain to ancient Egyptian iconography and traditions in The Alexandria Quartet.

   Ego gigno lumen, I beget the light
   But darkness is also of my nature.

   --Lawrence Durrell, "The Anecdotes. II: In Cairo"
   (1948, Collected Poems)

In Ptolemaic Alexandria, P. M. Fraser comments on the Roman designation for Alexandria: "Its official nomenclature was 'Alexandrea ad Aegyptum'," or "'Alexandria by Egypt,' not 'Alexandria in Egypt'" (107). The Romans saw the city as administratively and culturally distinct from the rest of the country. Fraser further notes, "The modern city, with its once large European population, was not usually regarded as characteristically Egyptian" (109). These comments could apply to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet (1957-60), both in terms of the work itself and the critical response. The Quartet does not seem situated in Egypt proper, and its author would seem to pay scant attention to three thousand years of ancient Egyptian history.

This view is a justifiable oversight, for Durrell obscures, deliberately or not, his debt to ancient Egypt. A few scholars have explored the Quartet's Egyptian matrices. Carol Peirce examines Durrell's use of Plutarch's Isis and Osiris in the portrayal of incest (82-83), and Michael V. Diboll analyzes Osirian themes of "death and re-birth" (227). Diboll's emphasis, however, is not on myth, but rather the "socio-historical" culture of modern Egypt (4-5). Modernity as the Alexandria of E. M. Forster, C. P. Cavafy, and Durrell is the key for Michael Haag and his reconstructions of the city, based on photographs, witnesses, documents, and material culture (City 10). While these critics make valuable contributions, I focus on Durrell's use of ancient Egyptian iconography and traditions, specifically in reference to the Narmer Palette and the role of dwarfs.

Durrell (1912-90) lived in Egypt from May 1941 until July 1945. As the German army advanced into the Balkans, he fled Corfu, then Greece, and ended up in Egypt. He first worked as a press officer for the British Embassy in Cairo. In November 1942, he transferred to Alexandria, where he served as Public Information Officer. On Corfu, he called himself a "Hellene" (Prospero's 23); later in France, he claimed he "loathed Egypt" (Letters 320). Whatever the truth of his claim, what is true is that Durrell's Egyptian experiences had a profound effect on his personal development. Those would lead to The Alexandria Quartet.

Unlike Hamlet's predicament, a "defect" need not be fatal, and some flaws are insignificant. Durrell was not a serious student of Egyptology. So Ian S. MacNiven, Durrell's authorized biographer, comments in a personal communication: "My own opinion is that LD was opportunistic in his research: whatever drifted into his ken and caught his fancy was apt to be dumped into his fictional hopper. He did, however, count many Old Hands in Egypt among his friends [...] and I am sure they loaned him books that would not appear in his library. And he talked a good deal about haunting the Patriarchal Library in Alexandria" ("Sources").

Carelessness also contributes to the confusion of the "fictional hopper." In Justine, Darley, Durrell's alter ego, spends two years in Upper Egypt, whose vastness stretches from south of Cairo to Aswan, about 500 miles. The Nile Valley of Upper Egypt has a narrow floodplain and variable escarpment; the Nile Delta of Lower Egypt is broad and flat. Darley transposes Valley and Delta. He describes his southern landscape as "flat rich fields," stresses its "flatness," and has its river "moving corpulently through the Delta" (Quartet 185-86). Durrell traveled to Aswan in 1943; yet, he confuses Egyptian geography.

Furthermore, Durrell does not mention the work of contemporary Egyptologists such as John A. Wilson (1899-1976) and shows no interest in the ancient Egyptian worldview and its preoccupation with social stability. …

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