Menace , Mystery and Decadence

The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Menace , Mystery and Decadence


Richard Davenport Hines on the seamy side of interwar Alexandria as depicted by Lawrence Durrell

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell Faber, £14.99, pp. 880, ISBN 9780571283934 Amateurs in Eden by Joanna Hodgkin Virago, £25, pp. 335, ISBN 9781844087938 It is fitting that Charles Dickens's bicentenary coincides with Lawrence Durrell's centenary, for the two novelists have crucial resemblances: both of them are triumphant in the intensity and power of their writing, but capable of calamitous lapses of taste; both of them are riotous comedians who sometimes plunge into hopeless melodrama. It is true that Einstein's theory of relativity, which Durrell foisted on the structure of The Alexandria Quartet (reprinted, with a new introduction by Jan Morris) has no more part in Martin Chuzzlewit than the ludicrous sexual obsessions derived from Sade and Henry Miller which sully Durrell's plot. But Dickens in certain moods was, as Angus Wilson said of Durrell's novels, 'floridly vulgar'.

Justine, the first volume of the quartet, was published by Faber in 1957. The successor volumes (Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea), which Durrell called 'siblings' rather than 'sequels', appeared by 1960. Each sibling overlaps and amends: different narthe spectator rators correct each other, shift emphasis, analyse protagonists differently, provide revelations from fresh perspectives. In an afterword Durrell wrote, 'I have always believed in letting my reader sink or skim.' Certainly, one needs to skim, for his narrative is sometimes overblown, his protagonist Justine is as improbable as her namesake in Sade, and the motives and reactions of her satellite characters resemble a queasy adolescent daydream too closely to convince.

Mountolive is the most readable and satisfying of the quartet. Its depiction of office politics and diplomatic intrigue (its eponymous hero is British Ambassador in Egypt) is written with delicious irony. In Mountolive Durrell finally roots his characters, makes one understand and care about some of them, and consummates his design.

It is hard now to recapture the impact half a century ago of these novels' heat, luxuriance and profanity. Redolent of Mediterranean beauty and squalor, with jokes about Horsham, Sidcup and Luton as reminders of English drabness, they exhilarated those who had chafed at the currency restrictions on foreign travel and the provincial-minded prudery of national censorship. One character speaks of 'that grim air of unflinching desperation with which Anglo-Saxons embark upon their pleasures'. Durrell's temptresses sip Pernod, read Vogue, use gold nail-varnish and enjoy sex.

'We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour, ' Durrell declares in Justine. He provides sumptuous descriptions of the Egyptian countryside, and indeed of the snowbound Home Counties, but his descriptions of Alexandria - its beauty, cruelty, menace, mystery, decadence - vie with The International Zone, Paul Bowles's account of Tangiers written a few years earlier. His city is populated by sensualists, money-grubbers, cynics, savages, and fatalists. Morbid lassitude overwhelms some: wild storms of frustration batter others. There are unforgettable glimpses: the bar where sulky rent-boys play backgammon under petrol-lamps; a pockmarked old furrier, Cohen, singing feebly on his deathbed; the circumcision booths hung with patriotic flags, where grotesquely dressed clowns with painted faces gambol to distract the boys.

There are harsh contrasts: bankers' limousines bear their freight of chic ladies to bridge tables, synagogue, fortune-teller, or smart cafe, while nearby a dwarf plays a mandolin, an immense eunuch with a carbuncle the size of a brooch gobbles pastry, a legless man on a trolley dribbles. Durrell's longer set-pieces, such as his account of the festival of Sitna Mariam and carnival ball that provide the climaxes in Balthazar, are glorious.

His leading protagonists are, however, bores. …

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