Lawrence Durrell

The Alexandria Quartet

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The Alexandria Quartet Summary

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The Alexandria Quartet is a sequence of four novels published between 1957 and 1960 by British writer Lawrence Durrell. Set in Egypt before and during World War II, each of the first three books narrates the same sequence of events from a new perspective. The fourth book is a partial retrospective on the events of the first three books, set in wartime six years later. The narrative is centered around a man named L.G. Darley, who observes his friendships and romantic partnerships in Alexandria, observations complemented and challenged at points by other characters. The central question of The Alexandria Quartet is the possibility of the endurance of love given the tenuous and contingent relationship between a given subject and object over time.

The first novel in the tetralogy, Justine, is a deliberately cryptic journey through the recent past of a British teacher and aspiring writer, his name revealed in the later books as Darley. Darley has recently fled from Egypt to an island of Greece in the Aegean Sea, along with the child of his deceased lover Melissa. On the island, he reflects on his pre-war memories of Alexandria in Egypt, a somewhat derelict port city he romanticizes over because of an affair that took place there. The affair was between him and a woman named Justine, and was coupled with a friendship with many Egyptians and expatriates brought together in anticipation of World War II. He meets such characters as his lustful roommate Pombal; a banker named Nessim who is Justine’s true husband; a novelist named Pursewarden who ultimately commits suicide; a gay doctor named Balthazar; and an elderly policeman Scobie, who moonlights as a crossdresser and hooks up with British sailors, and is ultimately killed in a hate crime.

After extended descriptions of each of his acquaintances back in Egypt, Darley coaxes out a story about his affair with Justine. He meets her when she attends his lecture on the old urban Alexandrian poet Cavafy, and they begin an ill-fated relationship. It is clear Nessim is aware of the affair, yet they proceed despite the imminent backlash. They attend a duck hunt at one of Nessim’s estates; ironically, the inevitable murder is that of a man named Capodistria, who raped Justine as a child and triggered her nymphomania. Justine flees to Palestine.

Balthazar, the second novel, is in part a challenge to Darley’s narrative in the first volume. It is narrated by Balthazar, who has read Darley’s manuscript (the content of Justine) and tracks him down in the Cyclades to dispute his statements. Here, the contextual politics of the story are elaborated, and Darley is told of a conspiracy against the British involving Nessim’s family, particularly his brother Narouz, that is taking place in Egypt and Palestine. Darley is shocked to learn that Justine’s relationship with him was a ruse to cover up another relationship with the writer Pursewarden.

Scobie’s story comes to an end when he is murdered by British sailors in a hate crime against his lewdness and sexual identity. A painter named Clea mentioned briefly in Justine is revealed to have a close friendship with Darley and is wary of Narouz’s desire for her. Justine learns of a masquerade, where her friend Toto de Brunel is stabbed; it is revealed that he is wearing her ring. Balthazar concludes the volume by commenting philosophically that each fact or event in life is predicated by multitudes of inexplicable motivations.
Mountolive, the third volume, is told in the third person, implying it is the “true” perspective on the story. It describes David Mountolive’s early life in Egypt and friendship with Nessim’s family. An immature man, Mountolive uses Leila as his muse, and they correspond after an affair as he advances his political career. In Egypt, Mountolive, now an Ambassador, hires Pursewarden as his assistant, ignoring warnings that Pursewarden is refusing to acknowledge Nessim’s anti-British ideas. Pursewarden commits suicide and Mountolive scrambles to act against his friends and renounce his allegiance. Leila intervenes to help her family, but Mountolive is disgusted by her. Nessim and Justine now live in poverty and the Egyptian government brutalizes Narouz. The volume ends with Nessim sitting beside his murdered brother’s coffin, contemplating his misguided ambitions.

Clea, the final volume, ostensibly clarifies the events of the first three. Darley returns to Alexandria as the war nears its end, seeing his friends have been met with bad fates. He no longer has passions for his former lovers. Nessim is now an ambulance driver. Clea, however, matures well, and Darley falls in love with her. Balthazar foolishly falls in love with a young actor and his friends attempt to fix his homosexuality. Darley discovers Pursewarden’s writings and finds that he has been referred to as “Brother Ass.” In the final scene of the novel, Darley rescues Clea from drowning at a swimming party when Balthazar accidentally shoots a harpoon at her hand, pinning her to a sunken ship. Clea’s hand is replaced with a mechanical hand. Darley finally comments that his awareness of the complexity of relativity gained through these many perspectives has fashioned him into an artist.

The Alexandria Quartet, in fashioning discrete volumes for various perspectives on the same narrative, validates a belief of Durrell’s that there exists no “correct” story or perspective on history or phenomena. Conceptually borrowing from Einstein’s theory of relativity which was becoming popularized at the time, the tetralogy is thus an investigation of the necessary transformation one must make from an absolutist understanding of truth and history to a relativistic one.