A long novel demands commitment from its readers, a promise you'll stay the distance whatever the ups and downs along the way. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell may be four-books-in-one, but at over 800 pages of densely written prose, it clearly falls into the lengthy category. It was gathering dust on my bedside pile, passed over for slimmer, less demanding volumes, until I pounced on it as the perfect tome for a two week getaway last month.
Each book in the quartet is named after one of the main protagonists; Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. Set in Alexandria in the years leading up to the Second World War, it opens with a vividly drawn description of a heady and hedonistic city teeming with different nationalities. Durrell, writing as an insider and resident of Alexandria at this time, breathes life into the details of every quarter, street and alleyway he describes.
Justine has the shape of a love story as the narrator, only later identified as L.G.Darnley, is drawn into her world of glamour, deceit and despair. We find out little about his background, only that he's come to Alexandria as a writer, quickly becoming involved with the timorous sometime-dancer Melissa. The beautiful and seductive Justine is way out of his league, already married to wealthy Coptic businessman Nessim, but when did that ever stop a man from embarking on a doomed-to-disaster love affair? At first the story is fragmented as Darnley, writing from a distant island some time after the event, seeks to make sense of what has happened and to find a form for his novel.
There are huge drifts of description and I must admit I struggled at times to get to grips with the narrative. If I hadn't been on holiday, with time to concentrate while sipping a glass of prosecco on my sun lounger, I might have been tempted to give up. There just seemed to be an excess of words to deal with, many of them too obscure unless you have a dictionary handy. Nevertheless it was the writing which finally got hold of me towards the close of Justine, both the poetry of Durrell's language and the feeling of being absorbed into a richly textured, multi-faceted place and time far away from modern European sensibilities. A place contrasting opulence and extreme poverty, chastity and complete deprivation; a boiling mass of emotion rather than intellect where philosophical arguments are nevertheless coolly examined and dissected.
The second book weaves a layer of gossamer over the first, covering some of its gaps by means of an 'interlinear' provided by Balthazar, a doctor, interpreter of the Cabal and confidante of Justine's. Here we learn all is not what it seems, that many of the protagonists have previously unsuspected motives for their actions and there's much more at the heart of this hugely-scoped quartet than a simple love story. Mountolive, the only book written in the third person, reinforces this and throws light on yet more characters from the perspective of the British ambassador. It's only in Clea, the final instalment, that the story moves on as Darnley is drawn back into the lives of those he left behind in an Alexandria now ravaged by war, to find how much they too have changed.
The four books, although all written from different perspectives and initially published separately between 1957-60, have many recurring themes and motifs in common. I can't imagine reading any one in isolation, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts, the reworking of events becoming the stuff of life itself. I was still reading Clea after I got back from holiday, but by that time there was no problem in getting to the end because I was hooked. The fate of many of the characters has stayed with me and it's one of those novels that - despite its length - you want to reread immediately to see what clues you missed first time round. As commitments go book-wise, The Alexandria Quartet is a big one, but like all the best relationships its impact is long-lasting, profound and deeply rewarding.