Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet

Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet has provoked a variety of responses from ‘astounding tour de force’ to ‘flawed masterpiece’. The work was hugely popular in the 1960s when its publication coincided with the sexual revolution and the start of the post-modernist and post-colonial inquiries. After huge early popularity, critical reception fell off, with critics suggesting the work was not profound nor meaningful or that its view of love is shallow or perverse. Yet transcending these critiques is appreciation for Durrell’s stylistic elegance– the gorgeous form with which he explores the sensual and dangerous world of Alexandria in aftermath of WW II. Our study will also consider how the a Western mind portrays the Eastern world–and how we are all outsiders looking in.

Recently there has been a resurgence of critical interest in Durrell’s Quartet in particular the insights it offers of the clash between cultures, as the Western outsider struggles to understand the blend of cultural influences and jagged edges of post-war Egypt. The play with linear time and multiple perspectives add to the modernist position of the work as Durrell uses multiple voices to capture the chaos of a changing world.

Here is a review from the Mellen Press on Mike Diboll’s work, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its Egyptian Contexts

In Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its Egyptian Contexts, Dr. Diboll argues that Durrell’s tetralogy is the most important English novel of the mid-nineteen-fifties, an historically significant period which has been much overlooked by literary scholars. It convincingly demonstrates the importance of the Alexandria Quartet as a “Janus text” which looks back to the lost world of the British Empire, yet anticipates many important aspects of later post-colonial and postmodern writing. Thus, the book insists, the Alexandria Quartet should be recognised as a colossal work of literature, standing astride the nexus separating the colonial and post-colonial moments, a paradigmatic text for scholars of Empire studies, late Modernism, literary postmodernity, orientalism and post-colonial literature.

It is Durrell’s lyric style and the use of place as defining identity that most readers consider among his strongest achievement. Here is a quote from Justine that evokes the Alexandria that bewitches the narrator:

“Capitally, what is this city of ours? What is presumed in the word Alexandria? In a flash my mind’s eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today — and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either. Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them. The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place.The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in thesweet anarchy of the body — for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying — I think he was quoting — that Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets — I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.”

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Posted on

April 6, 2019