The Alexandria Quartet—Excerpt

Lawrence Durrell






THIS GROUP of four novels is intended to be read as a single work under the collective title of The Alexandria Quartet; a suitable descriptive subtitle might be ‘a word continuum’. In trying to work out my form I adopted, as a rough analogy, the relativity proposition. The first three were related in an intercalary fashion, being ‘siblings’ of each other and not ‘sequels’; only the last novel was intended to be a true sequel and to unleash the time dimension. The whole was intended as a challenge to the serial form of the conventional novel: the time-saturated novel of the day. Among the workpoints at the end I have sketched in a number of possible ways of continuing to deploy these characters and situations in further installments – but this is only to suggest that even if the group of books were extended indefinitely the result would never become roman fleuve; if, that is to say, the axis of the work has been properly laid down it should be possible to radiate from it in any direction without losing the strictness and congruity of its relation to ‘a continuum’.

It has been possible, for this edition, to correct a number of small slips pointed out by readers and critics, and also to add some small passages which were cut out of the original volumes in the MS. stage. The changes are not very great. Balthazar and Mountolive both lose half a dozen lines of text. Clea gains a small section, and a new translation from C. P. Cavafy.


THE SEA IS HIGH again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes….

I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child – Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word ‘escape’. The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way…. At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney-piece I light a lamp and walk about, thinking of my friends – of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora – precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!

I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all! Living on this bare promontory, snatched every night from darkness by Arcturus, far from the lime-laden dust of those summer afternoons, I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.

*   *   *   *   *

Capitally, what is this city of ours? What is resumed 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, some- thing subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet 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.

*   *   *   *   *

Notes for landscape-tones…. Long sequences of tempera. Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick- dust – sweet-smelling brick-dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water. Light damp clouds, earth-bound yet seldom bringing rain. Upon this squirt dust-red, dust-green, chalk-mauve and watered crimson-lake. In summer the sea-damp lightly varnished the air. Everything lay under a coat of gum. And then in autumn the dry, palpitant air, harsh with static electricity, inflaming the body through its light clothing. The flesh coming alive, trying the bars of its prison. A drunken whore walks in a dark street at night, shedding snatches of song like petals. Was it in this that Anthony heard the heart-numbing strains of the great music which persuaded him to surrender for ever to the city he loved?

The sulking bodies of the young begin to hunt for a fellow nakedness, and in those little cafés where Balthazar went so often with the old poet of the city,* the boys stir uneasily at their backgammon under the petrol-lamps: disturbed by this dry desert wind – so unromantic, so unconfiding – stir, and turn to watch every stranger. They struggle for breath and in every summer kiss they can detect the taste of quicklime….

*   *   *   *   *

I had to come here in order completely to rebuild this city in my brain – melancholy provinces which the old man saw as full of the ‘black ruins’ of his life. Clang of the trams shuddering in their metal veins as they pierce the iodine-coloured meidan of Mazarita. Gold, phosphorus, magnesium paper. Here we so often met. There was a little coloured stall in summer with slices of water-melon and the vivid water-ices she liked to eat. She would come a few minutes late of course – fresh perhaps from some assignation in a darkened room, from which I avert my mind; but so fresh, so young, the open petal of the mouth that fell upon mine like an unslaked summer. The man she had left might still be going over and over the memory of her; she might be as if still dusted by the pollen of his kisses. Melissa! It mattered so little somehow, feeling the lithe weight of the creature as she leaned on one’s arm smiling with the selfless candour of those who had given over with secrets. It was good to stand there, awkward and a little shy, breathing quickly because we knew what we wanted of each other. The messages passing beyond conscience, directly through the flesh-lips, eyes, water-ices, the coloured stall. To stand lightly there, our little fingers linked, drinking in the deep camphor-scented afternoon, a part of city….

*   *   *   *   *

I have been looking through my papers tonight. Some have been converted to kitchen uses, some the child has destroyed. This form of censorship pleases me for it has the indifference of the natural world to the constructions of art – an indifference I am beginning to share. Alter all, what is the good of a fine metaphor for Melissa when she lies buried deep as any mummy in the shallow tepid sand of the black estuary? But those papers I guard with care are the three volumes in which Justine kept her diary, as well as the folio which records Nessim’s madness. Nessim noticed them when I was leaving and nodded as he said:

‘Take these, yes, read them. There is much about us all in them. They should help you to support the idea of Justine without flinching, as I have had to do.’ This was at the Summer Palace after Melissa’s deaths when he still believed Justine would return to him. I think often, and never without a certain fear, of Nessim’s love for Justine. What could be more comprehensive, more surely founded in itself? It coloured his unhappiness with a kind of ecstasy, the joyful wounds which you’d think to meet in saints and not in mere lovers. Yet None touch of humour would have saved him from such dreadful comprehensive suffering. It is easy to criticize, I know. I know.

*   *   *   *   *

In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. Its dim momentum in the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of seawater licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouths of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches – empty, forever empty under the gulls: white scribble on the grey, munched by clouds. If there are ever sails here they die before the land shadows them. Wreckage washed up on the pediments of islands, the last crust, eroded by the weather, stuck in the blue maw of water … gone!

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 10:50 AM  Leave a Comment  

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