Speak the name Lawrence Durrell, as I have been doing recently, and you will have little trouble prompting the title of his masterwork, the four-novel cycle he called "The Alexandria Quartet." Yes, everyone read it back when. Or some of it. Justine ... Balthazar ... The well of memory tends to run dry about there, leaving only the wistful fragrance of the little remembered but not quite forgotten.
Yet half a century ago, when Justine appeared, it elicited a rush of critical superlatives that announced the birth of a literary classic. Almost at once the novel established an outlandish reputation for Durrell, previously known for a precocious first novel and some sublime travel writing. He was confidently placed in the big shoes of Joyce, Proust, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, among other modernist forebears. "The novel may indeed be dying," declared the critic Robert Scholes, "but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance."
At 45, the preternaturally energetic Durrell leapt into the awaited moment of his fame, churning out the rest of the volumes--siblings, he called them, not sequels--one after the other, faster than a publisher could keep up with them: six weeks to write Balthazar, he said, 12 weeks for Mountolive, and eight weeks for Clea, the last to appear, in early 1960. Within months of Justine, rights to the whole opus, to his poetry, to Bitter Lemons, a book on Cyprus, were snapped up around the world. Durrell was able to give up nearly 20 years on the British Foreign Office payroll and buy a house in southern France, where he lived ever after, receiving royalty checks, accolades, and pilgrims in inexorably dwindling numbers.
Durrell had found his voice and located his literary identity in a particular place, Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, a seedy polyglot seaport of bygone luster. There is no denying Durrell's extraordinarily retentive powers of observation, but he was the first to say that his city was woven from many cities in his mind. He was stationed in Alexandria for less than a year, starting at the end of 1944, and once considered setting the whole quartet in Athens, which underscores the invented and nearly arbitrary nature of his terrain. Be that as it may, for George Steiner, another serious critic then and now, "Durrell's Alexandria is one of the true monuments to the architecture of imagination. It compares in manifold coherence with the Paris of Proust and the Dublin of Joyce."
Alexandria, in fact, is the central character in the Quartet--the fabric that, if anything does, holds together the threads of narrative. Durrell gives the city personality and moral will: "Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi." Alexandria: "the capital of Memory." And how lovingly he describes
streets that run back from the docks with their tattered rotten supercargo of houses, breathing into each others' mouths, keeling over. Shuttered balconies swarming with rats, and old women whose hair is full of the blood of ticks. Peeling wails leaning drunkenly to east and west of their true centre of gravity. The black ribbon of flies attaching itself to the lips and eyes of the children--the moist beads of summer flies everywhere; the very weight of their bodies snapping off ancient flypapers hanging in the violet doors of booths and cafes.... And then the street noises: shriek and clang of the water-bearing Saidi, dashing his metal cups together as an advertisement, the unheeded shrieks which pierce the hubbub from time to time, as of some small delicately-organized animal being disembowelled. If Durrell's Alexandria has a mind and soul of its own, the same is not always true for his human characters, whose exoticism and wordiness hide more than they reveal. The more Durrell tells us about them, perversely, the fuzzier they become. He was carefree, or careless, about...