[ilds] ILDS Digest, Vol 1, Issue 86_Expats and colonialism

Michael Haag michaelhaag at btinternet.com
Fri Apr 27 13:36:21 PDT 2007

Darley is hardly a womaniser.  He had no woman at all, and no history 
of having had one, until Melissa pretty much offered herself to him; 
and Justine picked him up.  As for Pombal, well, he does what a 
Frenchman has to do.  Neither of them are exactly living depraved lives.

In fact these scenes in the opening sections of Justine are reminiscent 
of scenes in many books, books set in Europe, and scenes in Durrell's 
earlier novels Pied Piper of Lovers and Panic Spring where the 
incidents occur in London.  They are not incidents that Durrell or his 
principal characters in those books seem to approve of.  One could say 
that Durrell transposed his material from London to Alexandria.  If so, 
does that suddenly put his writing into the category of colonialist or 
post-colonialist or orientalist?

I find tags like colonial and post-colonial literature unhelpful; they 
stop people making important enquiries or thinking for themselves.  As 
for Edward Said, his Orientalism is nonsense and has been properly 
rubbished by people far better informed in the subject than himself, 
for example the historian of the medieval Middle East and novelist 
Robert Irwin in For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies 
(London, 2006).  Irwin has some pretty strong words for Edward Said, 
calling him something like dishonest and malign.

I might add that the characters in Justine are, almost all of them, 
Alexandrians.  I draw the distinction between Alexandrians and 
Egyptians, and between Alexandria and Egypt.  Alexandria was a peculiar 
enterprise, a Europe transposed to Africa, rather like Durrell's 
scenes.  The fascination with Alexandria to a considerable extent lies 
in the fact that it is a kind of mirror (yes) to European civilisation; 
it allows you to see something that is familiar yet to see it in a 
special way.  That is why Cavafy, E M Forster and Lawrence Durrell were 
always writing about a European experience when writing about 
Alexandria -- the essence of the city, both ancient and 
modern-cosmopolitan, was European not Egyptian.

Melissa is a Greek of Alexandria; there is nothing to say that she has 
not lived there all her life.  Balthazar is an Egyptian Jew as is 
Justine, and Nessim is a Copt, more Egyptian than those 
Johnny-come-lately Arabs or Turks.  Pombal is transitory, being a 
diplomat.  He will be transitory wherever he goes.  Darley may or may 
not have been transitory in Alexandria.  As it turns out, he leaves, 
comes back, then leaves again.  But he might have stayed.  Certainly 
the hundreds of thousands of people who made up the population at that 
time belonged to families who had been in Alexandria for generations, 
whether they were Christian, Muslim or Jew, whether they were French, 
Italian, Syrian, Turkish, Palestinian, Lebanese, Maltese, English, 
Belgian, Greek or whatever.  In fact the newcomers were the Egyptians; 
they moved in after the modern city was up and running.  The 
Alexandrians, indeed, were rather like Edward Said; he would fit the 
Alexandrian mould perfectly, except that his father ran a business in 
Cairo, not Alexandria, and sent his son to school in Cairo and America, 
not Alexandria and Paris.

Alexandria was not a British colonial city.  The British between 1882 
and 1922 ran things from Cairo; after that the Egyptians ran almost 
everything for themselves, and indeed everything after 1936 -- except 
during the war, when the choice was between the British being in Egypt 
or the Nazis.  There were some Egyptians who wanted the Nazis, but I do 
not weep for the failure of their hopes.  In any case, Alexandria was a 
very different city to Cairo.  Cairo was founded by the Arabs and was 
the seat of the imperialist powers who ruled over Egypt, whether the 
Arabs themselves or the Turks in their many varieties, then the French, 
the Alids, the British, and now an Egyptian military dictatorship 
dressed up as a democratic government.  But Alexandria, refounded in 
about 1820 by Mohammed Ali (an Ottoman from northern Greece), was 
settled by Europeans who were invited there and whose communities were 
even given land on which to build.  They established their own elected 
municipal government -- the first municipal government anywhere in the 
Middle East -- and they largely ran their own affairs.  This was well 
established by the time the British came along.

Having said all that, it is worth noting that in the very earliest 
drafts for Justine Durrell's characters were not Alexandrians, they 
were for the most part British, but they were not ex-pats nor were they 
transients, instead they were marooned in Alexandria by the war.  They 
wanted to get out, but they were trapped.  Rather like the gnostics 
felt trapped in a world not of their choosing nor even of God's 

The matter is complex.

I should also add that the Alexandria Quartet is in fact two works.  
One is Justine.  The other is Balthazar-Mountolive-Clea.  The two works 
were written at very different times.  Moreover Justine was not written 
with any notion that there would be further volumes.  Reading Justine 
as though Balthazar-Mountolive-Clea already existed, or was conceived 
of, is a mistake.


On Friday, April 27, 2007, at 06:56  pm, Sumantra Nag wrote:

> to what extent is the AQ mainly about British and
> European expats?
> I believe the AQ has been referred to as "post-colonial" literature - 
> or
> should it be "colonial" literature? I remember reading that Lawrence 
> Durrell
> referred to himself once as a "literary blimp", suggesting, it seems, 
> that
> he looked upon himself as a colonial in attitude. In fact, if one were 
> to
> look at the subject matter of the AQ, a lot of it deals with womanising
> expatriate Englishmen (Darley, Pursewarden) or Frenchmen (Pombal for 
> one)
> whose presence in Alexandria was transitory.
> I think Edward Said referred to the subject matter of the AQ as 
> "trivial"
> and one can see why! Is Darley's relationship with Melissa anything 
> more
> than "...what we wanted of each other..." [Justine (1.4)]? And what was
> that? It is not clear, but can a complex relationship be contained in 
> such a
> phrase? At first reading, there is an innocence and an element of 
> poetry in
> the lines of this section - but how does it appear on reflection about 
> the
> social situation - an Englishman having a fling with a deprived Greek 
> woman?
> And the Englishman (however indigent) is a member of the ruling 
> colonial
> power in Alexandria.
> And what do you make of the following passage [Justine (1.12)]:
> "Some of these encounters with poor exhausted creatures driven to 
> extremity
> by want are interesting, even touching,..."
> "...encounters...are interesting.."???!!! It is as if Durrell had
> unthinkingly let slip a crass and cynical comment, but it is a comment 
> which
> is revealing, and what it reveals is not very nice!
> Sumantra Nag

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