[ilds] Alexandria: From Nasser to Lawrence Durrell

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Fri Nov 30 07:03:24 PST 2007

I will look forward to responses from the listerv.  I will also copy 
Mona Anis's email address here:  manis at ahram.org.eg



>       Alexandria: From Nasser to Lawrence Durrell
>     With celebrations underway to commemorate the publication of
>     Durrell's Alexandria Quartet half a century ago, *Mona Anis
>     <mailto:manis at ahram.org.eg?subject=Culture%20::%20Alexandria:%20From%20Nasser%20to%20Lawrence%20Durrell>*
>     asks: is not the present high regard for the work in Egypt the
>     very epitome of alienation?
>     ------------------------------------------------------------------------
>     As the Library of Alexandria and the British Council in Egypt
>     commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first
>     volume of Lawrence Durrell's /Alexandria Quartet/ ( /Justine/,
>     1957; /Balthazar/, 1958; /Mountolive/, 1958; and /Clea/, 1960), it
>     might be fitting to remember a long-forgotten fact: Durrell's
>     Alexandria is not in any way a direct expression of the real
>     Alexandria, past or present.
>     And before any reader begins to take aim at the present writer for
>     not knowing the difference between art and reality, I would like
>     to state at the outset that this piece is not concerned with the
>     discrepancy between the real Alexandria and the fictional one of
>     the /Quartet/. Rather, it attempts to explain why the real city
>     where the author of the /Quartet/ lived between 1944 and 1945
>     mutated in his hand into this "whore among cities."
>     Statements such as Durrell was a foreigner who frequented a narrow
>     clique of foreigners and transient visitors, or that he didn't
>     know the topography of the city or its native tongue, valid as
>     they might be, are not the main concern of this article. Such
>     arguments would have been relevant had Durrell set himself the
>     task of writing a guide to Alexandria, a task achieved by E. M.
>     Forster in the early 1920s, although Forster was also a foreigner
>     frequenting the same narrow clique Durrell socialised with some 20
>     years later.
>     BACK TO BASICS: Of course Durrell was a foreigner, and one who
>     didn't know or care to know the history of the city or its
>     language, but this fact need not detract from the value of his
>     work, a work of art governed by laws different to those adopted
>     when writing tourist guides, or history books for that matter.
>     The depiction of a place in a work of art, as the French critic
>     Pierre Macherey once wrote about Balzac's Paris, "is the product
>     of a certain labour, dictated not by reality but by the work. It
>     is not the reflection of a reality or an experience, but of an
>     artifice, which consists wholly in the establishment of a complex
>     system of relations."
>     Consequently, rather than attributing Durrell's hostility and
>     contempt for most things Egyptian in the /Quartet/ to his
>     insufficient knowledge, we should seek an explanation for that
>     phenomenon in the system of complex relations constituting the
>     work of art we call the /Alexandria Quartet/, littered as it is
>     with disturbing statements such as "the timorous soul of the
>     Egyptians cries always for the whip."
>     One obvious way of accounting for such ideological statements
>     would be to attribute them to the white supremacist mentality
>     prevalent during the high noon of imperialism -- one that is
>     unfortunately rearing its ugly head again today with the current
>     "war on terror". This would not be totally wrong, yet if we want
>     to deal with the /Quartet/ as a work of art--as a great part of
>     it, especially /Justine/, genuinely is-- then we have to assume
>     that this imperialist ideology influenced the work in a more
>     complex manner than is apparent in the offensive ideological
>     statements scattered here and there in it, especially in
>     /Mountolive/, by far the most ideological and least artistically
>     satisfying of the four volumes.
>     However, to write a literary critique of Durrell's /Quartet/ is
>     something that is beyond the scope of this article, and neither do
>     the reasons behind writing it merit such an endeavour. My reasons
>     stem solely from a desire to commemorate the anniversary of
>     /Justine/, celebrated today in Alexandria, by sharing a few
>     forgotten facts about the conditions surrounding the production of
>     the work, and not discussing its literary merits.
>     CONDITIONS OF PRODUCTION: Before getting to the ideological
>     project behind the /Quartet/, as elucidated by Durrell, we might
>     begin by providing a short biographical note on him. Born in India
>     in 1912, Durrell was sent at the age of 12 to a public school in
>     England, where he stayed until the age of 18. Following his
>     father's death in 1930, he left school and used the money he had
>     inherited to pursue his literary ambitions. He moved to Bloomsbury
>     and wrote poetry, of which he published two slim volumes that
>     received little notice.
>     In 1935, now married, Durrell decided to set out with his wife to
>     Greece. They lived in Corfu until the end of 1938. As the clouds
>     of WWII were gathering, he and his wife moved to Athens where he
>     worked first at the British Embassy and then at the British
>     Council. In April 1941 the Nazis invaded Greece, and a British
>     rescue ship was dispatched from Egypt to Crete, returning to
>     Alexandria with the king of Greece, his courtiers, and many
>     British subjects including Durrell and his wife.
>     Spending his first couple of months in Egypt writing a weekly
>     column for the /Egyptian Gazette/, in August 1941 Durrell was
>     offered the job of foreign press officer at the British Embassy in
>     Cairo. It was not until 1944 that he got posted to Alexandria as a
>     press attaché. While in Egypt, Durrell's first marriage broke up,
>     and he met an Alexandrine Jewess, Eve Cohen, who was to become his
>     second wife.
>     In 1945, accompanied by Eve, Durrell returned to Greece. He was
>     never to return to Egypt or Alexandria until the mid-1970s, when a
>     BBC programme retracing his steps in Egypt brought him back for a
>     few days. He then wrote a rather negative article about this
>     experience. From the above, we can see that Durrell's residence in
>     Alexandria was not by any stretch of the imagination a long
>     sojourn, nor was it one that merits considering him to be an
>     authority even on the cosmopolitan city.
>     Indeed, long before he set foot in the city the ideas which came
>     to fruition in the /Alexandria Quartet/ -- completed between 1956
>     and 1959--had germinated in his mind 20 years earlier while he was
>     still living in Corfu. There were a number of provisional titles
>     for this work, among which two are most frequently mentioned: "The
>     Book of the Dead" and "The Heraldic Book".
>     In December 1936, Durrell wrote to the American writer Henry
>     Miller about this book: "Have planned the heraldic book, but lack
>     reference books on psychology, the pathology of childhood,
>     cretinism, genius, etc. LET US KILL THE LITERARY MEN ONCE AND FOR
>     We can fully appreciate the significance of the needed reference
>     material when we understand that at this early stage of his life
>     Durrell was much influenced by pseudo- scientific theories
>     purporting to establish a connection between the social position
>     of individuals and their anatomical and physiological
>     characteristics (the size and shape of their skulls, height, skin
>     colour, etc).This penchant for biological determinism, woven with,
>     and perhaps also exacerbated by, his hatred for most things
>     Egyptian, colours much of his perception of Alexandria and its
>     native population.
>     In 1944, he described the city to Miller: "I don't think you would
>     like it. First this steaming humid flatness--not a hill or a mound
>     anywhere--chocked to bursting point with bones and the crummy
>     deposits of wiped out cultures. Then this smashed up broken down
>     shabby Neapolitan town, with its Levantine mounds of houses
>     peeling in the sun. A sea flat, dirty brown and waveless rubbing
>     the port."
>     In his last letter before leaving Alexandria, Durrell wrote to
>     Miller: "I have drafted about twenty pages of the new version of
>     the Book of the Dead -- it's about incest and Alexandria,
>     inseparable ideas here, but will take me a year or so to do."
>     NASSER AND DURRELL: In fact it took him another ten years before
>     he made substantial progress in writing /Justine/. In 1955, while
>     Durrell was working in Cyprus setting up a pro-British radio
>     station, the EOKA guerrilla movement that was struggling to end
>     British rule of the island was gaining strength.
>     In autumn 1955, Durrell wrote to Miller: "We are in the middle of
>     a very nasty little revolution here with bombs and murders on the
>     Palestine pattern.... In the midst of all this noise and slaughter
>     I am half way through a book called /Justine/ which is about Eve's
>     Alexandria before the war".
>     In summer 1956, Durrell told Miller that "I have just finished a
>     book about Alexandria called /Justine/... Outside the dull,
>     desultory noise of occasional bombs going off, or a few pistol
>     shots, or a call from the operations people to say there was
>     another ambush in the mountains. A very queer and thrilling
>     period, sad, weighed down with futility and disgust, but
>     marvellous to be able to live in one's book while everything is
>     going up inchmeal around one and the curfews settle on the dead
>     towns."
>     By August he has had to flee Cyprus for England, and in October
>     1956 he writes: "I don't know what is happening in Cyprus--maybe
>     they have burnt my house down by now... Clearly, we can't go on
>     being a great power if our political grasp of things is so
>     elementary. Russia can do it because she shoots to kill. But we
>     can neither shoot nor think it seems."
>     It does not take great insight to link the dates of these letters
>     to fateful events in the history of British imperialism, then on
>     the decline, that were taking place at the same time. And it
>     should be remembered that the Egyptian revolution of 1952, under
>     the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was then the focus of the
>     uprooting of British imperialism in the Arab countries and beyond.
>     October 1956 is the date of the Suez war, for example, and August
>     is the month following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal,
>     announced from Alexandria on 26 July. The EOKA guerrilla movement
>     was an anti-imperialist movement with strong links to the Nasser
>     regime.
>     Neither is it far fetched to claim that the illusory world of the
>     /Quartet/ is both Durrell's response to and refuge from the
>     nightmare of the end of the empire, a therapeutic venture enabling
>     its author "to live in one's book... while everything is going up
>     inchmeal around one."
>     /Justine/, in fact, is a book that converts real history into
>     myth, constructing instead a supposedly independent country and a
>     people unworthy of independence. It is a book that had to start in
>     1936--"Eve's Alexandria before the war"--in order to convert the
>     Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 from a treaty dictated by the
>     approaching war, into a full independence granted by the British.
>     As /Mountolive/ puts it: "How had he risen swiftly stage by stage
>     in the Commission which had taught him contempt for his masters.
>     When Egypt became free, he surprised even his sponsors by gaining
>     the ministry of the interior at a single bound. He knew well how
>     to strike echoes around his name with the whip--for he was now
>     wielding it. The timorous soul of the Egyptians cries always for
>     the whip."
>     Indeed, there is a link between the manner in which the
>     /Alexandria Quartet/ converted the real Alexandria into a
>     dream-like myth offered as a substitute for the real city, and the
>     way Nasser's image was converted in British prime minister Anthony
>     Eden's speeches following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal
>     into being that of the devil incarnate and of a fascist
>     threatening world peace.
>     And it is certainly more than a coincidence that the city which
>     Durrell had popularized as "a whore among cities" bears the same
>     name as the city in which Nasser had announced the nationalisation
>     of the Canal. Indeed, it was the very same city in which Nasser
>     was born in 1918. And while we're at it, one hopes the city of his
>     birth will commemorate next January his 90th birth anniversary
>     with the same enthusiasm witnessed in this week's celebrations of
>     /Justine/ 's 50th anniversary.
>     REINVENTING THE WHEEL: A final personal note: the present writer's
>     first encounter with the /Alexandria Quartet/ dates back to 1968,
>     when, upon enrolling for a BA in English Language and Literature
>     at an Egyptian national university, students were taught /Justine/
>     on the first-year novel course. Back then, along with this novel,
>     we also studied material produced by our professors detailing the
>     glaring errors in the /Quartet/, warning us not to take the novel
>     as a true reflection of Alexandria. Indeed, one such paper,
>     Professor Mahmoud Manzalaoui's "Curate's Egg: An Alexandrian
>     Opinion of Durrell's Quartet", sent me ten years later, while
>     reading for a post-graduate degree in the Sociology of Literature,
>     to search for the reasons behind Durrell's presentation of the city.
>     Today, almost 40 years after my initiation into the world of
>     Durrell's Alexandria, I cannot help feeling dismayed at the way in
>     which many Egyptian intellectuals cannot seem to separate the
>     wheat from the chaff where Durrell is concerned, and--as much of
>     the current debate in Arab literary publications reveals--are now
>     lamenting the "disappearance" of Durrell's cosmopolitan
>     Alexandria, which never existed in the first place.
>     While being aware that throughout history some great writers and
>     artists have been--and probably some still are--guilty of racist
>     or even fascist ideas without this on its own detracting from the
>     value of their works, I have always thought that appreciating the
>     artistic merits of such works is one thing and welcoming their
>     producers in countries at the receiving end of such prejudices is
>     a totally different matter.
>     Not so, apparently, in my country. For years now, the present
>     writer has been watching with bewilderment the way in which the
>     /Alexandria Quartet/ and its author--invited by Egyptians 25 years
>     ago to teach a course in an Alexandria-based university, though he
>     declined the invitation--have been gaining in stature, and for
>     some time now the novel has been considered a masterpiece and a
>     definitive statement on a bygone era of Egyptian history.
>     Suffice it to mention here that the Alexandria Library in the
>     heart of modern Alexandria boasts a permanent exhibition depicting
>     Durrell's Alexandria.
>     For me, this exhibition is the epitome of alienation. Trying to
>     think of a parallel to drive the absurdity of the notion home, I
>     invite the reader to imagine what an extraordinary idea it would
>     be if the British Museum, or any other national museum in London,
>     were to dedicate a permanent exhibition to the London of Tayeb
>     Saleh, for example--a great Anglophile by the way--as depicted in
>     his famous novel /Season of Migration to the North./
>     C a p t i o n : Nasser as a young army officer in Sudan
>     <http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/873/_cu2.htm>
> © Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
>     Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at:
>     http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/873/cu2.htm 

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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