[ilds] Alexandria: From Nasser to Lawrence Durrell

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Fri Nov 30 09:36:04 PST 2007

Hello all,

Charles, I'm very glad to see this posted.  Anis' perspective is one 
that needs more voice.

That said, the literary element is certainly played down in her 
discussion, and the tone of "why didn't he like us" detracts from her 
valuable contentions.  Most notably, the whip and the racism surrounding 
it overlooks that this is Memlik Pasha holding the whip, and I think 
it's the only reference in _Mountolive_ (a well 'whipped' book) that is 
not directed at Narouz.  The racist perspective on 'Egyptians crying for 
the whip' then, to my mind, is a characterization based on the limited 
narrative frame surrounding him at that point.  I can't imagine the same 
comment coming from a scene limited to the perspectival frame of 
Darley...  But then again, the whip image is nearly synonymous with 
Narouz in that book, and his political position is in desperate need of 

Rather than suggesting that every racist utterance in a novel reflects 
the author, I wonder what this says about the narrator, or perhaps far 
more likely, Memlik Pasha?  I've only just now noticed, while teaching 
_Monsieur_, that the racist comments appear only around particular 
characters (in that instance Sutcliffe rather than Bruce).

I also think she's overlooked the literary elements of the book -- it's 
almost like setting up a straw man to achieve a pre-determined end based 
on a critique of ideological motivations.  That said, the ideology of 
the _Quartet_ *hasn't* been adequately discussed, and the points she 
raises are real ones.  I'd like to see them go further, and perhaps 
without the constraints of a newspaper article, which I'm sure kept her 
from a full (and perhaps even accurate) presentation of her thoughts.

I wonder if we can lure her into a productive discussion here?


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