[ilds] Michael Haag's "Alexandria: City of Memory" and its reflections on The Alexandria Quartet

Sumantra Nag sumantranag at airtelmail.in
Mon Mar 5 03:25:05 PST 2012

A few months ago I finally acquired Michael Haag's "Alexandria: City of Memory". Needless to say I read the book with much anticipation and interest. I shall try to put my current points as briefly as possible. My present observations relate to Durrell's representation of Alexandria and implicitly, the city's multicultural but indigenous population, in The Alexandria Quartet, and the reflections which emerge from Michael Haag's own text in his book "Alexandria: City of Memory".

Michael Haag writes in Alexandria:City of Memory: 

"There was an innocence about Alexandria then, in those early days of the war, an innocence that some would say the city never really lost. 'It was unthought of for an unmarried girl, or even an unmarried boy', recalled Bernard de Zogheb, 'to leave the family house and have a flat of their own...Certainly most girls in Alexandria went to their weddings as virgins - girls of all communities. We were brought up to think that sex was a mortal sin.'..." (p.184) 

It seems to me that only in Eve did Durrell find an Alexandrian who had been 'battered', but this was exaggerated because her 'battering' was basically the stifling control of a conservative Jewish family. Eve had later said, 'I had a father who was very possessive and for very good reasons. He was also, I think infatuated with me... It was the closest he had been to any human being...And Larry understood this to mean, when I told him, that my father had interfered with me sexually, but he never did... he was an honest-to-God man;..." (p.231). 

Eve's affairs with two other men (Shock and Rugge) were passing if somewhat complicated but could they have any relevance to "all who have been "deeply wounded in their sex.." as suggested by Durrell in his novel Justine?)

And Eve appears to have provided him for psychological models not only for Justine but for Melissa as well. Somewhere in Haag's book Durrell refers to a nurse as a figure for Melissa, but not as a person with the emotional dimensions he represents in Melissa.

How does this fit with Lawrence Durrell's broad claims about the Alexandrian people? For instance:

1. "The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body - for it has outstripped the body...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." (The Alexandria Quartet, Justine, Faber paperback, 1974, p.18).

2. "It is as if the preoccupations of this landscape were centred somewhere out of the reach of the average inhabitant - in a region where the flesh, stripped by over-indulgence of its final reticences, must yield to a preocccupation vastly more comprehensive..." (The Alexandria Quartet, Justine, Faber paperback, 1974, p.38).  

On the other hand these are Michael Haag's accounts about the British in Alexandria (Alexandria:City of Memory): 

1. "Who were Durrell's original Alexandrians? In fact their names read like the cast of characters in a Noel Coward play: charles, Damien, Claudia, John, Hogarth, Baroness Irma, Tessa, Melissa, Corege. Almost all his characters are British; they turn out to be like Durrell and his friends, not true denizens of the cosmopolitan city but exiled in Alexandria by the war."(p.299). 

[But Gwyn Willams ('Durrell in Egypt') is also quoted by Haag as referring to 'Zananiri, Sachs, Baddaro, Menasce, Zogueb, Suarez...'. and 'It was out of this varied and dying ferment that Larry invented his Alexandria Quartet'.]

2. "Gwyn Williams would watch 'for as long as one caredto look' at British servicemen and women in 'a motionless clinch'...pressed against walls..." and "For Mario Colucci, ..he remembers seeing 'a Wren standing on the pavement...her skirt hitched up, one foot on the wall, having sex with a soldier.' " (pp.213-14)

[This scene appears as follows in the novel Clea: 'The city was always perverse but it took its pleasures with style...never up aginst a wall or a tree or a truck!' (p.732, The Alexandria quartet)]

3.  Haag writes of the temporarily resident Englishwoman in Alexandria, Elizabeth Gwynne - not a native citizen of Alexandria - who had the history of having been raped by a close relative, the history which Durrell gives to Justine in his novel. ['But it is not clear if eventually she herself or Cowan or a mutual friend told Durrell that at the age of fourteen she had been raped by a member of her family...' (Haag, p.274)].

4. "...for a time the navy itself operated a brothel...with a medical officer permanently on duty. 'It created a big scandal that the British should participate in such activity...' " (p.213)

5. In his novels, Durrell also underplays or ignores the the life of cultivation among the elite of Alexandria, mentioned in Michael Haag's book:

"..Nuovo Teatro Alhambra on the Rue Missalla and the Mohammed Ali Theatre on the Rue Fuad, where Pavlova danced and Toscanini conducted, where the opera season was brightened by the stars of La Scala...' (Haag, p.136)

Instead Durrell says about Alexandria, "You would never mistake it for a happy place." (Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet, Faber paperback, Justine, p.1-2.)  

My questions: 

Has Durrell underplayed the preoccupation with British people when he tars Alexandria with broad brushes of his concern with sexual activity? 

And why has he ignored the culture and the considerable involvement with artistic activities displayed at leat by the cosmopolitan elite as they are represented in Haag' book.


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