[ilds] ILDS Digest, Vol 66, Issue 2_The Guardian on Durrell (Denise Tart & David Green)

Sumantra Nag sumantranag at gmail.com
Thu Oct 18 23:30:27 PDT 2012

Will it be possible please, to get a link or reference to the The Guardian 
article which is quoted here?


Sumantra Nag

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>   1. The Guardian on Durrell (Denise Tart & David Green)
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> Date: Thu, 18 Oct 2012 17:26:27 +1100
> From: "Denise Tart & David Green" <dtart at bigpond.net.au>
> To: "Durrel" <ilds at lists.uvic.ca>
> Subject: [ilds] The Guardian on Durrell
> Message-ID: <8C44CD7E62B84E17B9E1815132C30342 at DenisePC>
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> The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell's celebrated tetralogy from the 
> 1950s, was defined by its author as ''an investigation of modern love'', 
> but has often been regarded by its readers more as an evocation of a 
> city - the Greco-Arab, multi-ethnic Alexandria of its title. Almost 
> infinite variations of love are certainly explored in its 1,000-odd pages, 
> and the presence of Alexandria certainly permeates the work, but I think 
> the legendary fascination of the quartet is essentially existential. The 
> work itself is greater than its themes, and casts a spell that is neither 
> precisely emotional nor specifically topographic. It is actually neither 
> specific nor precise about anything. It was an experimental novel of its 
> day, perhaps related to the work of Durrell's friend Henry Miller, perhaps 
> to Ulysses. It was based on the premise that people and events seem 
> different when considered from different angles and periods, and that they 
> can best be recorded, as Durrell himself put it!
> , stereoscopically. The four volumes concern the same characters, but each 
> of the several narrators tell the novels' complex tales from their own 
> viewpoint, and they write at different times. It is a device, Durrell 
> claimed, amounting to a new concept of reality, reflecting the ideas of 
> Freud and Einstein and a convergence of western and eastern metaphysics. 
> If that sounds over-blown, well, the Quartet itself is not without 
> pretension, in concept as in performance. As has generally been admitted, 
> it is often ornate and over-written, sometimes to an almost comical 
> degree. The high ambition of its schema can make its narratives and 
> characters inexplicably confusing, and its virtuoso use of vocabulary can 
> be trying (''pudicity''? ''noetic''? ''fatidic''? ''scry''?). But if there 
> are parts of the work that few readers, I suspect, will navigate without 
> skipping, there are many passages of such grand inspiration that reaching 
> them feels like emerging from choppy seas into marvell!
> ously clear blue Mediterranean waters. For it is true that the city of 
> Alexandria does colour the entire work. Durrell lived and worked in the 
> city from 1942 to 1945, and he believed strongly in the effect of place on 
> human temperament. Alexandria's peculiar Levantine character, as it 
> existed during Durrell's time there, is insistently summoned into these 
> pages. His responses to the place were moulded partly by EM Forster's 
> elegant Alexandria, A History and Guide, first published in 1922, and more 
> especially by the greatest of Alexandrine poets, Constantin Cavafy - who 
> had died in 1933, but whose drifting presence in the books is almost as 
> haunting as the presence of the city itself. It was Cavafy who wrote of 
> Alexandria ''There's no new land, my friend, no / New sea; for the city 
> will follow you, / In the same streets you'll wander endlessly ...'' One 
> of this work's narrators goes further still: ''Man is only an extension of 
> the spirit of place,'' says Nessim (I think it is) in Justine. The several 
> narrators of the Quartet are certainly ensla!
> ved by Alexandria's genii loci, and readers are likely to be entrapped 
> too, because the work, so opaque is other contexts, is clear enough when 
> it deals with the city. We soon learn the geography of the place, from the 
> handsome Rue Fuad to the meshed Arab backstreets, from the elegance of 
> L'Etoile or the Cecil Hotel to the hashish cafes of the slums or the sandy 
> approaches to the Western Desert. We see inside the mansions of rich 
> cosmopolitans and diplomats, we visit stifling attic bedrooms, brothels 
> and pleasure pavilions by the sea. Much of all this is factual. Durrell 
> based much of his fiction on personal experience, reminiscence and 
> tittle-tattle, which gave the Quartet, for his contemporaries, something 
> of the allure of a roman-a-clef, not least in its sexual allusions. In 
> fact a general sensuality is the most Alexandrine aspect of the Quartet, 
> but it does shows itself, too, in somewhat hazy illustrations of 
> individual sex - ''modern love'', as Durrell put it. These ''!
> dark blue tides of Eros'' are far from pornographic. Sometimes, it is 
> true, we are unsure who is loving whom, and now and then there are 
> homosexual and cross-dressing deviations, but mostly the love elements are 
> straightforward and moving, and really do dominate, as Durrell implied, 
> the devious goings-on of the plot. Which is full of surprises. Some, I 
> dare say, really are Freudian or Einsteinian in origin, or metaphysically 
> intercultural, but they seem to me more like twists in a skilful thriller, 
> closer to Le Carre than to James Joyce, and sometimes embroiled in 
> melodrama - ''the slime of plot and counterplot'', as another of Durrell's 
> characters defines it. He was particularly admired for his descriptive 
> writing, and these books are rich in masterly set-pieces, but he was also 
> a fine storyteller, adept in techniques of suspense and deception. Reader, 
> watch out! Shocks are always around the dusty corner. The four books of 
> the tetralogy originally appeared separately - Justine in 1957, Balthazar 
> and Mountolive in 1958, Clea in 1960. They were!
>  immediately recognised as remarkable works of art, but the verdict on the 
> whole work, while always respectful, was mixed. French critics adored it. 
> Americans lapped it up. English reviewers were not so sure. Durrell, a 
> lifelong expatriate, never was an admirer of English culture, and his 
> elaborate prose did not greatly appeal to more austere litterateurs such 
> as Angus Wilson, who called it floridly vulgar. Its pretensions were 
> mocked, its avant-garde excesses parodied, and although the books were 
> commercial triumphs, he wrote nothing so publicly successful again. But 
> the whole thing itself, this immense imaginary construction, has stood the 
> tests of time and taste, and has never been out of print - probably never 
> will be. Half a century after its completion, those florid vulgarities, 
> those modernist pretensions, seem no more than incidental to its unique 
> flavour, which lingers in the mind long after its labyrinthine plots (for 
> they are myriad, and muddling) have been forgo!
> tten. Note: The Alexandria Quartet is published by Faber. Copyright: 
> Guardian News & Media 2012
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