[ilds] ILDS Digest, Vol 75, Issue 3_Frank Kersnowski_"The Alexandria Quartet: A Reconsideration."

Sumantra Nag sumantranag at gmail.com
Tue Jul 9 11:33:09 PDT 2013


Dear Frank,


You wrote: "I've not had a response from ILDS members about this essay and
have decided to send it to you. Fk"


I have read your essay. 


A number of interesting points arise in your essay, some of which reminded
me of the contents of Michael Haag's Alexandria: City of Memory where he has
traced Durrell's life in Alexandria.


Your observation, "Just how much personal experience Durrell had of Egypt
outside the expatriate community is very much in question."


This point is implicit in Haag's book. Although Durrell knew many original
denizens of Alexandria from the Greek and Jewish community, many of the
people he knew were really English.


I have made some notes which I shared earlier on the ILDS Forum and the
Guardian Reading of the AQ in 2012


Michael Haag's accounts about the British in Alexandria (Alexandria: City of


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


[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


2. "Gwyn Williams would watch 'for as long as one cared to 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. "...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)


Your observation: "The choice is even more complicated by George Baron
Weidenfeld's mentioning in his memoirs that he himself had visited houses
that were the models for the residence of the Coptic Hosnanis and that those
houses were the homes of Jews."


You have come to some interesting conclusions about the politic in The
Alexandria Quartet:


"Yet there is another mystery to deal with. Why did Durrell concoct this
absurd plot: Coptic Christians risking their lives, fortunes, and futures on
the success and benevolence of Jewish guerrillas? I do have an answer to
suggest. Durrell was playing out his view of the future of the Middle East
as he viewed it in the fifties,

playing it out as a novelist would do, through characters caught up in a
narrative. The conclusion he draws has proven quite accurate historically."


You are right. This point about the unlikely Coptic plot to help Jews and
their place in Palestine has been raised in critical articles. The
characteristics of Nessim Hosnani, a Copt in the novels, might have been
drawn from a distinguished Jewish figure of Alexandria.  


You have drawn attention to a conversation from Mountolive where the father
of Nessim explains his feelings about the Copts in Egypt and their position
opposite the Muslims.  


Best wishes



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