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

Sumantra Nag sumantranag at gmail.com
Wed Jul 10 01:04:11 PDT 2013



I did want to mention an aspect of Durrell which seemed to have emerged
during his interview reported in your paper. There, Durrell says that in the
Quartet he had succeeded in bringing the red light district back to


What is this achievement supposed to mean? In a 1977 interview Durrell
reports a conversation with his ambassador on the existence of a brothel in
Alexandria. Durrell then says that he transposed a brothel area from Cairo
to Alexandria in the Quartet. He was trying to recall the brothels of
Alexandria which had been closed by Montgomery - sent to the desert - by the
time Durrell and his contemporaries arrived. 


Durrell also wrote a poem Elegy on the Closing of the French Brothels. 


Durrell's preoccupation with brothels, also expressed repeatedly in The
Alexandria Quartet, strengthens the suggestion of a colonial view point and
perhaps the more repulsive aspect of it, depicting the western resident
indulging in the available commercial sex in an eastern seaport. Edward Said
- and those who perceive "Orientalism" in western depiction of the east -
are then justified in referring to the colonial colour of such writing. By
implication, such writing declines in value. It almost makes The Alexandria
Quartet into a massive piece of travel writing with flashes of literary
merit, but it is travel writing which concentrates too much on the aspect of
open sexual laxity in different forms, as a subject arousing the curiosity
of readers. As a masterpiece for which the Quartet was hailed by reviewers
in the 1950s and 1960s, the work has diminished considerably and almost
ceases to be acknowledged now, as a lasting literary achievement.


This is a sad counterpoint to the rich language of Durrell in his
description of landscape in the Quartet about which Allyson Kreuiter has
written with such fine perception in her article forwarded by James to the
ILDS list, "City and landscape of remembering: The visual textual palimpsest
of Alexandria in Lawrence Durrell's Justine and Balthazar" in /Scrutiny2:
Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa/:






From: Sumantra Nag [mailto:sumantranag at gmail.com] 
Sent: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 12:03 AM
To: 'ilds at lists.uvic.ca'
Cc: 'Frank Kersnowski'
Subject: RE: ILDS Digest, Vol 75, Issue 3_Frank Kersnowski_"The Alexandria
Quartet: A Reconsideration." 



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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