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

James Gifford james.d.gifford at gmail.com
Wed Jul 10 08:53:01 PDT 2013


Hi Frank & Sumantra,

I'm enjoying reading these comments, but a new baby (and somewhat upset 
toddler) are keeping me from commenting as much as I would like...

I think a comparison that might help here is Durrell in relation to 
other British writers in Egypt at the time, such as Robert Liddell, G.S. 
Fraser, Herbert Howarth, and D.J. Enright.

I don't want to take away from the merits of Sumantra's comments on 
Orientalism, which certainly has a role, and I would think is most 
particularly a factor in the work's reception.  That said, the sexuality 
in the Quartet has always struck me as somewhat disgusting...  Durrell's 
not prudish about the brothels, but the opening epigrams to Justine set 
Sade against Freud, and I think we're supposed to be on Freud's side 
(Sade just leaves to the noose and loss of the self subsumed under the 
city's determinist will, almost a form of economism).  Said caught on to 
this in his Beirut lectures and says that Western readers are imagining 
themselves as the sexual heroes in the Quartet -- that's where I would 
disagree with him.  I've never wanted to be Darley, and I can't imagine 
many readers wish for Pursewarden's love life nor to enter the novel's 
brothel scenes.

To complicate the matter a bit, Howarth co-edited /Images of the Arab 
World/ (translations of Arabic poetry) with Ibrahim Shakrullah.  Durrell 
was responsible for Albert Cossery's & Georges Henein's works reaching 
Circle and City Lights Books in San Francisco, and he gave financial 
support to Cossery.  Durrell was championing Elie Papadimitriou's poetry 
at the same time as well.

D.J. Enright, well, I'm not quite as generous...

I suppose what I mean is that I think calling the Quartet a colonialist 
revel in the sexualization of the exploited bodies of colonized Others 
misses some of the disgust in the novel, it's ethical arch to overcome 
the determinism of the city's libidinal coercion, and its textual 
complexities.  I suppose I don't see Pursewarden as a hero and only 
think we're supposed to admire Darley once he's overcome the sadistic city.

All best,
James

On 2013-07-10 1:04 AM, Sumantra Nag wrote:
> Frank,
>
> 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 Alexandria.
>
> 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/:
> (http://academia.edu/3848804/City_and_landscape_of_remembering).
>
> Regards
>
> Sumantra
>
> *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
> (https://id.guardian.co.uk/profile/sumantranag/public)
>
> 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 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
>
> Sumantra
>
>
>
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