The Alexandria Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell

The Alexandria Quartet is actually four separate novels, but to call them a "series" would be incorrect. The four books are: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea. Taking a cue from the author's own analysis of the quartet, the first three books are different perspectives on a singular period of time (and therefore not serial), whereas it is the fourth that fast forwards in time for some additional perspective and resolution. That being said, all books share the same narrator, a very thinly disguised version of the author himself—a writer, no less—called, "Darley." Justine is a love story, Balthazar a murder mystery, Mountolive is something of political intrigue, while Clea is the denouement. (Have I confused you yet?)

The real jewel in the quartet is Justine. If the average reader of the classics were to want to try Durrell, Justine should be it. To call it a love story undersells it, actually. It is a rendering of passion that will rip your heart out, eat it for breakfast, regurgitate it for lunch, re-feast on it for dinner, and Classic Bitch won't even tell you what's for dessert. All four novels comprise nearly 900 pages, but Justine is the first and in my opinion the best. Then the reader has about 700 more pages to get through following that first book, none as good. Of the passages I mark that bear repeating, nearly fifty percent spring from Justine alone, and that is telling. The four books are no longer sold in the U.S. in a single volume, so finding a copy of just Justine would be easy.

One problem Classic Bitch has with Durrell's writing is that in his presentation of a pastiche of perspectives—which is what drives the book(s)—the various voices of the cast of characters aren't individually that distinct from the voice of the narrator. (Oh really? You and all your pals have prodigious vocabularies and are multilingual? Really??) Another thing that bothered me throughout is that some of Durrell's original insights—though beautifully presented—feel like sophisms to me. Gorgeous presentation...but not everything rings true. This book is at once alluring and bemusing reading.

The power of The Alexandria Quartet lies in its depiction of love and of place. Sometimes those two are even intertwined. Reading the quartet comes at a good time as, in my own life, I personally grapple with a realization offered in one of the final lines of the book. "And yet how can we but help love the places which have made us suffer?"