February 21, 2018

Durell's Alexandria Quartet

On this day in 1958, Lawrence Durrell's Mountolive was published, his third novel in the series commonly known as The Alexandria Quartet. The sex and exoticism of the first book, Justine, had caused a stir when it appeared the previous year. Working in manic bursts (6 weeks for Balthazar, 12 for Mountolive, 8 for Clea), Durrell had the entire sequence finished by mid-1960, and the reviewers in awe of his "vertiginous erudition, his felicity of phrase and his astonishing powers of description." Mountolive is a relatively straightforward narration of the same events from pre-WWII Alexandria that are covered from other viewpoints in the previous two books. Perhaps because it offered some explanatory relief from the psychological medina presented in the other books, perhaps because it is the "hinge" of the entire series (Durrell's view, as quoted in Gordon Bowker's recent biography), Mountolive was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in America. In any case, Durrell was soon hugely popular, selling well in 13 languages, happily established in Provence and, encouraged by critics like George Steiner having ranked him in a league with Shakespeare and Tolstoy, thinking of a Nobel.

The Nobel did not happen, and though placed on the Modern Library's Top 100 list of novels for the century, the Alexandria Quartet is not much heard of now, the 7 novels which Durrell wrote after it even less. More than one critic has nodded agreement with the recent admission of Britain's Terry Eagleton that the Quartet had once hoodwinked him with its "fake exoticism and psuedo-profundity." As early as 1973, in his Guide to Modern World Literature, Martin Seymour-Smith was blowing the whistle as only he could:
    The characters have no solidity; the entire conception is robbed of whatever atmospheric power it might have had by its author's ambitious, polymathic vulgarity: his adolescent obsession with decadence, his preoccupation with occultism, his fatal penchant for potted wisdom. This is the kind of thing that naturists read aloud to one another after sunset and before exchanging sensual essences (or whatever). If Colin Wilson -- who perpetrates a rather similar though vastly well educated mixture of Nietzsche-and-water, sexiness, personal immortality, 'superman crime' and the occult -- is the mage of the lounge, then Durrell is the savant of the drawing-room. By 2000 his quartet will be as dead as Sparkenbroke [a Charles Morgan novel] is today -- and orgasms will still be non-philosophical.
Seymour-Smith is not kind to Durrell's friend and philosophy-mate, Henry Miller, either.

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