Guy Fraser-Sampson is the author of various books, both fiction and non-fiction. His most recent published work is Major Benjy, a continuation of the much-loved Mapp and Lucia stories of E.F. Benson, and he was this year invited to speak at the Sunday Times Literary Festival in Oxford about the book, and about Benson. Guy's Pursewarden book blog focuses on literary fiction and, in particular, on those novelists whom he considers to be unjustly neglected. When not reading or writing, he drinks far too much wine, plays bridge, sings things which may sometimes be recognized as Schubert lieder, and occasionally dances a very low-key Argentinean tango. Below Guy discusses Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.
Guy Fraser-Sampson on The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
In many ways my life up until the time I read Durell's Alexandria Quartet might be seen as a prelude, some sort of essential prerequisite to being able properly to appreciate it. That might seem pretentious kitsch, but I have always had an instinct that in many ways the books that you read choose you, rather than vice versa. Certainly the important ones play a significant part in your cultural development, so the timing and sequence of when they decide to reach out to you is important too; somehow they seem always to know the right time.
I had been aware of the Quartet for many years, of course. 'Aware' in the sense of knowing that it existed: I had read so much about it, and literally every time I went into a bookshop or a library (which with me is usually at least once a week) I would go and look at it sitting on the shelf, but something always made me think 'not yet'. Is it really so fanciful to conjecture that perhaps it was the book itself telling me this?
Anyway, some time shortly before my 35th birthday it suddenly just seemed the right time. In retrospect I suspect that even this might have been a little soon. There is so much of the human condition in the book, so many diverse experiences and emotions, that the older you are when you come to it the better. It is rather like listening to a good but young lieder singer; they make a nice sound, and they hit the right notes, but they cannot feel the notes or the words, largely because they are too young yet to have experienced not just the big emotions themselves – bereavement, love, jealousy, betrayal – but, even more importantly, all the subtle variations and combinations of them. In fact, Christa Ludwig says that one can only be a 'lieder singer' rather than a singer who performs lieder, when this connection is made; rather like the little red light which goes on to signify that suddenly you are listening in stereo rather than mono.
As with lieder, so with the novel. Not only do the writer and the reader have to engage in a common experience of emotion, but the writer has to draw the reader in, through the fourth wall in theatrical terms, by creating characters who justify your interest (in Durrell's case they command it) and make you genuinely concerned for what might happen to them. Judging by most of the contemporary novels which I have read over the last decade or so, this principle is no longer felt to apply.
The main feature of the Quartet, that which sets it apart from just about every other major work of fiction, is that it does not tell a developing story sequentially, as one has grown accustomed to expect from the likes of Anthony Powell or Simon Raven, but essentially the same story from three different viewpoints, at least in the case of the first three books; the fourth is in the nature of a genuine coda, though told from yet another point of view. Even here, there are shifts within shifts. Justine and Balthazar, the first two books, are both told in the first person by someone who actually experienced the events at first hand, whereas Mountolive is told by a narrator (confusingly but incestuously by Balthazar). These shifts of perspective from one book to the next can be quite jarring, and are just one of many excellent reasons for reading the books again and again, with the settled expectation of picking up some new nuances of understanding every time.
Interestingly, Durrell himself used the image of stereophonic sound when discussing the Quartet in a Paris Review interview in 1959. He described his technique as 'trying to light (his characters) from several different angles' and 'trying to give you stereoscopic narrative with stereophonic personality'. He sought to distinguish himself from Proust, with whom he was being compared by many observers, in that Proust created a perfect representation of a universe located at a particular point in time and space, whereas he (Durrell) aspired to a more universal model, a universe in which his characters could range through time and space, with reality altering around them as they did so.
Durrell often described the structure of the books as an attempt to write a novel which conformed with Einstein's theory of relativity, or at least with that part of it which states that the nature of reality will change if viewed from different points on the space/time continuum. It has to be said, though, that Einstein is only one thread of the dazzling intellectual tapestry which Durrell weaves. There are references to classical history and philosophy, as well as the inevitable Freud, with whose work Durrell would exercise a love/hate relationship throughout his life, an ongoing debate which he would conduct through his characters, most notably in the Avignon Quintet, his second great work of multiple novels.
This is another reason why Durrell should probably be left to one's middle age. I count myself well-read, but it is only when you read one of Durrell's two biographies (the authorized one by Ian MacNiven or the rather racier one by Gordon Bowker) that you truly take in not just the amount he read, but the extent to which he thought about it and discussed it, most notably in the two long term correspondences which he pursued, one with Henry Miller and the other with Richard Aldington. One can pick up Proust, or Joyce, or even Rushdie in one's teens and make a decent fist of reading them, but with Durrell you would simply miss out on many of the cultural and fictional allusions, some of which are implicit rather than expressed. It is unlikely, for example, that you will be familiar with the work of Cavafy, whom Durrell cites constantly, though one of the first things I did after reading the Quartet for the first time was to seek out a volume of his work.
It is Durrell's literary style, though, which is for most people the true mark of his greatness. It is no coincidence that he is one of the very few writers in the English language to have been both a great novelist and a very good poet – Emily Brontë and Thomas Hardy are the only other two who come to mind – and much of his fiction reads like prose poetry. Scenery is described in glowing painter's terms, characters are sketched with the same larger than life bravado of Dickens, events and emotions laid out with a brio and chiaroscuro all of his own. This is prose that is not so much to be read, but rather smeared on and licked off.
Sad to say, the cultural allusions allegedly make him 'difficult' or 'inaccessible' to some modern readers more used to the intellectual demands of television, and the prose style can (again to a modern audience more attuned to Irvine Welsh) apparently repel rather than captivate. Saddest of all, if any modern publisher were to be really honest with themselves, this manuscript would almost certainly have been rejected out of hand today as too long, too elitist and too uncommercial. Which, if true, is an appalling comment on the modern publishing establishment and the sort of Frankenstein's monster of a reading public which they have created, for the Alexandria Quartet has a very fair claim to be just possibly the finest novel ever written.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]