The Portrayal of Alexandria in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet
The city of Alexandria has always been alluring to writers, like a mystical figure which has been used differently every time it is presented. And this specific mystical figure, that is Alexandria, has been the inspiration of numerous arts of work including novels, poems, short stories, movies, and paintings. Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet is among these works however differently it portrays Alexandria than usual, often relying on memory and imagination to conjure his narrative’s most powerful effects.
Memory plays a key narration technique in the work as the protagonist of The Quartet’s Darley relies on their memory to tell his story. Darley, however, admits he cannot remember but he forces imagined images and passes them as true, as he says in Balthazar, “The city, half imagined, yet wholly real.” This is paramount as it shows how the writer plans the narration. The narration is unbound by time or linear narrative, he is connecting his memories with the city. The half-imagined city of Darley changes as his perception of the characters changes. Durrell, then, does not portray Alexandria as a place but rather as a character that plays a part in his novel who has flaws and who affects the story. She is portrayed as a powerful figure that all the characters are trying desperately to please, and thus the mistakes they make are her fault and not theirs, and she is the one who “precipitated in (them) conflicts which were hers and which (they) mistook for (their) own.” Darley’s changeable perception is depicted multiple times, mainly in Balthazar when he admits that “(he) feels to be…standing upon a threshold of a new Alexandria.” In Clea, however, Durrell, through his protagonist, passes his final unfair judgment on the city as “a shabby little seaport built upon a sand-reef, a moribund and spiritless backwater.” Darley constantly compares Alexandria to Justine, and he heard Pursewarden saying that “Justine and her city are alike in that they both have a strong flavor without having any real character.” It seems that he cannot separate Justine from Alexandria and he admits that “all this belongs to another Alexandria – one which I created in my mind.” And in Justine, Alexandria is described through Justine that “she was bad in many ways…those she harmed most she made fruitful. She expelled people from their old selves.”
The description of the city itself, as a place, is polarized in the work. Durrell’s city’s streets are full of “shuttered balconies swarming with rats” and “peeling walls” and sights such as “black ribbons of flies attach themselves to the lips and eyes of the children” are mentioned. He bluntly says that “you would never mistake it for a happy place.” While at other times Durrell paints it as a peaceful place. When it comes to Alexandrians themselves, there is a controversial portrayal of the inhabitants. Durrell’s “half-imagined” city has half-imagined inhabitants as well. Durrell’s depiction of the inhabitants resembles that of Europeans more than Alexandrians or Egyptians. He might have known people like them somewhere but having set them in Alexandria it seems almost unfair, and even offensive, to present them as the entire population. His main characters are detached, indifferent, and emotionless. And his own imperialistic English pride invades his words as he says, “we Europeans are in such disharmony with the fearful animal health of the blacks around us.” Durrell has, however, depicted a sense of Alexandrian pride through Nessim in Balthazar describing his anger as “the great corded muscles in his body were tense with pride, for he, a city-bred Alexandrian, could out-shoot, out-talk, and out-gallop any of them.” Durrell describes Alexandrians as beggars, thieves, and idle, as well as banal, uneducated and superstitious. They are unfaithful to their partners as he describes Nessims’s fidelity as “unheard of.” He describes their talk as “a self-interest, a narcissism which comes from sexual exhaustion expressing itself in a possessive symbol.”
Darley’s status as an outsider continually prevents him from understanding certain habits, customs, and beliefs resulting in his scorn, exaggeration, or misconception and misrepresentation altogether. He makes fun of Hamid and mocks what he deems as superstitious. In Mountolive, Mountolive writes in his diaries what he hears which he constantly marks as “strange” and laughs at. Durrell’s main storyline, revealed in Mountolive, is what some critics deemed unrealistic. The conspiracy theory which he spins does indeed explain a lot, including Justine and Nessim’s broken marriage, it does not, however, seem realistic as he depicts the main Alexandrian characters as political pawns who want to support “Jewish underground fighters in Haifa and Jerusalem,” because, according to Nessim, “there’s only one nation which can determine the future of the Middle East.” This conspiracy theory is the voice of an imperialist who is openly biased to “Israel.”
Durrell’s biased ideologies explain some of his depictions of some of the inhabitants and minor characters. There is a massive division between the Europeans and the Alexandrians, as well as a division between Muslims and Copts. He states, “Women of the foreign communities here are more beautiful than elsewhere. Fear, insecurity dominates them. They have the illusion of foundering in the ocean of blackness all around…the soft-footed blacks have already started leaking into European quarters.” In Justine, Darley says that “Alexandria, outwardly so peaceful, was not really a safe place for Christians.” And throughout the Quartet hardly any Muslim character gets a voice.
Durrell depicts an entirely different Alexandria than what is usually depicted. Indeed, Durrell denotes a magical city at the beginning of Justine which he deconstructs bit by bit as the story progresses, leaving the readers with frustrating characters, an unfulfilled storyline, and a ruined city which was never truly real from the beginning.
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