Modern Library Revue: #70 Alexandria Quartet (Two Durrells)

April 6, 2009 | 8 books mentioned 10 5 min read

coverThe four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) which make up Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet share the #70 spot on the Modern Library list. For various reasons I lay down on the job and only read one of them, Justine, so I am not at all qualified to talk about the series. But I do have an opinion about the first installment, and on Durrell generally, so I’ll talk about them and, god willing, get through the rest of the quartet in the future.

This first book of the four, Justine, is narrated by an Anglo-Irish fellow who lives on a Greek island and who is writing about the time when he lived in Alexandria and taught English. He seems like he has posh manners and he knows languages so one imagines that although he had no money he had a certain social cachet wherever he went. In Alexandria he had affairs and smoked and pondered heady subjects all the time (think a straight Isherwood with absolutely no sense of humor), and in odd moments managed to scrape together a pittance. Justine is one of the people he has sex with, and she is a (rather too good to be true) femme fatale, who eventually gives up her husband and lover and runs off to a kibbutz. Meanwhile, his other lover Melissa dies of TB and being two-dimensional.

I was wary of this novel. First, for a shortish book, it is long on boring paragraphs about astonishing feelings which the narrator seems to assume are universal. I have seen some other fiction of this period when everyone wanted to talk about sex and psychology and call gay people “inverts” and frankly it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the first-rate (which Justine evidently is) and the awful. Second, the parts I like I suspect I only like because they appeal to the less edifying aspects of my own nature – basically, the orientalist and dirty-minded ones. (Although, in the case of this novel, “dirty” is in fact the operative word. The sexy bits convey nothing so much as a VD free-for-all taking place in an enormous ash-tray.) Third, for some obscure reason I just dislike Durrell and wanted him to apologize for things, even at moments when I was enjoying the book.

I think part of this dislike is founded in a pointless jealousy. I was a foreign service brat and I have been a lot of places and I used to marginally identify with the annoying Citizen-of-the-World thing Durrell has going on, but there is a duality to the identification. On the one hand, people like him (through no fault of their own) make me feel like a poseur and that I should have lived fifty years earlier in a really disgusting flat and fraternized with people who owned limousines, and I should have known about child prostitution and smoked more cigarettes, and been a man. Instead of being seven and going to school and putting all of my stuffed animals into a wagon. On the other hand, I resent his pretentiousness and his orientalism and his claims on the city of Alexandria and I think, ugh, horrible expat, and roll my eyes. Hypocrite lecteur and all that.

Ultimately, I like for reading to be a pleasurable activity, and reading Justine made me feel too much like I had to put on my Serious caftan. I chose to talk about it here so that I could mention two of the loveliest books I’ve ever read, which were written by Lawrence’s brother Gerald and which are the antidote to all things icky.

covercoverThey are Gerald’s memoirs of the Durrell family’s sojourn on the Greek island of Corfu from 1935-1939, beginning when Gerald (Gerry) was 10, Lawrence (Larry) 23, brother Leslie 19, sister Margo 18, and their widowed mother “old enough to have four children.” The first book is called My Family and Other Animals, and the second is Birds, Beasts, and Relatives. (I have only just learned that there was a third Corfu book called Garden of the Gods, which is out of print but which I am acquiring second-hand with all possible haste.) The Durrells went to Greece to escape England’s appalling climate, and Gerry, who later became a very well-known and beloved naturalist, writer, and advocate for endangered species, spent his formative years running about in the island looking at bugs, collecting animals, making friends, and being educated after a fashion by friends of his doting family.

Historically, foreign people, especially British ones, have liked to come to Greece and perpetrate arty things in or about it. I think it is because the Greek climate is wonderful, and because Greece has temples and Homeric associations, and because it used to be cheap, and because everyone there was supposed to be virile and mustachioed. Gerald Durrell’s books are delightful because they convey the island’s beauty so well that one feels it viscerally, while remaining free of self-conscious artiness and condescension for their subject. Above all they are full of fun, written by someone who sounds as if he were a kind-hearted person who loved all animals and most people. Gerry calls out the various family members for being absurd, but in a nice way; I believe that they remained close in Gerry’s adulthood, and that it was Larry who eventually encouraged Gerry to write. On page one, Gerry describes his older, literary brother:

It was Larry of course, who started it. The rest of us felt too apathetic to think of anything except our own ills, but Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond, firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with cat-like unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.

The books are full of similar fond tributes. I’m trying to find more rousing ways to say how much I love them, but it’s difficult. They are just happy and heartwarming, is all. I’ll leave you with a characteristic passage (from My Family and Other Animals), which doesn’t include any of Gerry’s numerous wonderful descriptions of the island’s flora and fauna, but which is a good window into the various qualities of the Durrell family. (I know it smacks of the Patriarchy, but it was the thirties, and Margo ends up fine.)

As the summer drew to a close I found myself, to my delight, once more without a tutor. Mother had discovered that, as she so delicately put it, Margo and Peter were becoming ‘too fond of one another.’ As the family was unanimous in its disapproval of Peter as a prospective relation by marriage, something obviously had to be done. Leslie’s only contribution to the problem was to suggest shooting Peter, a plan that was, for some reason, greeted derisively. I thought it was a splendid idea, but I was in the minority. Larry’s suggestion that the happy couple should be sent to live in Athens for a month, in order, as he explained, to get it out of their systems, was quashed by Mother on the grounds of immorality. Eventually Mother dispensed with Peter’s services, he left hurriedly and furtively and we had to cope with a tragic, tearful, and wildly indignant Margo, who, dressed in her most flowing and gloomy clothing for the event, played her part magnificently. Mother soothed and uttered gentle platitudes, Larry gave Margo lectures on free love, and Leslie, for reasons best known to himself, decided to play the part of the outraged brother and kept appearing at intervals, brandishing a revolver and threatening to shoot Peter down like a dog if he set foot in the house again. In the midst of all this Margo, tears trickling effectively down her face, made tragic gestures and told us her life was blighted. Spiro, who loved a good dramatic situation as well as anyone, spent his time weeping in sympathy with Margo, and posting various friends of his along the docks to make sure that Peter did not attempt to get back on the island. We all enjoyed ourselves very much.

So did I.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at