If The Black Book has a special interest both as a kind of spiritual autobiography and as a young man's first finding of his real voice, it is on the four volumes of The Alexandria Quartet, Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958),and Clea (1960) that Durrell's world-fame mainly rests. All four were published in one volume, with numerous re-visions to iron out small inconsistencies in the text, and with a new preface, in 1962. The first three volumes cover roughly the same period of time, and the same series of events, in Alexandria in the period leading up to the Second World War, and the last volume, Clea, carries the story forward into the war years, though continuing to develop the three basic themes of art, love, and death, or perhaps art, love, and mysticism.
The narrator, L. G. Darley, like Lawrence Lucifer, has Durrell's own initials (L.G.D., 'Lineaments of Gratified Desire') and a personality rather like the young Durrell's. He is a young man very open to experience, exploring, in a sensitive but often blundering and mistaken way, the possibilities of love and art. He has a Greek mistress, Melissa, who has come to him out of gratitude rather than love (he rescued her from a terrible party where she had been given an aphrodisiac) and he has accepted her out of pity rather than love. Because of a lecture he gives on the great Alexandrian poet Cavafy, he becomes a friend and later, at her initiative, the lover of Justine, the Jewish wife of a rich Coptic businessman, Nessim. A blonde and cool young artist, Clea, has also a sisterly fondness for him, and spends a chaste night with him when he finally leaves Alexandria. It is Justine, however, who mainly obsesses Darley, because of her multi-faceted character, represented symbolically through her looking at herself in a triple mirror, and because of a nymphomania which apparently springs from her having been raped as a young girl by a notorious Alexandrian lecher, Capodistria.
As the novel progresses, Justine becomes more and more nervous, and Darley thinks that her husband Nessim (a highly civilized man, whom Darley likes and respects) may be conspiring to murder him, her, or both of them. Darley goes to a duck-shooting party on Nessim's country estate with great trepidation. Somebody is shot, ostensibly accidentally, but it is (again ostensibly) Capodistria. Justine deserts Nessim and becomes a worker on a kibbutz in Palestine. Pursewarden, an arrogant and sarcastic novelist, whom Darley admires but dislikes, mysteriously commits suicide, leaving Darley some money, which he uses to get Melissa medical treatment. Darley goes for two years to teach in a rather dull Roman Catholic missionary college near Luxor in Upper Egypt. He comes back to Alexandria to see Melissa, who is dying, but she is dead before he has arrived. Melissa has had a child by Nessim, who has turned to her in his loneliness and desperation, and Darley, who alike Durrell himself) is a very generous and obliging person, takes charge of the child and retires to a Greek island where he writes up the whole story in retrospect.
Justine is a very vivid and satisfying novel in itself In its sequels, Balthazar and Mountolive, we learn that Darley, though a perfectly trustworthy narrator, had misinterpreted the meaning of all the key events. Justine had never been really in love with Darley, but, if with anybody, with Pursewarden, who had thrust her out of his hotel room shortly before she came to Darley's flat. The marriage of Nessim and Justine was not a love-match (though they are perfectly sexually well adjusted to each other) but a political alliance between the Egyptian Jews and Copts, who are conspiring against the British presence in Egypt and the Near East generally, and smuggling arms (strangely, German Hitlerian arms) into Palestine. Justine's affairs with Darley and Pursewarden are partly genuinely sexual but more fundamentally she is acting as a secret agent, since, in addition to Darley's teaching and Pursewarden's writing, both are British Embassy intelligence agents, Darley a very minor and not very efficient one, Pursewarden a highly placed one.
Pursewarden is not an ideal man for this job, too fundamentally intuitive and indiscreet, and from Melissa, who is one of his many mistresses, he learns that Nessim is at the centre of the conspiracy. He kills himself, having first managed both to warn Nessim and to put the Ambassador, Mountolive, in the picture. Mountolive passes the information on to the more or less puppet Egyptian government. Nessim buys time and life from the head of this, the loath-some Memlek, by lavish bribery, but Memlek has to do something to keep the British (and his own Egyptian rivals and colleagues) quiet and arranges the assassination of Nessim's brother, the hare-lipped fierce and tender country squire, Narouz. One main motive, one might mention in passing, of the Coptic conspiracy is that under the British the Copts have been robbed of the key places in government and administration that they enjoyed under the Turks and under the Egyptian kings of Turkish ancestry. Narouz has been frankly rabble-rousing, which makes his killing explicable.
Mountolive's position is complicated both by the fact that in his youth, sent to Egypt by the Foreign Office to learn Egyptian Arabic, he has been the lover of the mother of Narouz and Nessim, Leila, who might have left Egypt to join him in Europe if she had not been suddenly stricken with confluent small-pox. But his official duties come first to him, and when Leila an old woman now, drenched in perfume asks him to protect her sons, he rejects her brutally.
He is punished indirectly by being trapped into visiting a brothel (Justine has already visited it in a vain search for a lost child by her earlier marriage) where the children tear at his clothes, and wound terribly his official image of him-self Mountolive is the lover of Pursewarden's blind sister, Liza. She has been her brother's lover, but this is not what worries Mountolive; profoundly conventional, he feels that it is eccentric for an Ambassador to have a blind wife. one of the multiple possible motives for Pursewarden's suicide is to pave the way for this marriage; and after Pursewarden's death Darley and Liza burn Pursewardenss letters to Liza in which his genius has perhaps (one thinks of D. H. Lawrence's letters) expressed itself more fully and spontaneously than in his novels.
Clea, the coda to this complex story, brings Darley back to Egypt in the early years of the Second World War, with Nessim's child by Melissa. Nessim has been, and Justine still is, under house arrest in one of their country estates, but Nessim is working his passage by serving in an ambulance unit in the often heavily bombed docks. He has been injured, losing an eye and a finger, and Justine herself has had a slight stroke, leaving her with a drooping eye. Nessim leaves Darley alone with Justine, and she comes naked to his bed, stinking of a bottle of perfume which she has nervously spilt over herself. Darley rejects her (Leila was similarly stinking of perfume when Mountolive so brutally rejected her plea for help for Narouz and Nessim).
Darley now discovers that the cool blonde artist, Clea, not poor little Melissa, not over-eager Justine, is his true elective affinity: they have an affair which is calm and idyllic, but its very calmness seems to paralyse both as artists. She becomes a true artist only when, at a picnic by the sea, while she is swimming under water, a harpoon is accidentally (but is anything in Durrell accidental?) fired and her right hand is transfixed to the sea-floor. Darley dives, and hacks her free, a doctor, her former lover (whose wife is a girl whose nose has been eaten away by lupus, but he has built her a good new grafted-on nose) reconstitutes a partly artificial hand and Clea becomes a really good painter (one thinks of the great painter Renoir, in old age, semi-paralytic, painting with a long brush, the handle as long as a broom handle, strapped to his wrist). True love is not enough. Darley and Clea really love each other when they are at a great distance (she in the South of France, he in a Greek island) working away on their stuff, and sending each other what Auden calls 'long marvellous letters'. The practice of art and the fulfilment of physical love are both 'stages on life's way' to something beyond themselves.
D. J. Enright said in a friendly and courteous review of my longer study of Durrell that my 'very competent' plot summaries revealed how unrelated to real life, real character, Durrell's novels are, how their raw material is mere fantasia. I was surprised at this verdict: I would have thought that somebody like Enright who has worked in Egypt, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, would know how much intrigue, conspiracy, deception, multiple motivation, are a part of Asian life, and how much also Englishmen, in a hot climate, tend to behave sometimes like characters out of the 'commedia dell'arte'(like Durrell's great comic character in The Alexandria Quartet, Scobie) and how much ,when they are serious, like characters out of Italian opera. The Englishman abroad is not the Englishman at home. I find, in spite of the elements of Arabian night fantasy (but these are usually enclosed stories within the story, not to be taken as 'literally' true, like Capodistria's account of his experiments in creating homunculi), that I can believe both in the people and in what is happening to them in The Alexandria Quartet. Angus Wilson has praised Durrell's skill in plot construction, and in one crude sense The Alexandria Quartet with its sudden revelations of hitherto unsuspected motivations and purposes at just the right moment to stir and surprise the reader is as neatly constructed as a novel by Simenon or Agatha Christie.
The structural mastery and the basic human plausibility are worth insisting on because The Alexandria Quartet has been a little too much regarded, at least in England, as a triumph mainly of atmospheric bravura writing. For me, and I think for anybody who lived and served in Egypt during the war years, it has the flavour of truth about it: truth is not always drab and consistent and dun-coloured, but sometimes flaring and glaring, astonishing, incongruous. It may be true, nevertheless, that what we remember in the end is less the characters individually than the characters as functions of a landscape or townscape, characters as a function of the whole history of Alexandria, with its traditions of richness and sensuality (Antony and Cleopatra) and of mysticism, magic, quarrelling theologies; the great library, also, and its destruction by the Islamic conquerors. In a crude sense, through sensuality, through art which is the mastering and distancing of sensuality, through love which is one stage further on yet, and through a kind of distancing and spiritualizing of love itself, all the characters are seeking oneness with reality or truth.
There is also Durrell's philosophy, an amateurish one, but very interesting (out of Groddeck and Einstein, one might say, without the intermediation of a professional meta-physician like McTaggart, whose arguments for the un-reality of time, sense, matter, and for reality as finally a community of spirits timelessly knowing and loving each other, Durrell, like Yeats, who spoke of 'profound McTaggart', might find very rewarding).
Durrell can occasionally create a very evil character, like the abominable Memlek, but he is not a social moralist as, I suppose, most of the greater English novelists are. Neither is he a ' naturalist ' for though he sees all his characters as functions of a landscape, of a long and deeply-rooted local history, still he gives all of them the freedom of apparently arbitrary choice. They reject, accept, kill themselves, come together or leave each other, in a way that seems spontaneously ' natural ' but not 'naturalistic'. They are also not seen as separate or self-contained characters. Melissa, inspiring compassion, Justine, inspiring passion. Clea, inspiring desire and companionship, what Durrell calls 'loving-kindness', are three aspects of womanhood. Narouz, the fierce country squire, and Nessim, the almost over-civilized business man, brothers who love and perhaps secretly envy each other, are two incomplete aspects of one possible person. Darley and Pursewarden are the artist in formation, and the formed artist passing beyond art.
Every relationship is a way of learning, and in the end of passing beyond, a new role. Alexandria, the true heroine of this novel, manifests itself in many selves, in many roles, but is in the end the single source: more real, more potent than her various manifestations. She hurts, she can kill, but she also resurrects. Justine, at first a kind of goddess, then a clever and ruthless Levantine conspirator, then a broken and rejected woman, is resurrected in the end, smartly dressed, walking along the Alexandria 'trottoir', on her high heels, arm in arm, dreaming of newer and grander conspiracies it is only danger and conspiracy that sparks off her sexual eagerness! with the abominable Memlek.