The history of the city of Alexandria, Egypt is one of frequent conquest by different empires. The British took over in 1881 and remained in control till after WW2. Alexandria was an important outpost of the British Empire, a cauldron of colonialism and its opponents. Yet, the life of the city has always been enriched by the presence of different communities, many of them exiles or immigrants, often co-existing in harmony. Aside from the native Egyptians, these include the Greeks and the Jews. This cultural diversity has enriched the city, and Durrell and his creature the implied author show this.
One might assume that an English author writing in 1957 about a piece of the Empire that has just “broken off,” would construct a story that is nostalgic, looking back fondly on “the good old days.” I don’t think that’s what Durrell gives us. Yes the book is nostalgic but not about the days of the British rule. If anything, it shows the reader the crimes of colonialism. The nostalgia is for the characters who lived in Alexandria at the time and their lives. The story is rarely judgmental. It neither idealizes nor condemns.
Durrell tells us straight off that the book is a memorial to Alexandria, and a fiction. “Only the city is real…In a flash, my mind’s eye shows me a thousand dusty tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it…Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds…there are more than five sexes…The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenistic world are replaced by something different, something subtly androgenous, inverted upon itself.”
As Darley, the author makes this statement: “I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged, though we, its children, must pay its price.”
But Justine describes Darley as being different from Alexandrians, that he maintains a distance.
“’Regard derisoire,’ says Justine. (Look at your paltry, meagre appearance). ‘How is it you are so much one of us and yet…you are not?’ She is combing that dark head in the mirror, her mouth and eyes drawn up about a cigarette. ‘You are a mental refugee of course, being Irish, but you miss our angoisse.’ (anguish). What she is groping after is really the distinctive quality which emanates not from us but from the landscape—the metallic flavors of exhaustion which impregnate the airs of Mareotis.” (the large, saltwater lake contained within the city).
I think there’s an interesting distinction made here between Darley the character, Justine’s lover, whom she views as being different from other Alexandrians, and the narrator, who identifies as being part of an “us,” which includes everyone living in Alexandria. The narrator, looking back, has a different view than did Justine.
Justine believes Darley is less anguished than she. (Maybe that’s part of his appeal).
Moreover, there’s a sense of the narrator saying only the city is real and persists. All the characters who existed in the time he describes are not necessarily dead but are gone; the life they led is gone. He romantically puts the blame for a great deal of infidelity and pain on the city instead on the human actors, saying that the city itself, its scents and sights, affect its inhabitants as a drug might, making them anguished and indolent and immoral.
Is this attitude that the city breeds lassitude and immorality, a sign of colonialist contempt?
Maybe. There is a pervasive sense in the whole Quartet that Alexandria was exotic and different, and that this quality is sometimes good, sometimes bad.
One might assume Durrell, a heterosexual male, would write about women as sexualized objects.
Here is a description of Melissa:
“She would come a few minutes late of course—fresh from some assignation in a darkened room, from which I avert my mind, but so fresh, so young, the open petal of the mouth that fell upon mine like an unslaked summer. The man she had left might still be going over and over the memory of her; she might be as if still dusted by the pollen of his kisses.”
“I used to see her, I remember, pale, rather on the slender side, dressed in a shabby, sealskin coat, leading her small dog about the winter streets. Her blue-veined phthisic hands. Her eyebrows artificially pointed upwards to enhance those fine dauntlessly candid eyes…her sullen aniline beauty…”
(aniline is a curious adjective here. Aniline refers to chemical poisons. Maybe because Melissa is dying?).
“Justine walked into the dank calm of the little flat, dressed in a white frock and shoes, and carrying a rolled towel under one arm with her handbag. The magnificence of her dark skin and hair glowed out of all this whiteness with an arresting quickness. When she spoke her voice was harsh and unsteady, and it sounded for a moment as if she had been drinking—perhaps she had…But she had closed her eyes—so soft and lustrous now, as if polished by the silence which lay so densely all around us.”
And here is Clea:
“Everything about her person is honey-gold and warm in tone; the fair, crisply trimmed hair which she wears rather long at the back, knotting it simply at the downy nape of her neck. This focuses the candid face of a minor muse with its smiling gray-green eyes. The calmly disposed hands have a deftness and shapeliness which one only notices when one sees them at work, holding a paint brush perhaps…”
These poetic passages are not burdened with observations of sexual features—breasts, hips, etc. They tend to describe women in terms of the feelings they evoke in the observer, feelings which are more complex than lust. A quality of fondness and longing, I think, combined with an appreciation of beauty.
Are the women in the story one-dimensional objects, playthings for the author?
I don’t think so, best beloved. Melissa is arguably the most “used” by Darley but is a complex character in her vulnerability. Justine “uses” Darley. She is one-dimensional when she is only seen by Darley’s perspective but the whole point of the story is that multiple perspectives exist. And Clea? Darley presents a loving and complex portrayal of her.
Could a woman have written these passages?
Hmmm. Good question. It’s possible, although a different person would write differently. Gender is not the only determinant of style.
Till next time.