The Alexandria Quartet

The Alexandria Quartet is a tetralogy of novels by British writer Lawrence Durrell, published between 1957 and 1960. A critical and commercial success, the first three books present three perspectives on a single set of events and characters in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during the Second World War. The fourth book is set six years later.

The writing is, at times, awful. He engages in terrible similes, meaningless statements like “she talked like a man and I talked to her like a man” and frequent anthropomorphism, such as his use of impregnate to describe anything but animal fertilization.

Durrell is the Jack Nicholson of writers, the arrogant narrative voice that everyone loves to hate. But there are moments that provide great insight into human relationships and vignettes that often seem too vivid to not be real, such as this story of a rich old man who seems to have invented the first blow-up doll:

When he was very old he had a model of the perfect woman built in rubber-life-size. She could be filled with hot water in the winter. She was strikingly beautiful. He called her Sabina after his mother, and took her everywhere. He had a passion for travelling on ocean liners and actually lived on one for the last two years of his life, travelling backwards and forwards to New York. Sabina had a wonderful wardrobe. It was a sight to see them come into the dining-saloon, dressed for dinner. He travelled with his keeper, a manservant called Kelly. Between them, held on either side like a beautiful drunkard, walked Sabina in her marvellous evening clothes. The night he died he said to Kelly: “Send Demetrius a telegram and tell him that Sabina died in my arms tonight without any pain.” She was buried with him off Naples.’

Lawrence Durrell, Justine, p. 34

As Durrell explains in his preface to Balthazar, the four novels are an exploration of relativity and the notions of continuum and subject – object relation, with modern love as the theme.

The Quartet’s first three books offer the same sequence of events through several points of view, allowing individual perspectives of a single set of events. The fourth book shows change over time.

The four novels are:

  • Justine (1957)
  • Balthazar (1958)
  • Mountolive (1958)
  • Clea (1960).

In a 1959 Paris Review interview, Durrell described the ideas behind the Quartet in terms of a convergence of Eastern and Western metaphysics, based on Einstein’s overturning of the old view of the material universe, and Freud’s doing the same for the concept of stable personalities, yielding a new concept of reality.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Alexandria Quartet number 70 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.


Read or listen to The Alexandria Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell