With its non-linear structure, sensuous prose, and cast of characters buffeted and beleaguered by love, this tetralogy is one of the masterworks of th...moreWith its non-linear structure, sensuous prose, and cast of characters buffeted and beleaguered by love, this tetralogy is one of the masterworks of the twentieth century, and remains the finest work of literature to emerge from Alexandria.
Durrell jotted notes toward his "Alexandria novel" in the tower of the Ambron Villa, but began writing Justine, which he initially called his "Book of the Dead," in Cyprus in 1953. Soon after their arrival in Cyprus, Eve Cohen, Durrell's second wife, became depressed, then psychotic. Durrell had her confined in a hospital in Germany, and brought his mother to Cyprus to help him with Sappho, his daughter with Eve. Rising at four-thirty am, he wrote in longhand so as not to wake Sappho, before leaving to start teaching at seven. He typed out his week's work on weekends. In a letter to Henry Miller, he noted "never have I worked under such adverse conditions," but commented also: "I have never felt in better writing form."
Justine investigates its characters by laying down scenes and moments with little concern for chronology; instead, like a mosaic, the pieces link up to form a whole. This broken, cluttered style echoes the love lives of the characters, who are continually floundering within relationships: deceitful, forlorn, exhausted, cynical. Justine, the central character, is based on Eve, to whom the book is dedicated, and it is her portrait that emerges most fully, though there are no caricatures in the Quartet. The prose is miraculous, the metaphors always fresh, ideas and images crushed together to form an angular beauty.
Eve left Durrell before he had finished Justine, but he shortly thereafter met Claude Vincendon, who had grown up in Alexandria. Inspired by her love and memories, he completed Justine, and conceived the idea of a series of books "using the same people in different combinations." Balthazar is the equal of Justine in its imagery and investigation of character; of the tetralogy, these two are closest in spirit. Mountolive, more traditional in its storytelling, relates the love affair between David Mountolive, a British civil servant, and Leila, a married Copt. Clea, an homage to Claude, and dedicated to her, moves forward in time. Darley, the narrator of Justine, returns to Alexandria after the war, where he falls in love with Clea Montis, and they reminisce about their acquaintances. Less successful than the previous three in some ways, it nevertheless contains some vivid scenes, and the writing remains delicious.
Justine was an instant critical and popular success upon its publication. The Quartet cemented Durrell's reputation and made him a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize.(less)
What a beautiful book this is. Each sentence is so carefully wrought, the language always riskily fresh. It is desperately romantic. Though the charac...moreWhat a beautiful book this is. Each sentence is so carefully wrought, the language always riskily fresh. It is desperately romantic. Though the characterization is at times awkward - a by-product of Ondaatje's risk-taking - one falls achingly in love with the characters.
Ondaatje writes piecemeal, crafting scenes, honing characters, and then hoping for a narrative. He has said that the first section he wrote was Caravaggio's theft of the camera in the hotel. The English patient's voice arrived with the word 'aerodrome.'
Count Ladislaus de Almásy, Ralph Bagnold, Hassanein Bey, and certain others mentioned in the book were genuine desert explorers. The real Almásy was, however, gay, and probably not the erudite romantic figure of the novel.
Though the setting is exotic, some of the Katharine/Geoffrey Clifton/Ladislaus de Almásy triangle may be related to Ondaatje's theft of Kim Ondaatje (thin, blonde, artsy) from her professor husband in Ontario.
The themes include identity, religions, encounters across cultures, and youth/age. At one point the English patient says: " There's a painting by Caravaggio, done late in his life. David with the Head of Goliath. In it, the young warrior holds at the end of his outstretched arm the head of Goliath, ravaged and old. But that is not the true sadness in the picture. It is assumed that the face of David is a portrait of the youthful Caravaggio and the head of Goliath is a portrait of him as an older man, how he looked when he did the painting. Youth judging age at the end of its outstretched hand. The judging of ones's own mortality. I think when I see him at the foot of my bed that Kip is my David."
But the thief Caravaggio is of course also a portrait of Ondaatje, and one could surmise that the older Ondaatje is judging the young self who committed the infidelities with an older woman.
The English Patient gathers many other works into its pages: Anna Karenina, Kim (echoing his first wife's name, and also chiming with Kip), Herodotus' Histories, A Midsummer Night's Dream ("Sometime a fire" is taken from a speech by Puck), Paradise Lost, and jazz lyrics, among others.
The book does not entirely work. The final sections, in which Kip, an Indian Sikh, hears of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagines "all Asia on fire," then threatens the English patient and drives off in a rage, are silly. As is "meet me at the moondial." Overall, Kip is the least convincing character. His actions lack coherence. However, the scenes in which he watches the Virgin come across the water, and his hours in deserted Naples are lovely.
The novel was made into a marvelous film by Anthony Minghella, which somehow manages to capture both the romance and the ungainliness of the book. There are some dreadful scenes (Almásy telling Katharine: "I still have the taste of you in my mouth," while munching chocolate, for example. Or Caravaggio's "What if I said 'Moose'?") But these are offset by the opening scenes with the brushwork fading into the desert and the shadow of the plane, against the background of Hungarian vocals; and the scene where Almásy carries the dead Katharine out of the cave. (less)
Of the triumvirate of Alexandrian literary giants of the early twentieth century - Constantine Cavafy, E. M. Forster, and Lawrence Durrell - Cavafy is...moreOf the triumvirate of Alexandrian literary giants of the early twentieth century - Constantine Cavafy, E. M. Forster, and Lawrence Durrell - Cavafy is perhaps the guardian spirit. His poetry provides the capstone to Forster's Alexandria: A History and a Guide, and is present both as invoked persona ("the old poet of the city") and fictionalized character (Balthazar) in Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Cavafy's presence also haunts Michael Haag's evocative Alexandria: City of Memory. Though the book focuses on the Alexandria of Forster and Durrell, the photograph of Cavafy's melancholy face seems to stare through every page, and his poem "The City," used as epigraph, imbues the text with nostalgia. The image Haag describes of Cavafy at twilight opening or closing shutters, "adjusting the fall of light on his guests," aptly describes Haag's approach to his material, illuminating the sojourns of Forster and Durrell in this city.
Both Forster and Durrell were cast into Alexandria by wars: Forster came as a Red Cross "searcher" in World War I, interviewing wounded soldiers to ascertain the whereabouts of the missing; Durrell fled the Nazi invasion of Greece. In Alexandria both found the loves that, if not the most inspiring of happiness, nevertheless provided the foundation for some of their greatest writing. Forster fell in love with a tram conductor, Mohammed al Adl, and their tenuous, fraught relationship is movingly recounted in Forster's long "letter," never sent, and continued after Mohammed's death at twenty-three from consumption. Their relationship, transformed, underlies Forster's acclaimed A Passage to India, informing both Dr. Aziz's friendship with Fielding, and the misunderstandings between Aziz and Adela Quested. Perhaps the most strangely stirring image in Haag's book is the tattered photograph of Mohammed that Forster kept with him to the end of his life, preserved only because he had taped a tram ticket to the reverse side.
The eponymous central character of Durrell's Justine is based on his second wife, the Alexandrian Jew Eve Cohen. They met at a party, where she terrified and entranced Durrell with her voluble eagerness and puckish beauty. Eve was involved with an Austrian Jew who didn't feel he could trust her, and Durrell had recently ended his first marriage, so they initially discussed their difficult love lives. But when Eve left her family, it was to Durrell that she turned; they were soon lovers, and then married. Their relationship, lopsided, passionate, scarred by violence, is evoked in Haag's book through Durrell's letters, the memories of friends, and interviews with Eve Durrell.
A host of minor characters fills out the book, which is assiduously researched, lucidly written, and accompanied by a trove of photographs that bring to life this fleeting, fascinating epoch of Alexandria's history.(less)
Called the best guidebook ever written, Forster's homage to Alexandria is at once informative, evocative, and nostalgic. The first half of the book is...moreCalled the best guidebook ever written, Forster's homage to Alexandria is at once informative, evocative, and nostalgic. The first half of the book is a series of vignettes on various moments and characters in the city's history. Forster immersed himself in the literature of ancient Alexandria and Greece, and it is this intimate acquaintance with the thought of the old city that gives the historical section its depth. Using a style that, though terse, always has time for a story or interesting quote, he covers the ancient library and mouseion, the Alexandrian contributions to science, the Christian and Arab periods. In the celebrated section "The Spiritual City," he outlines the religious heritage of Alexandria, demonstrating how Christianity as we know it today was largely formed in this city. Durrell drew heavily on this section for the gnostic theme that runs through the Quartet. The historical section concludes with a translation of Cavafy's "The God Abandons Antony," the first Cavafy poem to appear in print in English, and Forster considered the primary achievement of his guidebook to be the introduction of Cavafy to the English-speaking world.[return:]Each historical section is linked to sections in the guide, and Forster claimed that "the 'sights' of Alexandria are in themselves not interesting, but they fascinate when we approach them through the past." Forster spent much time on trams in Alexandria, and the great love of his life, Mohammed el Adl, was a tram conductor on the Bacos route. It is fitting, then, that the tramlines should provide the web holding the guidebook together. Forster takes us through the city by tram, pointing out interesting buildings and sites to left and right. The guide also contains maps of the ancient and modern city, and plans of the Greco-Roman Museum and the Wadi Natrun monasteries.[return:]The book had a difficult birth: Forster's Alexandrian publisher suffered a fire in which they thought the books had been burned. After recouping insurance compensation, they discovered that they had in fact survived. They then decided to burn the books deliberately. In 1935, members of the Royal Archaeological Society of Alexandria decided to reprint the book. Forster put some work into revisions, but this second edition did not sell well, and it was only after the book was published in the US that it achieved moderate sales.
More than any other guidebook, Forster's comes across as a labor of love. Lawrence Durrell wrote of the guidebook that Forster "must have been deeply happy, perhaps deeply in love . . . Paradoxically, if that is the word, the book is also saturated with the feeling of loneliness, that of a cultivated man talking to himself, walking by himself."(less)