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)
“The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then leveled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne d...more“The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then leveled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, then turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street. We were sitting apart and we jolted close together going down the old street. Brett’s hat was off. Her head was back. I saw her face in the lights from the open shops, then it was dark, then I saw her face clearly as we came out on the Avenue des Gobelins. The street was torn up and men were working on the car-tracks by the light of acetylene flares. Brett’s face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her. Our lips were tight together and then she turned away and pressed against the corner of the seat, as far away as she could get. Her head was down.”
Fiesta exploded onto the literary scene in 1929 like a new religion. Within a year it had sold 30,000 copies and gone into several reprintings. It is the most rereadable of novels, its clean, immediate prose creating a special ache, for youth and abandonment and heartbreak. It is also, curiously, a religious novel.
Fiesta was Hemingway's original, superior title, and is retained in the UK editions. His US publishers thought the Spanish word too esoteric, and The Sun Also Rises (from Ecclesiastes) was suggested by his editor.
The religious themes include the pilgrimage to Pamplona (the festival of San Fermin "is also a religious festival," and the train to Spain is full of pilgrims on their way to Lourdes). Jake enters a church more than once, though when he enters with Brett, she gets the heebie-jeebies.
Lady Brett Ashley was modeled on the gorgeous Lady Duff Twysden, with whom Hemingway went to Pamplona, and with whom he was apparently besotted. They never got together, perhaps because of Hemingway's marriage. Robert Cohn was based on Harold Loeb, who was so pissed at his depiction in the novel that he pursued him with a pistol at one point. Though the portrayal of Cohn comes across as anti-Semitic, Hemingway's actual views on Jews were apparently innocuous. He had Jewish friends (including Gertrude Stein, who provided the epigraph: "You are all a lost generation") and sometimes signed letters "Hemingstein." Furthermore, Hemingway once said that Cohn is the real hero of the novel. It should be noted that Jake also has issues with homosexuals: when Brett first enters the novel, she is with a group of gay men, and Jake comments: "I know you're supposed to be tolerant, but they always made me angry."
A phenomenal amount of alcohol is consumed in the novel. Toward the end of the book, after Jake rescues Brett in Madrid, he drinks six martinis and five bottles of wine in one evening. Following this spree, Brett tells him, "Don't get drunk."
Hemingway had already gained fame for his taut short stories when he wrote Fiesta. Inspiration rose partly from his admiration for The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was a friend, though they later had a falling out (see A Moveable Feast for Hemingway's sneering portrait), and Fitzgerald's editorial suggestions, including lopping off an initial chapter, were key to the novel's tight flow. (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)