She was standing at the drawn curtains to watch the dawn break over the tumbled roofs of the Arab town, naked and slender as an Easter lily. In the spring sunrise, with its dense dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin... a voice hanging like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria.
The Alexandria Quartet is one of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th century. It was a huge critical and commercial success when first published between 1957 and 1960, with Life magazine hailing it as ‘the most discussed and widely admired serious fiction of our time’. Fifty years later, it continues to seduce readers with its lyrical prose and its unforgettable portrayal of passion and loss.
The Alexandria Quartet traces the lives and loves of a disparate group of expatriates and Egyptians in Alexandria on the eve of the Second World War. In the first novel Justine, the narrator Darley, an impoverished writer in self-imposed exile on a Greek island, recalls his time in the Mediterranean port city and his love affair with the enigmatic Justine. The narrative takes an unexpected turn in Balthazar as Darley’s eponymous friend pays him a visit and forces Darley to re-evaluate everything he knows about Justine, her true feelings and her loyalties in Alexandria. In Mountolive, the political and social tensions in Egypt come to the foreground when the young English diplomat David Mountolive befriends the Hosnani family, land-owning Copts whose political allegiance is uncertain, and embarks on an affair with the beautiful matriarch Leila. Clea brings the Quartet to a haunting close, as Darley returns to Alexandria to make amends and attempts to find happiness with the beautiful painter Clea Montis.
The epic sweep of The Alexandria Quartet enables Lawrence Durrell to present an extraordinary cast of characters. Among them are the inquisitive barber Mnemjian, who is the eyes and ears of Alexandria; the English novelist Pursewarden; the furrier Cohen, whose affair with Darley’s other lover Melissa leaves a bitter legacy; and the eccentric Scobie, a retired Lieutenant-Commander who finds himself heading the city’s Vice Squad. Yet the Quartet’s most compelling portrait is of Alexandria itself. Durrell richly evokes this atmospheric city, where the Mediterranean meets the Middle East. He transports the reader to the rainswept Corniche where French, Greek and Arabic voices are heard at once, and the Cecil Hotel where illicit assignations are made. We venture into the dusty slums where handprints ward off the evil eye and the surrounding countryside unchanged since feudal times. There is high society, with masques, card parties and trips to Lake Mareotis for duck shooting, but the novels also take us behind the city’s faded, elegant façade to reveal a world of poverty, political intrigue and corruption. Deeply evocative and filled with a sense of mysterious longing, The Alexandria Quartet is both a passionate love story and a window onto a vanished world.
See more titles in the series:
Read more about the life and work of Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence Durrell was born in India in 1912, to Indianborn British parents. Sent to school in England at the age of 11, he developed a lifelong antipathy to English weather and society. In 1935 he moved to Corfu in Greece, together with his family. His brother Gerald later chronicled the experience in My Family and Other Animals. In 1941, Durrell moved to Cairo and then Alexandria, where he worked as a press attaché. There he met Eve Cohen, his second wife and the model for Justine. After living in Rhodes, Argentina and Yugoslavia, he moved to Cyprus in 1952, where he was caught in the middle of the civil war. In Cyprus he began writing The Alexandria Quartet, which brought him worldwide acclaim and commercial success. He continued to write novels and poetry until his death in 1990.