Lawrence Durrell •
(Book One of The Alexandria Quartet) •
Pegamoid. Banausic. Spurge. Mumchance. Conation.
Lawrence Durrell is the only writer I know who sends me scurrying to the dictionary on nearly every page. Reading his work is a large-scale undertaking, one requiring time, patience, and commitment (not to mention a good dictionary). But his books are undeniably fascinating, and unique in all of literature.
The Alexandria Quartet, set in sultry Egypt and sun-kissed Greece during the 1940s, revolves around political intrigue, carnal entanglement, blood feuds, drug use, deceit, mysticism, and secrecy. The whole of Durrell’s work seems enveloped in a swirling smoke of the exotic, the arcane, the forbidden. “In the dark we are all meat and treacherous however our hair kinks or skin smells.”
The four books that make up this series—Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea—present essentially the same story told from multiple viewpoints. At the end of Justine you may think, however briefly, that you know what’s going on. But once you begin its sequel, all your assumptions are exploded. Incidents that looked clear-cut have obverses and ramifications beyond imagining.
Yet out of this dense prose spring flashes of comic absurdity. Toto, a “gentleman of the second declension,” is given to announcements like “I ran so fast I got dandruff” (Balthazar). A bathtub used to distill arak becomes a religious shrine—and its owner, the “old pirate” Scobie, is revered as a saint following his violent death (Clea).
Expect cabals and carnivals, jumps in time, pajama-clad figures gliding through gardens by moonlight (Mountolive), a one-eyed servant “like a solitary penguin on an ice-floe” (Clea), verses written on a mirror in shaving soap (Mountolive), and “the thirsty snap of champagne corks” (Balthazar).
If you love being immersed in lush, powerful language and you’re up for a challenge, Durrell is for you.