Richard Davenporthines

Menace, mystery and decadence

Richard Davenport-Hines on the seamy side of interwar Alexandria, as depicted by Lawrence Durrell

Menace, mystery and decadence
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The Alexandria Quartet

Lawrence Durrell

Faber, pp. 880, £

Amateurs in Eden

Joanna Hodgkin

Virago, pp. 335, £

It is fitting that Charles Dickens’s bicentenary coincides with Lawrence Durrell’s centenary, for the two novelists have crucial resemblances: both of them are triumphant in the intensity and power of their writing, but capable of calamitous lapses of taste; both of them are riotous comedians who sometimes plunge into hopeless melodrama. It is true that Einstein’s theory of relativity, which Durrell foisted on the structure of The Alexandria Quartet (reprinted, with a new introduction by Jan Morris) has no more part in Martin Chuzzlewit than the ludicrous sexual obsessions derived from Sade and Henry Miller which sully Durrell’s plot. But Dickens in certain moods was, as Angus Wilson said of Durrell’s novels, ‘floridly vulgar’.  

Justine, the first volume of the quartet, was published by Faber in 1957. The successor volumes (Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea), which Durrell called ‘siblings’ rather than ‘sequels’, appeared by 1960. Each sibling overlaps and amends: different narrators correct each other, shift emphasis, analyse protagonists differently, provide revelations from fresh perspectives. In an afterword Durrell wrote, ‘I have always believed in letting my reader sink or skim.’ Certainly, one needs to skim, for his narrative is sometimes overblown, his protagonist Justine is as improbable as her namesake in Sade, and the motives and reactions of her satellite characters resemble a queasy adolescent daydream too closely to convince.

Mountolive is the most readable and satisfying of the quartet. Its depiction of office politics and diplomatic intrigue (its eponymous hero is British Ambassador in Egypt) is written with delicious irony. In Mountolive Durrell finally roots his characters, makes one understand and care about some of them, and consummates his design.  

It is hard now to recapture the impact half a century ago of these novels’ heat, luxuriance and profanity. Redolent of Mediterranean beauty and squalor, with jokes about Horsham, Sidcup and Luton as reminders of English drabness, they exhilarated those who had chafed at the currency restrictions on foreign travel and the provincial-minded prudery of national censorship. One character speaks of ‘that grim air of unflinching desperation with which Anglo-Saxons embark upon their pleasures’. Durrell’s temptresses sip Pernod, read Vogue, use gold nail-varnish and enjoy sex.  

‘We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour,’ Durrell declares in Justine. He provides sumptuous descriptions of the Egyptian countryside, and indeed of the snowbound Home Counties, but his descriptions of Alexandria — its beauty, cruelty, menace, mystery, decadence — vie with The International Zone, Paul Bowles’s account of Tangiers written a few years earlier. His city is populated by sensualists, money-grubbers, cynics, savages, and fatalists. Morbid lassitude overwhelms some: wild storms of frustration batter others. There are unforgettable glimpses: the bar where sulky rent-boys play backgammon under petrol-lamps; a pock-marked old furrier, Cohen, singing feebly on his deathbed; the circumcision booths hung with patriotic flags, where grotesquely dressed clowns with painted faces gambol to distract the boys.

There are harsh contrasts: bankers’ limousines bear their freight of chic ladies to bridge tables, synagogue, fortune-teller, or smart café, while nearby a dwarf plays a mandolin, an immense eunuch with a carbuncle the size of a brooch gobbles pastry, a legless man on a trolley dribbles. Durrell’s longer set-pieces, such as his account of the festival of Sitna Mariam and carnival ball that provide the climaxes in Balthazar, are glorious.  

His leading protagonists are, however, bores. Justine is a voluptuous, self-obsessed, unhappy Jewess who hurts those whom she needs most: ‘We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love,’ she says.  After an early marriage to a Parisian-Albanian novelist, she writhes as the tormenting wife of a jealous Copt banker-connoisseur, Nessim Hosnani. Other wearisome characters are a Greek cabaret entertainer with a collapsed lung, Melissa, and the lesbian artist Clea. It is hard to believe in any of them, or care about their erotic shenanigans. Conversely, the prize-winning novelist Pursewarden begins by seeming a self-indulgent poser, takes cyanide, and posthumously becomes one of the strongest, wisest and most alluring of the characters: his transformation is crucial to Durrell’s use of narrative truth as a series of blinds, feints and misperceptions.  

Aside from the landscape raptures, the pleasure of these novels lies in their peripheral characters, who resemble Pickwicks seen through the lens of Krafft-Ebing or Sacher-Masoch. Chief of these is brandy-sodden Joshua Scobie, a Falstaffian pederast with a glass eye, once a pervy scoutmaster from Hackney, later a policeman with the Alexandria vice squad, briefly station head of SIS, singer of roistering ballads, who uses ‘Saffron Walden’ as a synonym for male brothel (‘He was caught in Saffron Walden, old man, covered in jam’). Scobie is eventually beaten to death by sailors from HMS Milton, on a wharf smelling of urinals and sesame, while disguised as a type of Edwardian tart known as a Tuppenny Upright.

Then there is Toto de Brunel, a dimpled little creature who makes himself the poodle of rich old ladies by deliberate malapropisms, and is stabbed through the temple by a hat-pin while secreted under the pile of coats at a carnival ball. Justine’s kinsman Capodistria, who debauched her in childhood, appears to be killed during a duck shoot at a superbly evoked salt-lake — prompting her to join a kibbutz. Capodistria later bounces back into life, living in a Martello tower and studying black magic, pictured in a topcoat with fur collar and cuffs, bowler hat and cigarette-holder, and likened to a tall rat in an animal cartoon. There is a poignant scene in which a youth called John Keats, who has been despised as a squalid sensation-mongering hack, is revealed to be a writer of eager, bright sensibility, before going to his death in desert warfare.

Despite much joyous stuff, the quartet is flooded with pretentious bilge about evil, perversity, infidelity and disorder. Sexual frankness played a big part in Durrell’s plans for the novels, but he combines the dreary priapism of Alan Clark with portentous smut — Joe Orton without the giggles. ‘He felt her on top of him, and in the plunge of her loins he felt the desire to add to him — to fecundate his actions,’ begins one passage. Overall, the supposed eroticism seems very dated, and is often unreadable.

Fugitive relief from bad sex and interminable contrived anguish is provided by Amateurs in Eden. Its author, Joanna Hodgkin, is the daughter of Durrell’s earliest wife, Nancy Myers, by her second husband, a Quaker colonel in the SOE whom she agreed to marry after he festooned a Jerusalem lamp-post with his Old Etonian tie.

Hodgkin began this memoir as a way to raise money for the care of her beloved Durrell half-sister, Penelope, who was stricken by Alzheimer’s. It chronicles the escape of Nancy Myers from provincial conformity in small-town Lincolnshire to the louche world of 1930s Fitzrovia: she was for a time the muse of a novelist, John Gawsworth, who resembled Peter Sellers playing the part of Inspector Clouseau. When she began sleeping with Lawrence Durrell, he was working as an estate agent in Leytonstone. After their marriage in Bournemouth, intent on forgetting Lincolnshire and Leytonstone, they had a furiously unhappy time with Henry Miller’s set in Paris. A fter fizzing passion in Corfu, their marriage juddered apart in wartime Egypt.

The best parts of Amateurs in Eden describe Nancy’s calm, gentle life as Mrs Hodgkin, and have little to do with the tempestuous Durrell phase. After some discontented years in postwar England, she became a tender, demonstrative, original-minded woman, whose cheerful, shrewd love for her daughters is delightfully evoked. This is a disarming, understated book. Only a brute would sneer at its chronicle of domestic furies and affections, told in a tone of simple thanksgiving.