Mountolive (published 1958) is, first of all, a masterful play on expectations. The Alexandria Quartet relies upon the crossed recollections of unreliable narrators for its form and in this the third volume Durrell deceptively switched to the traditional storytelling mode of a third-person narration – transforming it into an odd continuation of the experimental form.
Thus Mountolive begins in a refreshingly different manner, slapping the reader down some years before the events of Justine in the midst of an unsettling family drama. David Mountolive, briefly glimpsed in Balthazar as a mild-mannered diplomat, is followed through the book from his first visit to Egypt as a naive accident-waiting-to-happen, kindly boarded by the Hosnani family. What begins as an affair between Mountolive and Leila soon expands to become a primarily political story, or rather the story of how political ideology put insurmountable strain upon relationships of all sorts, driving apart friends, lovers and brothers as the book progresses. Mountolive is also the most cinematic and spacious of the three “sibling” novels. It breaks away from Darley’s constrictive voice and is a deeply refreshing and revitalizing example of changing horses in midstream.
Among other things, this new tactic gives Pursewarden an expanded role – no longer at the mercy of Darley and Balthazar’s interpretations, he thus appears a little more well-rounded and turns the tables delightfully. Darley’s grand passion is flattened out – seen from Pursewarden’s view, he comes across as a bit of a wimp: The poor fellow flutters like a slab on a skate at her approach; he and Nessim are, however, great frequenters of each other, great friends. These modest British types – do they all turn out to be Turks secretly? Darley at any rate must have some appeal because he has also got himself regally entangled with a rather nice little cabaret dancer called Melissa. You would never think, to look at him, that he was capable of running a tandem, so little self-possession does he appear to have. A victim of his own fine sentiments? He wrings his hands, his spectacles steam up, when he mentions either name. And yet as more revelations spiral down the pike Darley, seen from this exterior view, becomes a figure rather admirable. Far from the hero of this story, his is truly a minor role, and yet he is now revealed as fundamentally good and ingenuous; a well-meaning man innocently swimming with sharks.
Another aspect of the expanded narrative is in the sense of place. Durrell’s ability to make a landscape come alive is no doubt why his travel writings are so thoroughly respected. In Mountolive this talent is no longer limited to Egypt and so there are lovely depictions of snow in Russia and a waltz in Trafalgar Square as well as a pre-dawn fish hunt upon Lake Mareotis and an eerily empty plantation. A brief snapshot of London: The thin black drizzle over Trafalgar Square, the soot-encrusted cornices of Whitehall, the slur of rubber tyres spinning upon macadam, the haunting conspiratorial voice of river traffic behind the veils of mist – they were both a reassurance and a threat. He loved it inarticulately, the melancholy of it, though he knew in his heart he could no longer live here permanently, for his profession had made an expatriate of him.
Owing to Mountolive’s role in the embassy the political bent slowly woven into the first books is now delved into feet-first. Frankly, I didn’t understand all of it (my study of politics has not gone much deeper than repeated viewings of Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister) which is my loss. The sense that none of the characters are to be trusted leads to a deeper feeling of unease as the story progresses, abandoning erotic subterfuge in favour of far murkier motivations. As a new set of revelations come to light the end result is a feeling that The Alexandria Quartet is a study in futility. Misjudgments, deceptions, desires that miss their mark, beliefs revoltingly at odds with reality, the knowledge that in the end, people are an enigma. They were puzzles now, and even their private moral relationship haunted him with a sense of something he had never properly understood, never clearly evaluated.
Another evolving theme of the work is loss of control, as Mountolive, the Hosnani brothers and Pursewarden become pawns (Pursewarden’s suicide seen anew as the decision of a pawn to opt out of the game). Indeed, now the masters were beginning to find that they were, after all, the servants of the very forces which they had set in play, and that nature is inherently ungovernable. They were soon to be drawn along ways not of their choosing, trapped in a magnetic field, as it were, by the same forces which unwind the tides at the moon’s bidding, or propel the glittering forces of salmon up a crowded river – actions curving and swelling into futurity beyond the powers of mortals to harness or divert. Perhaps all of this is why the narrative focuses so much upon Mountolive. A diplomat, a man not meant for friendship or any close relation with others, who nevertheless gains it and is thence brought into a conflict of interests. That’s an old story but all the themes in the Quartet evolve, ducking in and out of the limelight, never disappearing altogether, never overstaying their welcome. Wonderfully well-balanced.
Is Durrell fair to his characters? It is true that once the gloves come off Justine is described with perhaps too much emphasis upon her barbarism. However, considering her previously established traits – as a man-eater, as the child of a poor neighborhood given a rough start in life and as a lost and purposeless individual – is it any wonder that she fell in love with a man with a cause? To compare Nessim with Darley or Pursewarden is to compare the fanatic with the diffident. Durrell establishes his characters well: The same applies to Narouz. The poor fellow is clearly a bomb waiting to go off from the beginning – a man at once brutal, simple, mystical and terribly isolated. His downward spiral is all too believable and leads to a devastating finale.
The Alexandria Quartet continues to be a draining experience. Disillusion, despair, betrayal of friends and lovers, people dying like flies – an unpleasant story told in the most romantic style imaginable. Each novel leaves me newly exhausted, head spinning, heart heavy. This sounds like a negative statement but in fact my highest criteria for art is that it move me. Durrell’s ability to break my heart is for me his greatest skill, greater even than his prose style.
In ten years or so I shall be certain to revisit The Alexandria Quartet, to see if it still wields such force further on in my life. Onwards now to Clea and then I am so reading P.G. Wodehouse…