In Clea (1960) we finally gain a true sequel to the story thus far. Darley narrates again, but a wiser Darley than when last heard from. With the passing of years he has had ample time to reflect; he’s a hermit still, raising the child in comfortable solitude. War is upon the world and it is only with a summons from Nessim that he returns to a much different Alexandria (though still unchanged in the essentials), hoping to at last exorcise its hold over him.
Clea’s function in the narrative is as a clearing of the board, an attempt to set in order all the lives flung about by the earlier events. The triumph is not of truth (as Henry James said, “the whole of anything can never be told”) but of pragmatism. It functions as a book-length epilogue – the “story” and its finale have already been told and retold. This is 200 pages of who gets hitched, who dies and who moves away. With Justine and Mountolive as two impeccable dramatic narratives, Clea pairs off with Balthazar as a series of disconnected sketches meant to fill in the blanks with further guesswork. There are snatches of plots centered on Liza Pursewarden, on Keats’ coming of age, on Pombal’s first genuine love affair and on Scobie’s final resting place but they are just the loose ends of Alexandria. Clea is a meandering stream after the tidal flood of the previous volumes. Perhaps it is inevitable that I am disappointed.
On the other hand, the sketches are usually beautifully rendered. Liza’s fight to whitewash her brother’s reputation causes her to briefly interact with Darley and the others, all of whom view Liza with a fascinated unease, imbuing her with all the characteristics of a seer, a specter, a witch. Nevertheless her story is a pitiful one. Scobie’s posthumous legacy, on the other hand, makes for a heartwarming and surprisingly believable final twist in his story. And the claim Darley originally made that the city was responsible for his and others actions finally begins to convince, for here Alexandria comes across as the eminence grise, malevolent and diabolical, leading those within its sphere to tragedy and chaos (the death toll is truly staggering in this series).
But the worst part of The Alexandria Quartet is also featured in this volume. Pursewarden, alas, falls back into the hands of those who see him as an artiste, leading back into the tedious and now redundant throes of “artistic philosophy.” The biggest problem with inventing an artist for one’s novel is the threat of their invisible work. So much fuss is made over Pursewarden’s art that one wants nothing more than to read it and pass judgment but that is of course impossible. Thence an uncharitable view springs up every time his blasted books are mentioned; he IS all hat and no cattle. As a character he’s as interesting as the others but as an artist I have to view him as a waste of space, especially as Durrell loses no opportunity to insert his doggerel verse into the book. The 30 pages of his journal are borderline unreadable and enormously frustrating – a few interesting thoughts stuck in a load of codswallop.
That’s the worst it gets, thankfully. It’s certainly interesting to see how Durrell chose to wrap things up. Depending on your perspective, the conclusion will appear either cleansing and life-embracing or a further stultification, a giving in to decadence in a world gone to war. I’m for the latter. Darley and Clea hook up and the first thing they do is ignore the loutish reality of the world by refusing to depart from bed to air-raid shelter. The new love is as troubled in its way as all the old loves were, and though stronger, built upon the debris of old experiences, it is up for debate whether it’ll last long. People have wised up, though only in a guarded and limpid sort of way and one has to laugh when, for instance, Clea announces that she was the only one who really “got” Pursewarden, who was on his wavelength. Or when she claims “Paracelsus says that thoughts are acts. Of them all, I suppose, the sex act is the most important, the one in which our spirits most divulge themselves” going on to claim that it actually is the base root of knowledge. This contradicts everything that’s gone before, with virtually the entire cast sleeping around and nevertheless evincing total ignorance of one another’s true motivations. Clea, always appearing so sensible while on the sidelines, steps into the limelight and reveals she hasn’t been listening to any but her own desires after all.
In a way, that’s the biggest part of the problem and what kept raising my eyebrows during the read – not the lack of drama (there’s plenty) but the lack of maturity. The cast began as depressed, self-absorbed chronic liars using erotic episodes and obsessive analytics to try to order their world and dammit if they don’t end up about the same way (with Darley being the sole exception). As Clea says towards the end: “Oh, isn’t it disgusting? When will we all grow up?”
On the other hand, it’s not so very much to complain of. Clea is consistent with volumes I-III in all the major ways, good and bad. It is still a moving work, it is uncertain of answers, still walks the knife-edge of melodrama, reads exquisitely, glitches over pretentious pseudo-philosophical babble and contains multitudes. The main focus is upon Darley’s relationship with Clea, of course, and it is the first time a couple in Alexandria have really been depicted enjoying one another’s company – boating, swimming, chatting and so on. With Clea also the new relationship offered no problems, perhaps because deliberately we avoided defining it too sharply, and allowed it to follow the curves of its own nature, to fulfill its own design. Darley is the one who has changed the most, no longer dogged in pursuit of answers, willing instead to allow life to progress at its own pace and to offer solitude to those who need it. This parting was… well, it was only like changing the bandages until a wound should heal.
And so I would conclude that, though somewhat less enjoyable than the first three, Clea is a worthwhile conclusion. Endings are hard to do well and in my opinion this one is reasonable, not excellent – four stars to the trio’s five. I would have preferred it more focused. But then I’m going to miss the language, now it’s over: It is strange, too, to remember what a curious sea-engendered rapport we shared during that memorable summer. A delight almost as deep as the bondage of kisses – to enter the rhythm of the waters together, responding to each other and the play of the long tides. Clea had always been a fine swimmer, I a poor one. But thanks to my period spent in Greece I too was now expert, more than a match for her. Underwater we played and explored the submarine world of the pool, as thoughtlessly as fishes on the fifth day of the Creation. Eloquent and silent water-ballets which allowed us to correspond only by smile and gesture. The water-silences captured and transformed everything human in movement, so that we were like the coloured projections of undines painted upon these brilliant screens of rock and weed, echoing and copying the water-rhythms. Here thought itself perished, was converted into a fathomless content in physical action.
That can speak for itself. It’s been a strange reading experience and I’m exhausted but I’m glad I made the time for it. Someday: The Avignon Quintet. Right now: Jeeves and Wooster. Just what the doctor ordered…