The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Durrell’s Alexandria

  • Ahmed ElbeshlawyEmail author
Living reference work entry

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Reinventing Alexandria as a personal and sensual mode of being.


If the Alexandria created by Cavafy’s poetry directly resulted in the production of a literary work that reinvents the city in a personal way that can only be matched by the work of Cavafy himself, that literary work is Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. Durrell’s Alexandria is perceived by its narrator as an “invisible author” (828) writing its inhabitants. Thinking about the position of Durrell as the writer of the Quartet, which was produced on the basis of living in Alexandria for a number of years as a press attaché to the British embassy, raises a fundamental question about the writer’s relation to the city. Since the Quartet perceives an Alexandria which invisibly writes its inhabitants – among which is the writer himself – Durrell in fact poses the question himself early on. At the start of the first novel, Justine, the narrator asks: “What is this city of ours? What is resumed in the word Alexandria?” (17). The question serves to open the way to the writer’s great detour of nearly 900 pages, through writing Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, in order to reach the idea of the “invisible author” (828): the city writing itself through one of its authors, who are precisely perceived as authored by the city.

As much as the Quartet’s fictional characters are protected from simple judgment on their behavior by a hedge that the writer uses when he presents the city as author of its inhabitants, the author himself can claim protection from critical judgment as an inhabitant of the city: “It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price” (17). It is as if Durrell delegates the responsibility of writing the text to something outside himself that he calls “the city” and that whoever judges the text shouldn’t simply refer it to the writer as its sole source. It is the city that invoked the writing, the city that appears in it, the city that produced the writer himself – a writer who seems to perceive that he will have to “pay the price” claimed by criticism for a writing that has been greatly molded by something external to himself that is called “Alexandria.” Yet that Alexandria is not just the city where he lived and worked during World War II. Durrell, like his narrator, had to come to Alexandria “in order completely to rebuild this city in [his] brain” (18) as if this is the most natural thing one does. The notion of an imaginary Alexandria was already there, firmly established by Constantine Cavafy, to be shaped and reshaped.

Naturally, the ghost of Cavafy, or the “old poet of the city” (18), haunts Durrell’s Quartet from the beginning to end. Some passages literally recreate situations that the poet described in his poems, albeit in a more animated and dramatic style not obvious in the poetry. Reciting one of Cavafy’s poems, Justine “reached the passage where the old man throws aside the ancient love-letter which had so moved him” and “herself pushing open the shutters to stand on the dark balcony” (28–29). The poem referred to is “In the evening” where Cavafy writes:

And melancholy, I came out on the balcony –

came out to change my thoughts at least by looking at

a little of the city that I loved,

a little movement on the street, and in the shops. (The Complete Poems of Cavafy, 72)

The narrator declares that “it was painful to me, feeling the old man all round me, so to speak, impregnating the gloomy streets…” (30–31). Durrell was not simply living in Alexandria; he was living in Cavafy’s Alexandria, and Cavafy’s presence in the Quartet indeed amounts to being one of its central characters even if he is talked about in a strictly posthumous sense. Durrell’s admiration of the poet is expressed through one of his chief characters. Balthazar “had been a fellow-student and close friend of the poet” who declares that:

I learned more from studying him than I did from studying philosophy. His exquisite balance of irony and tenderness would have put him among the saints has he been a religious man. He was by divine choice only a poet and often unhappy but with him one had the feeling that he was catching every minute as it flew and turning it upside down to expose its happy side. He was really using himself up, his inner self, in living (79).

Before Edmund Keeley wrote about what he perceives in Cavafy’s Alexandria as a “godlike power to move the mind of mortals with poetic conceptions of itself” (Keeley, 6) and Cavafy’s “substitution of the god Alexandria for Dionysus and Hercules as the presiding deity of Antony’s last days” (40), Durrell’s narrator declared that “Justine would say that we had been trapped in the projection of a will too powerful and too deliberate to be human – the gravitational field which Alexandria threw down about those it had chosen as its exemplars” (Durrell, 22). Durrell’s Alexandria, like Cavafy’s, exercises total power over its inhabitants. They are driven into love affairs not by choice but by the order of the deity Alexandria is in their own imagination. Thus, Justine declares: “There is no choice in this matter … we are not strong or evil enough to exercise choice. All this is part of an experiment arranged by something else, the city perhaps, or another part of ourselves” (28).

Indeed, Alexandria as a romantic city is a notion that is based on extremities and contradictions. The protagonists of the Quartet do not only bask in the imaginary world of a city once inhabited by “a race of terrific queens which left behind them the ammoniac smell of their incestuous loves” (23); their eroticism seems to derive its force from the equally important and immediate experience of the “dust-tormented streets” (17) and the physical city as dirty, old, disgusting, and ultimately terrifying, with “shuttered balconies swarming with rats … old women whose hair is full of the blood of ticks. Peeling walls leaning drunkenly to east and west … moist beads of summer flies everywhere … street noises … a human misery of such proportions that one is aghast” (26). If Alexandria as the center of Hellenic civilization represents the beauty of the human figure and elevates sexual pleasure to the level of being almost an ideology, Durrell’s physical Alexandria is like the grotesque nether regions of the body. Alexandria is “half-imagined” yet “wholly real” (209), a creation of the mind yet totally defined as a sensory as well as a sensual experience, at once “sacred and profane” (338), “princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi” (700).

No matter how much descriptions of the city or contemplations about its glorious past are contained in the Quartet, the work remains mostly about trying to comprehend what Alexandria is in the first place. The question that his narrator poses at the beginning of the second novel, Balthazar, “have I not said enough about Alexandria?” (209), is not meant to indicate any accomplishment in terms of having previously reached a sort of sufficiency of presentation or a totality of definition; on the contrary, it seems to suggest that one can say a whole lot of things about Alexandria without really coming to grips with what it is. The “capital of memory” (152) seems to lose its bearings when the narrator at some point declares: “I distrusted my own memory, finding it hard to believe that there had ever been such a town as Alexandria” (186). And yet this ultimately undefined idea of Alexandria haunts its narrator to the point of becoming a burden or a sort of sickness that he tries to cure. He tries to “know everything in order to be at last delivered from … this whore among cities” (216). At times, even the very repetition of the word Alexandria marks a “death of the self” (57). At some point he reaches this conclusion: “the destruction of my private Alexandria was necessary” to “carry me a little further in what is really a search for my proper self” (370).

The idea of knowing everything about Alexandria in order to finally be able to destroy it in the course of searching for a “proper self” seems logical, but it is also doubtful if not even paradoxical and fundamentally dilemmatic. In his analysis of Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, D. H. Lawrence once wrote one of his most insightful philosophical thoughts: “Knowing and Being are opposite, antagonistic states. The more you know, exactly, the less you are. […] It will always be a great oscillation. The goal is to know how not-to-know.” Thus, when Dana took that “great step in knowing: knowing the mother sea,” it was also a step toward “his own undoing. It was a new phase of dissolution of his own being. Afterwards, he would be a less human thing. He would be a knower: but more near to mechanism than before” (Lawrence, 121). According to Lawrence’s idea, seeking too much knowledge about something does not in the first place seem to be the proper way toward being or finding a “proper self”; on the contrary, knowledge feeds on the self, or knowledge is necessarily opposed to self-knowledge.

In his analysis of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Lawrence also deals with the idea of the final destruction of the “known,” of what is secured in the mind as finally identified, defined, or framed. He writes: “You would think this relation with Queequeg meant something to Ishmael. But no. Queequeg is forgotten like yesterday’s newspaper. Human things are only momentary excitements or amusements to the American Ishmael. […] Queequeg must be just ‘KNOWN’, then dropped into oblivion” (156). Lawrence’s critique of Dana and Melville constitutes an important part of his Studies in Classic American Literature, in which he seems to go through the process of knowing/understanding America through its literature. The Studies seem to penetratingly reveal – arguably against the writer’s personal desire – Lawrence’s identification with America itself. His critical analysis of America’s literature assumes the position of knowing America, framing it in a certain frame and, “as Americans themselves do,” dropping it into oblivion after securing the knowledge.

It is remarkable that Lawrence’s own experience in America does prove his insightful thought; the more the European writer “knows” America, the more it feeds on his being. His advice “the goal is to know how not-to-know” seems to be an advice that he couldn’t resist going against. The temptation of knowing America, of defining what constitutes the American, proved itself irresistible to him. What he actually did is knowing too much and then, just as the typically American attitude he describes, dropping the America that he invented into oblivion. After all, as Peter Conrad states, New Mexico “proved to be no more than an expedient resting place in a harried, vagrant career” (Conrad, 193). It was just one among a number of places that Lawrence visited between 1919 and 1925 before returning to Europe after his health continued to deteriorate in America.

Can knowing Alexandria be different in terms of finding what Durrell calls a “proper self”? Any reader of the Quartet cannot miss the extent of identification between Durrell and his narrators, specifically in the passages in which he poetically describes Alexandria’s sea, weather, landscape, streets, minarets, buildings, etc., as well as those in which he constructs his or his characters’ imaginary or “private” Alexandria. Like New Mexico in Lawrence’s life, Alexandria to Durrell, in reality, cannot possibly be anything more than “an expedient resting place in a harried, vagrant career.” Durrell “arrived [in Alexandria] in 1941” (Durrell, Introduction to Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide) and left “in 1945, after the liberation of Greece” (Polyzoides, 28). The Alexandria Quartet in its entirety was written in Cyprus and France after he left Alexandria. It is said that he started writing it after Claude-Marie Vincendon, “the granddaughter of Baron Felix de Menasce, Alexandrian cotton merchant and banker … “fell into his arms”” (28).

It is not surprising that it was in fact the love affair, and not Alexandria, that instigated the writing of the Quartet and the creation of Alexandria as that “great winepress of love” (Durrell, 18) instead of the real Alexandria Durrell lived in with the “abject poverty of the Egyptians, the rise of nationalism, the general unrest and the uncertainty of the foreign communities about their future” (Polyzoides, 28–29). Created out of a love relationship with a woman, Durrell’s Alexandria seems to completely collapse and disappear for its narrator upon knowing about the disappearance of his beloved, Justine: “It is as if the whole city had crashed about my ears” (Durrell, 177). The Alexandrian experience for Durrell was knowledge put on the shelf for a period of time in waiting for the right time – or the right woman – to be transformed into a writing experience in which, following Cavafy, he creates an imaginary society whose passion for knowledge is intrinsically mixed with a particularly sensual mode of being. Durrell’s Alexandrians are defined by reconciling “two extremes of habit and behavior” that are opposed to each other: an “extreme sensuality” and an “intellectual asceticism” that derive their force from the “[Alexandrian] soil, air, landscape” (Durrell, 83). He lived in an Alexandria that was quickly losing its cosmopolitanism, but he wrote an Alexandria that was imagining reliving its Hellenism.


It was largely a particular love affair with an Alexandrian, and not Alexandria, that instigated the writing of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and the creation of Alexandria as a romantic city of love instead of the real Alexandria Durrell lived in which was marked by abject poverty of its Egyptian population and the rise of nationalism. The Alexandrian experience for Durrell was knowledge put on the shelf for a period of time in waiting for the right time – or the right woman – to be transformed into a writing experience in which he creates an imaginary society whose passion for knowledge is intrinsically mixed with a particularly sensual mode of being.


  1. Cavafy, Constantine. 1961. The complete poems of Cavafy. Trans. R. Dalven. London: The Hogarth Press.Google Scholar
  2. Conrad, Peter. 1980. Imagining America. London/Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  3. Durrell, Lawrence. 1968. The Alexandria quartet. London/Boston: Faber and Faber.Google Scholar
  4. Durrell, Lawrence. 1982. Introduction. In Alexandria: A history and a guide, ed. E.M. Forster. Alexandria: Michael Haag.Google Scholar
  5. Keeley, Edmund. 1976. Cavafy’s Alexandria. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Cavafy.Google Scholar
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  7. Polyzoides, A.J. 2014. Alexandria: City of gifts and sorrows. Brighton/Chicago/Toronto: Sussex Academic Press.Google Scholar

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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ScholarHong Kong SARChina