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Literature / Alexandria Quartet

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The Alexandria Quartet is a tetralogy of novels by the British author Lawrence Durrell. Set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, it explores the misadventures of various European expatriates and natives in the years around World War II. It consists of the following books:

  • Justine (1957)
  • Balthazar (1958)
  • Mountolive (1958)
  • Clea (1960)

The four novels deal with the same cast of characters and mostly with the same events, but are told from different angles. Balthazar is a virtual retelling of Justine, from the perspective of the later novel's title character; Mountolive is the story of a minor character from the first two novels that interacts unexpectedly with the previous story; Clea takes place several years later, but offers startling new information about the motivations and secrets of characters seen previously.

The Alexandria Quartet contains examples of:

  • All First-Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: It doesn't matter which character is doing so at the moment.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Nessim loses an eye and a hand during a Nazi bombing raid on Alexandria; Clea loses most of her painting hand after getting it (literally) harpooned underwater.
  • Author Avatar: Darley, the narrator of Justine, is a thinly disguised stand-in for Lawrence Durrell—they even share the initials L.G.D.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The moneyed Hosnani clan.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Turns out to apply to Pursewarden and his blind sister Liza.
  • City of Spies: Virtually everyone, to some degree, is either a player, antagonist, or pawn in the machinations of the British Foreign Office.
  • Compelling Voice: Narouz, whose spellbinding oratory makes him an increasing threat to himself, his family, and the English colonial office.
  • Covered with Scars: Nessim and Narouz's mother Leila, due to smallpox—and to the shock of her old lover Mountolive.
  • Delayed Narrator Introduction: Although Justine's narrator Darley depicts himself as a character from the outset, we do not learn his name until the later novels.
  • Drag Queen: The old, grotesque ex-sailor Scobie roams Alexandria by night searching for rough trade, gussied up in his "Dolly Vardens."
  • Europeans Are Kinky: And even more so when they're expats. If one took the novels' depiction seriously, the city slogan should have been "Alexandria: When Being Eurotrash Just Isn't Trashy Enough."
  • Everyone Is Bi: Or at least a suspicious number of main characters—Justine, Clea, ad nauseam.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Darley, Balthazar, and Clea.
  • For the Evulz: The polymorphously lecherous Capodistria.
  • Friendly Enemies: Scobie is well-liked (and wholeheartedly mourned) by the Alexandria vice squad, whose job it is to arrest him with regularity.
  • Gayngst: The fragile Balthazar, who goes on a months-long bender after being dumped by a young actor.
  • The Hedonist: This applies to virtually all the major characters.
  • Hook Hand: After her diving accident, Clea acquires a prosthetic contraption to let her paint.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Melissa, technically a dancer but in practice a prostitute.
  • Insufferable Genius: The brilliant, prolific, punchable Pursewarden.
  • Just Before the End: For the Europeans, Copts, and Jews that comprise the novels' cast, postwar Egypt is on the verge of becoming various degrees of inhospitable, repressive, or even deadly.
  • Missing Episode: Darley realizes that Pursewarden's posthumous memoirs are not merely genius, but a potential classic of Western literature. In deference to the author's wishes (and the papers' scandalous revelations), he burns them.
  • Mind Screw Driver: Each book for the previous one, with Clea being the most revealing.
  • Missing Mom: Darley raises Melissa's child after her death.
  • The Muse: The real-life Greek-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy is treated as a kind of tutelary spirit inspiring the characters and city.
    • Justine is something of one as well—a previous lover wrote a novel, Moeurs about a thinly-veiled version of her.
  • Non-Idle Rich: The philanthropical businessman Nessim and his brother Narouz, a demagogue and Coptic activist.
  • Perspective Flip: The engine that drives the series.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: Balthazar (in its perspective on Justine) and several of the reminiscences in Clea.
  • Sexual Extortion: In the end, Justine consents to becoming the mistress of the abominable Memlek.
  • Situational Sexuality: In the fourth novel, Clea conveniently decides that she's attracted to men—or at least to Darley the narrator.
  • Speech Impediment: Narouz is harelipped, which makes his oratorical and crowd-influencing gifts all the more surprising.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Both between and within the novels.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Darley, especially, but no major character's viewpoint can be taken at face value.
  • War Was Beginning: The first three novels are set during the prelude to WWII.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Scobie's secret is largely played for sympathetic laughs.

Alternative Title(s): Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea