Tuesday, May 10, 2011

the last book I read

Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell.

This is volume three of the Alexandria Quartet, following on from Justine and Balthazar as previously featured here. As I mentioned there, the first three novels cover essentially the same period of time and describe broadly the same series of events, but from different perspectives: Justine is schoolteacher Darley's naïve first-person recollection of his affair with the mysterious Jewish temptress of the title, while Balthazar is his subsequent reflections on the same events in the light of a series of letters sent to him by the eponymous doctor.

Mountolive gives yet another view of the same events, but this time it's a rather more orthodox third-person narrative. I suppose it's a bit like those extreme close-up shots they used to ask people to identify on Ask The Family (with the highly-mimicworthy Robert Robinson), which as the camera pulled out would usually be revealed to be a toilet brush or a potato masher or some such household implement - the progression through the three books representing, in a very real sense, the gradual pulling back to reveal a wider and deeper view of the toilet brush, I mean events.

Anyway, the eponymous David Mountolive is a career diplomat who has just landed a prestigious posting as British ambassador to Egypt. The novel starts with a flashback to his earlier time in Egypt as a young man, when he was engaged in a torrid older woman/younger man relationship with Leila Hosnani, whose son Nessim is now married to none other than Justine. Ah, what a tangled web, etc. etc.

While Justine's dalliances with Darley and Pursewarden were portrayed in the first two books as just the typical casual infidelities of your average bored Alexandrian nympho housewife, it transpires here that they are part of a fiendish plan hatched by Nessim and his Coptic Christian brethren to resist the encroachment of Arabs (and, more generally, Islam) into Egypt and the marginalisation of the Copts from political life and power. One of the ways in which they choose to do this is by supporting the Jews in Palestine by supplying them with arms (the novels are set in the years preceding the Second World War, i.e. prior to the formation of the modern state of Israel). Mountolive has got Pursewarden to secretly gather information for him about what Nessim is up to, and it's the knowledge of Nessim and Justine's betrayal that induces Pursewarden to top himself. As the net closes in Nessim is obliged to "take care of" his loose cannon of a brother, Narouz, in a lake-based execution scene very reminiscent of Michael and Fredo in The Godfather Part II.

The change of viewpoint makes this quite a different book from the previous two - Durrell's prose is still pretty thick and chewy, but the third-person perspective provides less scope for florid internal agonising and more space for a bit of narrative drive, not that that much actually happens even then. The general critical consensus seems to be that this is the weakest of the quartet, but actually I enjoyed it at least as much as the other two, perhaps more.

Now that we've examined events from every possible angle, the fourth book in the series, Clea, promises to move things along time-wise and provide some plot resolution. All we know at this stage about the title character is that she is a painter, much mentioned in the first three books but seldom featured directly, and that pretty much everyone seems to either have been or still be in love with her. Since I read Justine in January 2007 and Balthazar in November 2008 that means respectively 22 and 30 months between books in the series; if that pattern continues I should get round to reading Clea in 38 months' time in July 2014.

Incidentally a film based on the Alexandria Quartet, Justine, was released in 1969. Anouk Aimée stars in the tile role (here's a trailer); although she's plausibly exotic-looking I'd always pictured Justine looking more like Isabelle Adjani. It's not generally regarded as being much good, and shouldn't be confused with this rather more racy film of the same name which came out in the same year.

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