Wednesday, November 07, 2012

the last book I read

Clea by Lawrence Durrell.

So this is the fourth and final instalment in the Alexandria Quartet, following on from Justine, Balthazar and Mountolive. We join Justine's narrator, Darley, in exile on his Greek island after the events of that first book, thrown into a new perspective in the light of the alternative version of events described by Balthazar in, erm, Balthazar. We're meant to understand that he's been there for five years or so, looking after his ex-lover Melissa's daughter and surviving on food and money from who knows where, given that he's presumably not doing much schoolteaching (theoretically his profession).

Anyway, along with delivering the manuscript that forms the bulk of Balthazar, Balthazar makes it known that now would be an opportune time for Darley to end his exile and return to Alexandria. He does so to find the city ravaged by the Second World War, various wrecked hulks littering the harbour and people occasionally being blown up by random bombings, but otherwise life in the European quarter continuing very much as normal, with much sitting around in caf├ęs drinking coffee, desultory bed-hopping and the like.

Having off-loaded the child (with remarkably little emotion, giving that he'd been in loco parentis pretty much exclusively for the previous five years) to her father, Justine's husband Nessim, and after a brief encounter with Justine herself, Darley returns to Alexandria to take up his previous lodgings with French consular official Pombal. He also runs into Clea, a painter, much mentioned but never actually met in the previous three books, and no sooner has it become apparent that they had had a brief "thing" a while back than they fall into bed together and embark on a proper relationship. This relationship forms the backdrop to some catching up with characters from previous books in the series, principally David Mountolive and his lady friend Liza Pursewarden, sister of suicidal novelist Pursewarden whose writings litter the text. Liza, who is blind, enlists Darley, an aspiring writer, to sift through a trunkload of letters from her brother and assess their suitability for publication. On discovering that the letters describe a torridly incestuous brother/sister affair, including the birth of a child, also blind, who subsequently died, Darley suggests that the best thing to do might be to burn the lot. Wise words.

Just in case we were getting too cosy, Clea now starts behaving oddly, having occasional nightmares seemingly related to some mysterious but unspecified event in her past. To cheer everyone up she organises a day out swimming on a nearby island in the harbour with Darley and Balthazar, whereupon Balthazar, fiddling with a harpoon gun he found in the boat, discharges it accidentally and spears Clea by the hand to a bit of old wooden wreckage underwater. To save her from drowning, Darley grabs a knife and hacks away part of her hand to free her.

Needless to say this puts a bit of a damper on their relationship, and Darley decides to cut his ties with Alexandria and return to Europe. Clea, too, seems to have wearied of the city and offers (in an exchange of letters) just the possibility of the two meeting again.

Clea is the book which adds the fourth dimension (i.e. time) to the multiple views of essentially the same sequence of events described in the previous three books. I wouldn't want you to think that that means Bravo Two Zero levels of narrative drive and excitement, though, because not a lot really happens, even then. But, as with the previous three, that isn't really the point - it's all about the evocation of the city, the real subject of the novels, for all the assorted mooning about and angst-ridden carrying-on of the principal characters.

A lot of this teeters dangerously on the edge of unbearable pretentiousness, and as always John Crace nails its more ridiculous elements in his Digested Reads entry. It's certainly true that the quartet's critical reputation isn't quite what it used to be (although it does still feature in some heavyweight Best 20th Century Novels lists, for instance this one - other novels in this series feature at numbers 2, 4, 21, 55, 63 and 64), but I enjoyed it - for all its pretensions to experimental-ness (mainly in the business with the multiple viewpoints in the first three books) it's all very easy to read, and the four volumes are all fairly slim (Mountolive is the longest at 285 pages).

The business with the Pursewarden siblings provides another entry for my Incest Files as detailed here; while we're on Things That Remind Me Of Similar Things In Other Books the episode with Clea getting harpooned and the frantic hacking with the knife reminded me of a similar incident in Willard Price's Underwater Adventure when the senior scientist, Dr. Blake, gets his foot grabbed by a giant clam and has to try and saw his own leg off, sadly without success.

Incidentally it's the centenary of Durrell's birth this year, so my timing of completing the quartet is opportune (though unintentional). More information can be found here.

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