Given an opportunity to read Graham Greene on the veranda of the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I found it impossible to resist. What better place to take up a battered, second-hand copy of The Heart of the Matter and indulge in a bit of literary romanticism?
Greene, who spent time in Freetown both as a traveler and as a British intelligence officer during WWII, drew on his experiences at the hotel in a variety of ways. In Journey Without Maps, an account of his month-long foot trek through Liberia in 1935, he described a place and a way of life still recognizable forty years later.
I wanted to do a pub crawl. But one can’t crawl very far in Freetown. All one can do is to have a drink at the Grand and then go and have a drink at the City. The City is usually more crowded and noisy because there’s a billiard table; people are rather more dashing, get a little drunk and tell indecent stories; but not if there’s a woman present.
I had never found myself in a place which was more protective to women; it might have been inhabited by rowing Blues with Buchman consciences and secret troubles. Everyone either had a wife at Hill Station and drank a bit and bought chocolates at the weekend and showed photographs of their children at home (“I’m afraid I don’t care much for children.” “O, you’d like mine”) or else they had wives in England, had only two drinks because they’d promised their wives to be temperate, and played Kuhn-Kan for very small stakes.
By the time I reached Freetown myself, tracking Greene’s path in the opposite direction and passing through towns not yet overrun by violence and civil war, I was ready to transact my business, then lose myself for a time in the heart of what some aficionados call Greeneland: the fictional yet familiar, just slightly seedy world that includes Greene’s reimagining of the City Hotel.
Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday, and the cathedral bell clanged for Matins. On the other side of Bond Street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark blue gym smocks, engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin and bitters.
I just had begun slouching deeper into the story when a shadow fell over the page. A fellow I judged to be European had bent nearly in half and was peering at the cover of my book. “Lovely,” he said. “Quite appropriate, actually. But there’s better, you know. May I?” Not waiting for a reply, he pulled over another chair, sat, and began digging into the raffia bag that served him as a satchel.
“I’m looking for Durrell,” he said.”Do you know his work, by chance? Have you read him?” I admitted that I didn’t, and I hadn’t. He dismissed my sins of omission with a wave of his hand and continued to dig, piling notebooks, pens and bits of folded paper onto the ground until, at last, he pulled out a slender volume and said, “This is part of it. You see? It’s called Mountolive. It’s part of Durrell’s Quartet. It’s four books, actually. The Quartet, that is. The Alexandria Quartet. You’ll like it ever so much more than Greene. You’ll not find the books here in Freetown, I suppose, but do keep them in mind, won’t you?”
Bemused, I assured him that yes, certainly — of course I would keep them in mind. With that, he tucked Mountolive back into his bag, replaced his chair, gave a slight bow, and was gone.
Even in a world awash with strange happenings, the encounter stood out. It certainly provided compelling dinner conversation during the remainder of my stay in Freetown.
Hearing the story one night, friends suggested we do some digging of our own in a crate of paperbacks left to them by co-workers who’d returned to the States. Ravaged over the years by heat, humidity, and insects, they were a conservator’s nightmare, filled with crumbling pages and half-eaten spines.
We nearly missed Balthazar because of its missing cover and heavy splotches of mildew. But there it was, the second volume of Durrell’s Quartet, and it was mine.
Returning to Liberia with my new treasure in hand, I intended to keep it only as a perfect souvenir of an unusual afternoon. Then, I read the book. I began around page twenty-something, since previous pages were missing or mildewed, but it wasn’t long before I realized the fellow I’d affectionately dubbed The Freetown Professor had been right. I did like it, and I liked it ever so much more than Greene.
Back in the States, I purchased The Alexandria Quartet as a complete set and read the four volumes in order. Then, I read them again, and re-read them many times more. No book (more precisely, no series of books) has captured my imagination as fully as Durrell’s masterpiece.
Against a backdrop of Alexandrian society, her customs, her Corniche, her brothels and souks, Durrell set himself an unusual and difficult task: examining the complexity of human relationships in the context of the space-time continuum.
At times, the first three volumes — Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive — are described as siblings. Elsewhere, the character Pursewarden imagines them as a series of “sliding panels,” opening and closing at will to reveal fragmentary glimpses of reality. Balthazar suggests a palimpsest, pages where “different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one obliterating, or perhaps supplementing, another.”
Whichever metaphor the reader prefers, events in the first three volumes overlap and interweave, “crawling over one another like wet crabs in a basket.” Only the final volume, Clea, is a true sequel, introducing the aspect of time into the narrative.
Durrell’s dialogue can creak and groan like a recalcitrant ox-cart, but his descriptive powers are unrivaled. Whether tracing the outlines of Alexandrian society, plumbing the depths of traditional Egyptian culture, or attempting to capture the harsh beauty of Mediterranean sea and sky, his language is variously lush, languid, and spare.
As Justine opens, the insistent force of natural processes animates the storyline. The narrator, a schoolteacher whose identity remains temporarily hidden, lives on an island with a companion we know only as “the child.”
In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. Its dim momentum in the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of seawater, licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouths of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches – empty, forever empty under the gulls: white scribble on the grey, munched by clouds. If ever there are sails here they die before the land shadows them. Wreckage washed up on the pediments of islands, the last crust, eroded by the weather, stuck in the blue maw of water…gone!
Beyond the elegant structure of Durrell’s story and the extravagant beauty of his language, there is another reason for artists of every sort to plumb the depths of his narrative. Few writers provide more clues to their own artistic process or their personal convictions about the nature of art than does Durrell. Painter or poet, novelist, sculptor, or photographer – each can find guidance for their craft and wisdom for their art in these words from Justine that have become as well-known as their author.
I spoke of the uselessness of art, but added nothing truthful about its consolations. The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies with this ~ that only there, in the silence of the painter or writer can reality be re-ordered, re-worked and made to show its significant side.
Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern. For us artists, there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfill it in its true potential — the imagination.
Sitting in silence at my desk, awash in words and overcome by memories, I sort and sift, heap up and tear down, learning that process of re-ordering and re-working Durrell so rightly prized.
Like a painter selecting a favorite brush or a photographer choosing and framing a bit of landscape, I pick and choose my words delicately, purposefully, seeking to capture both emotional depth and temporal significance from my personal basket of crabs. Where words are right, Durrell implies, memory lives, and where memory remains alive and accessible, the past itself still lives, linked to an unimaginable future.
These are moments which possess the writer, not the lover, and which live on perpetually. One can return to them time and time again in memory, or use them as a fund upon which to build the part of one’s life that is writing. One can debauch them with words, but one can never spoil them.
In this context too, I recover another such moment, lying beside a sleeping woman in a cheap room near the mosque. In that early spring dawn, with its dense dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin from the mosque reciting the ebed – a voice hanging like a hair in the palm cooled airs of Alexandria…
The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words, the voice of the muezzin sinking from register to register of gravity ~ until the whole world seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected, impregnating that shabby room where Melissa lay, breathing lightly as a gull, rocked upon the oceanic splendors of a language she would never know.
The last of Durrell’s four volumes concludes with a letter written by Clea to the narrator, a schoolteacher whose name we now know to be Darley. Filled with news and gossip about mutual friends, her letter includes a few details about her own development as a painter. Then, she adds this.
“As for you, wise one, I have a feeling that you, too, perhaps have stepped across the threshold into the kingdom of your imagination, to take possession of it once and for all…”
Her words evoke the beginning of the tale: the house at the edge of the sea; the child; the first, halting attempts to unravel perplexities of time and space that have dogged Darley’s every effort as a writer.
Reading Darley’s response, I imagine Durrell himself pushing back from his writing desk, overcome with laughter, filled with delight at the marvelous trick he has played upon his readers. Despite his structural tour de force, despite the complexity of his characters’ relationships and the marvelous, implacable unwinding of those great, coiled words, Durrell ends his saga with a joke.
The key to reworking reality, the key which Darley sought so passionately and with such difficulty, is far simpler than he could have imagined: so simple the child herself could have told him, had he only asked. Standing on the threshold of imagination, Darley has the last word in this saga, and the first words in the next.
Yes, one day I found myself writing down with trembling fingers the four words (four letters! four faces!) with which every story-teller since the world began has staked his slender claim to the attention of his fellow men. Words which presage simply the old story of an artist coming of age. I wrote: “Once upon a time…”
And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!