The old City Hotel ~ Freetown, Sierra Leone
Reading Graham Greene on the veranda of Freetown’s City Hotel was an opportunity not to be missed. 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 spent time in Freetown during World War II, both as a traveler and as a British intelligence officer; he socialized at the City on a regular basis. 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 they had wives in England, had only two drinks because they’d promised their wives to be temperate, and played Kuhn-Khan for very small stakes.
By the time I reached Freetown, 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 in the heart of what sometimes is called Greeneland: a fictional yet familiar, just slightly seedy world that includes Greene’s reimagining of the City Hotel as the Bedford.
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.
As I slouched deeper into the story, a shadow fell over the page. A fellow I judged to be European was bending nearly in half, 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 another chair closer, then sat and began to dig into the raffia bag he carried.
“I’m looking for Durrell,” he said. “Do you know his work? Have you read him?” When I admitted that I didn’t know and hadn’t read, he dismissed my sin of omission with a wave of his hand and continued to dig, piling notebooks, pens, and bits of folded paper onto the ground. Finally, he pulled out a slender volume. “This is part of it. You see? This one’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 I would keep them in mind — whatever they were — and with that, he tucked Mountolive back into his bag, replaced his chair, offered a slight bow, and was gone.
Even in a world awash with strange happenings, the encounter stood out. As I told the story one night, friends suggested we do digging of our own in a crate of paperbacks left 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. As we searched, we didn’t find Mountolive, but we came across Balthazar, the second volume of Durrell’s Quartet. The cover was missing and most of the pages were unattached, but it was there, and it was mine.
I intended only to keep the book as a souvenir of my Freetown visit, but once back in Liberia, I decided to glance through it. Since the first pages were missing, I began at page twenty, 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 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 yet again. No book had captured my imagination as fully as Durrell’s masterpiece.
Against a backdrop of Alexandrian society — her customs and her Corniche, her brothels and souks — Durrell had 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’ that open and close at will, revealing fragmentary glimpses of reality in the process. Balthazar suggests they could be understood as a palimpsest: pages where “different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, each 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,” as Durrell puts it. Only the final volume, Clea, serves as a true sequel, introducing the aspect of time into the narrative.
Durrell’s dialogue occasionally creaks and groans 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 complex 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. Painter or poet, novelist, sculptor, or photographer — all can find guidance for their craft and wisdom for their art in this section from Justine that has become as well-known as its 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 purposefully, seeking to capture both emotional depth and temporal significance from my personal basket of crabs. Where words are right, Durrell implies, memory lives; 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, the schoolteacher whose name we now know: 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 and 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!
Comments always are welcome.
114 thoughts on “The Threshold of Imagination”
I remember reading Justine a long time ago and thinking it was very well done. This post is wonderful, Linda. I like how you link up the past and the present and connect them with these tidbits of great writing.
Thanks, Anneli. I’ve read The Alexandria Quartet so many times, in whole or in part, it was about time I wrote about it. I’ve always had a similar fondness for T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” I’d never thought about the structural similarity between Eliot’s four poems and Durrell’s four volumes, but it’s an interesting coincidence.
Good morning, dear Linda,
it was the most extraordinary eccentric in our village who spoke of Lawrence Durell and gave me all four volumes of the Alexandria Quartet. He lived in Greece with him (actually with them. If I remember correctly, Gerald Durell was there as well). I lived with a group of people at this time and he saw quite some parallels between the life pictured in these books and Lawrence’s and my life.
I read the Alexandria Quartet twice. In the future, I will reread it again. For me, it’s a book like Proust’s ‘In Search of the Lost Time’, you can reread it many times without being bored.
Wishing you all the best
The Fab Four of Cley
So you have some interesting history with the Quartet as well. The Durrells’ time in Cypress, Greece, Corfu, and elsewhere is recorded in Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel: a collection of Lawrence Durrell’s other works. The book is less a travel guide than a reflection on the ways in which place shapes perception, and it’s immensely interesting.
I agree that the Quartet rewards rereading. Changes in life circumstances always lead to a different focus each time I pick up one of the books; sometimes, a fondness for a different character develops. Even minor characters are wonderfully drawn. The old sailor Scobie is one of my favorites; as Durrell puts it, “he clings to life like a limpet, each year bringing its hardly visible sea-change.” I found this bit of trivia in a discussion begun in 2008:
“A side note, perhaps of interest: Scobie outlived the Quartet, and Durrell kept a notebook filled with the old pirate’s naughty limericks and nautical ballads. When guests would visit, at a certain point in the evening, after much wine and storytelling, Durrell would entertain his visitors with anecdotes told in the voice and manner of El Skob. Clearly, there was affection for this character!”
Now you have given me a problem, Linda. The Heart of the Matter is not in my Greene collection – that I can live with, but Durrell is clearly another matter. I have a number of his works that I have not read, but only Justine and Clea of the quartet. Here is the problem: about 15 years ago I stopped buying because I’d never get to read all those I have. I guess I will just read these two and more of his others.
I understand a decision to forgo purchasing more books, and any volume of The Alexandria Quartet certainly can stand alone, but experiencing the entire work is worthwhile — especially when the BritishAbe Books franchise can provide it to you at a reasonable cost.
Another Durrell work I’ve heard praised but haven’t read is Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, an autobiographical account of his time there. As the saying goes, so many books — so little time!
Quite so, Linda
I forgot to mention that this is a very well constructed post – an interesting story on which to hang your excellent analyses
Thank you. Whether an etheree or an essay, structure’s critical. If the structure’s not solid, the prettiest curtains in the world won’t hide the flaws!
With all the books I have here, I do not own a Greene or Durell. I’d best get on it. This was an excellent post!
Thanks, GP. Greene has written a lot of novels; given your interests, I’m thinking you might enjoy The Quiet American, although The Ministry of Fear is a good read, and just as relevant today as when it was written. If you do find the time and inclination to try out one of his works, let me know what you think.
Sometimes your writing takes my breath away. This was one of those times. So well done, Linda.
As a writer, you know how satisfying it can be to finish a piece and feel that it came out exactly as you hoped; sometimes, a piece even will exceed expectations. It doesn’t happen for me often, but it certainly did with this piece. Now, the challenge is to do it again — but I’m glad you enjoyed this one.
I’ve seen you do it before, so I am confident you can do it again.
Well, with that kind of encouragement, I’ll set right to it!
Terrific essay. I read the Quartet 40 or so years ago. A pretty magical experience. The volumes swept me away. I wonder how successful the books were when they were published, and how popular they are these days.
Thanks, Neil. I’d say my first reading was magical, too. There’s no question I was entranced by Durrell’s writing, and the spell’s never been broken. I didn’t have a clue about the books’ popularity, but a quick trip to the venerable ngram viewer was instructive. The sudden rise of both Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet clearly have a story to tell. The books were published between 1957 and 1960, corresponding to the ngram peaks.
Thanks for the info.
It’s interesting, no question — and a neat use of the ngram viewer.
It’s been at least thirty years since I read the quartet but it made an indelible impression at a time when I was undergoing upheavals in my life. I thought Durrell’s writing was breathtaking at times and would reread paragraphs just for the sheer pleasure found in his prose. Also, thanks for reminding me of the section on the consolation to be found in art. I have had two sets of the quartet on my shelves for years now just waiting to be reread and examined once more. Maybe this will the impetus. Thanks for that, Linda.
There are so many places throughout the Quartet that remind me of your musings about the nature and practice of art. Oddly, some of the sharpest observations come neither from Darley the writer nor Clea the artist, but from Pursewarden: the sardonic expat novelist. He’s the one character I can imagine saying, “Get off my lawn!” I still remember some of his observations and couplets, thanks to their trenchant character.
It’s good to see that the universe gave you the needed nudge to return to your métier as a writer so soon after you mentioned feeling the urge to do so.
Your opening photograph could pass for a scene along the Gulf coast anywhere from east Texas to Florida. That’s the impression I got before reading the caption.
Once again you won’t find it strange that some of your experiences in Africa correspond to some of mine in the Peace Corps in Honduras. Your “crate of paperbacks left by co-workers who’d returned to the States” could pass for a “book locker” the Peace Corps gave each of us, and from which I read my (still) only volume in the Alexandria Quartet.
In fact, that comment at Alessandra’s blog was partly a result of my work on this post, although I’ve been pondering the issues for some time.
The resemblance of the City Hotel to old homes along the Gulf coast isn’t coincidental. When repatriated slaves from the U.S. arrived in Liberia, they built homes that replicated the fine houses they knew from their life here. Places in Monrovia could have been Gulfport or Galveston. It was interesting, and a little disorienting.
The same was true of Freetown. From an article in Architectural Review: “Freetown’s timber-board homes were built by ex-slave families and, adopting the Western vernacular they inherited from parts of the USA and Canada, they were powerful symbols of status and a declaration of freedom and property rights. They are striking emblems of the Krio culture.” The City Hotel was part of that (it’s gone, now).
The value of books is inestimable, particularly in places where they’re not easily available. I’ve taken to stopping by two “little free libraries” that were established in an area wiped out by Hurricane Harvey. They’re being used — different books are there every time I stop — and neither of them has been vandalized. It’s good to see.
Yes! Upon opening the post, I was sure that was a photo of old Galveston, probably suggested by your location but also the architecture and mood. As for Durrell, my mother gave me his book on the Greek islands when I was a teenager obsessed with that country after trips with my grandparents, but I have not read much else of his. My book stack is teetering, but I may have to add to it now. The post itself was beautifully done!
Thanks, Lex! By the time I got done with this one, I had a whole pile of excess words that will have to be used elsewhere. The history of the City Hotel has a bit of a Levantine flavor; it became a brothel, fell into serious disrepair, and finally burned. There’s a post there, too, but it’s going to require as much or more thought as this one did; sometimes, things need to simmer a while.
I’d say that you achieved your ‘task at hand’ with this essay. Beautifully written, your own musing intertwines with Durrell’s seamlessly. I really enjoyed this. I’ll echo Steve in that it’s nice to read you again.
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Tina. I’ve come to think there’s a difference between reading a book and living with a book: reading and pondering it on a regular basis. I certainly have lived with Durrell’s work: so much so that writing about it is akin to writing about a good friend. Now, there are some other friends lurking about who deserve to have their stories told, or retold.
That I have forwarded this post to 10 people who appreciate the carefully chosen written word sums up its spectacular, yet quiet appeal. I must be the only one of your literary readers who has not read Greene or Durrell!
I think I can understand you missing Durrell, but it does surprise me that you’ve not read Greene. There’s plenty to choose from. The Heart of the Matter, Travels With My Aunt, Stamboul Train, and Journey Without Maps are among my favorites. There are plenty to choose from!
Thanks for sharing the post; I appreciate it. I smiled at your phrase “spectacular, yet quiet…” That pleases me very much, especially in this age when flamboyance and braggadocio are everywhere.
I knew you would respond to those words, spectacular yet quiet. That is exactly how the post read, to me anyway. After reading the post, my husband said, “Order The Alexandrea Quartet!”
That thrills me. I’m sure both of you will enjoy it. Every sort of character appears, and the details of life in the Egyptian ‘bureaucracy’ might amuse your husband. Having written about it, and thought about it so much over the past few days, I’m beginning a re-read myself.
Thank you for the in-depth report of authors I have never heard of before! Although you sparked my interest, I will not be able to read their works, having so many books left to read in my library.
Peter, I’m smiling. The way you phrased your comment, I was reminded of the famous words of Blaise Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” The issues are somewhat different, but related.
I approach books a little differently, which helps to explain why there often are three or four half-read books lying about. But even if you don’t read any Greene or Durrell, at least you might recognize their names now. Thanks for reading here!
Goodness, what a wonderful piece of writing! You have inspired me to read Durrell; Lawrence that is, now that I’m older. I have read everything by his brother Gerald and of course remember that the Durrell family lived for some years on the island of Corfu (My Family and Other Animals).
Not only is this post beautifully written there are some wonderful pictures. The first is reminiscent of a watercolour that was a wedding present given to my parents (F.J. Harper 1944) and I still have it!
I’ve known Gerald only from his appearance in some of Lawrence’s writings. The collection of Lawrence Durrell’s work titled Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel might be an interesting place for you to start; it’s not a travel guide so much as a glimpse into the life of the Durrell family in the various places they lived, and of course Lawrence’s life as a writer. That said, I’d never discourage anyone from diving into The Alexandria Quartet.
The City Hotel is gone now; it was destroyed in a fire some years ago. I’m so glad that I still have this image of it, and I’m glad the photo stirred some good memories for you!
In the early 70s-80s, my wife and I devoured most of the Gerald Durrell books about his expeditions around the world. We would read them on the train from Putney to Waterloo and laugh all the way. We briefly met the author when we were on holiday in Jersey and visited his zoo; he held the gate open for us as we left. Happy days!
What delightful memories. From what I’ve read of Gerald recently, that gate-holding seems perfectly in character. Unlike the Dodo, graciousness still exists in the world.
Ah, the Dodo! I read a newspaper headline the other day that said scientists were hoping to bring back the Dodo using gene-editing:
I saw that, too. For some reason, the phrase “law of unintended consequences” crossed my mind, just as it did when I read about the scientists who are implanting alligator genes in fish. As my mother often advised, be careful what you wish for. You might get it. Or, as I prefer, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it.
I’ve never read Durrell, but your excellent post nudges me to get my hands on something by him. “Once upon a time” evokes so many possibilities, doesn’t it? And your beautifully-crafted essay nearly brings tears to my eyes — I suspect there are more than a few of your past English teachers smiling from beyond and congratulating themselves for having had a small hand in encouraging your ability!
Believe me, Debbie — few of my English teachers helped develop any writing ability I have today. I loved the grade school teachers who read to us, introduced us to poetry as fun, and insisted on vocabulary and spelling drills, but apart from learning to diagram sentences in junior high and memorizing poetry in literature classes, the rest of it left my eyes glazed over. Even worse, it was a high school English teacher who informed me the poems I wrote weren’t ‘real’ poems because they didn’t rhyme, and who criticized my way of structuring essays. I stopped writing for a good while.
That’s not to say I’ve not had fine teachers, of course. I’ve never met Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, William Zinsser, or John McPhee, but I’ve learned a lot from them over the years. Even a single line like the one attributed to Chekhov can provide enormous guidance: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Learning to do just that is harder than I expected!
That’s one reason I’ve reread Durrell so often. What he does with language is remarkable, and it appeals to me. There’s a place and time for texts and tweets, but the novel’s not it! Given your love of words and your skill with them, I think you’d enjoy his work, too.
Thank you for the recommendation — I’ll add something by him to my reading list!
If your time’s limited, I’d start with the first volume of the Quartet — Justine. If you start with one of the other books, some things might not make sense.
Done — thanks again!
That is excellent, Linda. I’ve not read Durrell, and now I feel I need to.
I think you’d enjoy him, Mick. Beginning the Alexandria Quartet is like setting off on a long meander through a country you’re just beginning to know. That kind of experience ought to suit you just fine!
Put that way, definitely.
I have read Gerald Durrell’s books but not Lawrence’s. After reading your excellent piece I am thinking the Alexandria Quartet should move its way to the top of my TBR list. (It was on there. Right now I am on a binge of mid-twentieth century British women writers.) And what can be more enchanting or enticing than “once upon a time”?
The only thing that might match ‘once upon a time’ for door-opening power is ‘long ago and far away.’ Both phrases are ways of saying something wonderful is about to happen; they’re invitations to an unimagined world. But of course you know something about that; your work is creating those worlds! If you do decide to read the Quartet, I would suggest reading them in order, even if you space them out. Each can stand alone, but if you started at the last novel and worked back, there’s a lot that would be missed.
What a great article, it made my day if not my week. Grahame Green is one of my favourite writers and some 60 or more years ago was part of so many others that I discovered. Patrick White is one of our local hero writers which I found difficult to get into at first, yet later on read all of his work.
Thanks for such a great article.
It doesn’t surprise me that you enjoy Greene. There’s a good bit in his writing that makes me think of your peripatetic life, and the role that art and artists have played in it. I hadn’t heard of Patrick White, but after reading the extensive (and quite interesting) Wiki article about him, it strikes me that there surely much be some similarities between his novels and Greene’s. I wouldn’t mind reading a bit of White; is there a favorite book of his that you’d recommend?
Yes, all his books are great reads and are mainly about the complexities of people and how they relate. The book that awarded him the Nobel prize for literature was ‘The tree of Man’.
“The Tree of Man by Patrick White, the Australian Nobel Prize-laureate in Literature of 1973, tells the story of a man who leads just the ordinary life of a hard-working farmer with wife, son and daughter in a changing world.”
Another favorite of mine by Patrick white is Riders of the Chariot.
Thanks! I’ll have a look at his work. The Tree of Man sounds like a good place to begin.
What a feast of a read! And an adventure at that. How often does someone sit down and offer up advice on reading, much less a whole constructed world. Not only is it a fascinating story, but it’s a very nice piece of literary analysis. It’s been years since I read the Alexandria Quartet. There’s a vividness to the characters and the world they inhabit. For some reason, your essay made me think I should reread A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Twelve novels, but I remember devouring them in the same time period as the Alexandria Quartet. I tend to reread poetry, but not fiction, so time will tell…
Obviously, much has been written about Durrell and about The Alexandria Quartet, but the criticism often seems opaque or dismissive. I decided to set all that aside and deal with the text on my own, particularly since I’m not teaching Durrell 101, but telling a story. I think Darley would approve.
It’s interesting that you mention the Powell. Jenkins’s musing on the Poussin painting in A Question of Upbringing seem to resonate with some of the same tones as in Durrell’s writing:
“The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure… while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.”
It’s Durrell’s ‘sliding panels,’ only writ a bit differently.
Well, there’s my answer. I thought maybe it was time period/British/similar genre, but it likely IS the writing. Powell is less exotic and I don’t think there are any women in Dance, except an occasional swiftly painted girlfriend, and of course, Isobel in the far background later.
Oh, yes! Magic is real. It is our command of that magic that sets us apart from the other inhabitants of this poor embattled planet, and the spell that unlocks it contains those four magic words. The Alexandria Quartet is a great example of how authors control the flow of narrative, how they shape a story by what they include and what they exclude, who they choose to tell the story, what point of view they choose to look at the events of the story. It’s a great example of how who knows what and when they know it influences events. Definitely recommended reading.
And Pursewarden, one of the primary characters in Durrell’s tale, agrees with you. In the volume titled Balthazar, there’s this:
“We live” writes Pursewarden somewhere, “lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time – not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.”
I read Gerald Durrell first, when I was 12 or so. In My Family and Other Animals, Larry is a comic character. I devoured the Alexandria Quartet in high school, when my family was living in England. I had four paperbacks I bought at Foyle’s in London, and I reread them back then, but I haven’t returned to them since. Time to make a return trip to that part of my imagination.
First, though I need to finish The Betrothed (Manzoni). It’s a remarkable book. So much to read! Thanks so much for your essay.
I’m glad you added ‘Manzoni’ along with The Betrothed. When I entered only the title into a search engine, I got quite a list of books that usually are categorized as romance novels or, as some people call them, ‘bodice rippers.’ Your Betrothed makes more sense.
I’ve read about Gerald and the Durrell family, but only from Lawrence’s perspective. I’ll have to remedy that, particularly since Gerald’s interests as a naturalist intrigue me. When I saw that the sanctuary he helped established has Dodo birds at its gates, and that he had specific interest in them, I couldn’t help wondering what he’d think if he knew a collection of scientists/geneticists are proposing to bring the creature back.
I haven’t re-read Gerald either, but it was fun to read as kid. The Betrothed is something else entirely, The narrative flow is unusual. The main story alternates with back stories on main players, and the back stories are rich with information about the inner life of the character and their motivations. There’s a lot of politics, and it works through many levels of the social classes. And it’s funny as well.
I explored ngram as well – new to me, that was interesting.
Ngram’s great. I used it most recently to figure out whether it should be ‘windowsill’ or ‘window sill.’ Sometimes, it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but common or less common usage. If Betrothed is as complex as the Wiki article (and it certainly must be, given your comments) it’s probably beyond me right now, but I’m glad to know about it.
Betrothed isn’t complex in the way some recent novels are, but it is episodic in surprising ways.
As others have said, I didn’t know about this Durrell. But, I did learn about the Durrell family when they lived on Corfu. We watched a several part series on PBS that was entertaining.
It was a fascinating family. I’ve known almost nothing about Gerald, and I didn’t realize there had been a series on their life on Corfu. The entire series had been offered on Netflix, but it seems to have moved elsewhere. I’ll see if I can find it.
I have seen the series on Netflix when it was available. It was very good. Your post has inspired me to want to read Gerald’s and Larry’s books.
And your comment’s another recommendation for the series. The entire series is free on Amazon Prime now, so I’ll be sure and watch it before that changes.
I’m amused by something I’ve noticed. People who only have read books like The Alexandria Quartet seem always to refer to Durrell as Lawrence. The first few times someone referred to “Larry,” I had no idea who they were speaking of. I’d bet that coming to the family through the videos is the reason for the difference.
The series referred to him as “Larry”.
That explains it. Thanks!
I had never been in a real bookstore before George and Betty Yohalem opened their Pioneer Bookshop in Placerville, California, Linda. They had retired to Placerville from Hollywood where George had been a screen writer and Betty an actress. I’d discovered the store between my junior and senior year of high school in 1960 when I was 17. George had become a mentor, often recommending books he thought I would like. I had stopped by the store that fall and immediately started perusing the new books he had obtained. Four new hardbacks were displayed in his window: The Alexandria Quartet. I picked up Justine, read the book cover, and was immediately intrigued. I read 2-3 pages and was sold. I carried the book over to George.
“What about this one, George?” I’d asked. He hesitated.
“It just came in, Curt,” he explained. “Before that it was banned. It might be a little mature for you.” My desire to buy it increased substantially.
“Is it well written?” I asked. “Beautifully,” was his response.
“Then I want to buy it.” George had grinned. “Then I’ll sell it to you. But I have one request.”
“Which is?” I’d asked, grinning back at him. “Don’t tell your mother I recommended it.”
That was my introduction to the Quartet. No books I had read before had anywhere near the impact on me. And very few have had in the 60 plus years since. Like you, I have reread it several times. I’ve often thought of how unusual it is that both you and I have lived in Liberia and share a similar perspective on Durrell’s masterpiece. When I visit Alexandria in a few weeks, Peggy and I will toast you. I’ll be carrying Justine. Peggy wants to read it.
Speaking of “Beautifully written,” your post definitely qualifies.
I wonder if George wasn’t teasing you. I’ve never heard of the Alexandria Quartet being banned, and despite looking around, I couldn’t find any evidence for it. On the other hand, Durrell’s Black Book was banned in England for a time, so it would have been easy enough to conflate the two.
It is interesting how we’ve traveled parallel paths in so many ways, and funny as can be that we never realized it until we both began blogging. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to your reports from Alexandria. I’m smart enough to realize that the actual city would be a quite different experience than the one that resulted from immersing myself in the book, but different isn’t always worse. And there’s still one more City Hotel post to be written: this time, linked to Leonard Cohen and the poet Cavafy. That one’s been simmering on the back burner for some time, but it’s intriguing enough to be worked on. It’s a different kind of traveling.
Possibly on the teasing. George and I did a lot of that. I had looked as well for the banning. Mainly George gave me a bad time about my political leanings. He was an avid Democrat and I still was operating under my Republican heritage.
I did a lot of reading in Liberia as well. The Peace Corps gave each new Volunteer a library of 100 books as I recall. Each year was different so we had quite a collection. They were selected by the English departments of several leading colleges like Harvard, etc. Two that I remember most clearly were V by Thomas Pynchon and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Eventually I gathered together enough books to put together a library for Gboveh High School.
There was also the large paperback book store in Monrovia, Every time I visited the city, I made a beeline for it. Did you ever go there?
I didn’t make it to the book store. I’m not sure why, although I suspect it was because a lot of books got shipped over with my stuff, and at Phebe there were books galore, of every sort. It’s interesting that I first read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea at Phebe. I haven’t a clue how I came across them, but I’m glad I did.
Admittedly, my memory of what I read in Liberia isn’t great but I do remember trying for a balanced diet, with books like V on one side and Ian Fleming on the other. Grin. I still try to balance my books but it’s more fiction and nonfiction.
I’ve never heard of the The Alexandria Quartet, but can tell the books have made a lasting impression on you. For the better I’d say. Thanks for introducing me to them here.
Above all else, the books are filled with wonderful characters. They’re easy to remember, partly because of their qualities, and partly because of the hilariously funny lines they could produce. Of course, the main character is Alexandria herself. Making a city a main character is a neat trick, but Durrell pulls it off; she seems far more real to me than many of the cities I’ve visited.
And thanks for introducing me to Walking Off the Chessboard!
Glad you found Bruce. He’s interesting.
Hey, Linda, I read you on my cell last night after closing shop here, so I didn’t respond. It’s not that my cell won’t do it; I won’t do it. Anyway, I remember thinking that would probably get lost in the back-and-forth action of Durrell’s books but I do like his writing from the excerpts you have given.
That gave me a grin. I’ll occasionally scroll through sites with my phone, but I don’t respond to comments on it, and I certainly don’t use it to write. Between my awkward fingers and the small text, it’s not worth the struggle.
It’s interesting that Lawrence wasn’t the only writer in his family. His brother Gerald also wrote a considerable number of books. One that several people have mentioned as being entertaining and amusing is My Family and Other Animals. Here’s one description of it:
“The first book of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy is a bewitching account of a childhood on the island of Corfu: the inspiration for “The Durrells in Corfu” on PBS’s Masterpiece. When the unconventional Durrell family can no longer endure the damp, gray English climate, they do what any sensible family would do: sell their house and relocate to the sunny Greek isle of Corfu.
My Family and Other Animals was intended to embrace the natural history of the island but ended up as a delightful account of Durrell family’s experiences, from eccentric hangers-on to a ceaseless procession of puppies, toads, scorpions, geckoes, ladybugs, glowworms, octopuses, bats, and butterflies into their home.”
That sounds like fun, and it sounds like it would be easier to read — or watch — than the Alexandria Quartet!
I need to talk to Sammy about this matter. I am pretty sure he watched some of these episodes on OETA. I love the humorous English movies of that time period. Thanks for the information.
Then that PBS series — The Durrells on Corfu — would be just the ticket for you! Here’s a site for the series that has some playable clips. It was available for free on Netflix at one time, but I’m not sure where the whole series can be found now. I know it’s around.
Thanks for this Linda… what a rich essay! I recall you mentioning Alexandria in another context, and I bought it – although I have not yet read it. You inspire me to set it high on the list of summer reading. Be well!
It’s perfect summertime reading; the writing is as languorous as a warm and sunny afternoon. And of course, in mid-winter it can be a nice substitute for the weather we’re all waiting for. In the meantime? It’s ice storm time in Texas, and there are videos galore of people playing hockey or skating on the ice covered streets.
I loved the evocative nature of this meditation on The Alexandria Quartet: it also evoked a long-buried personal memory of that wonderful book. I was 22, still a student, earning some much-needed funds working one summer as a merchant navy stewardess on a creaky old ferry sailing around the Outer Hebrides. I read the whole of the A.Q. that summer, mainly when I had time off on Friday nights and needed to recuperate from a whole week’s hard work including that of avoiding the unwelcome attentions of several of the 39 male crew. Happy (ish) Days!
You have inspired me – think I’ll try and find that old battered copy of A.Q. somewhere in my library and embark on a re-read…
Well, I’ve been on quite a trip: around the Outer Hebrides, on board some merchant marine vessels, and finally into the history of merchant marine trade generally. If I were forty years — ok, fifty years — younger, I’d be tempted to follow in your footsteps and give that kind of life a try myself.
Reading was such an important part of life when I was sailing. Day sails are one thing, but during longer offshore stints, there really aren’t that many options. One of my favorite photos shows some crewmates mid-Pacific, lined up on the mid-deck and all with a book in hand. Pure pleasure!
I’m a re-reader by nature. If I enjoy a book once, I figure I’ll enjoy it again –and I always find new delights when I pick up the book a second or third time. If you do re-read Durrell’s gem, I hope you enjoy it even more!
What a marvelous read, I did enjoy it.xxx
I’m pleased, Dina. Apart from its other virtues, it’s a great read for gloomy end-of-winter days. What’s not to like about being transported to such a richly various place and interesting culture?
Ally Bean sent me and I’m so glad she did! Thanks Linda, a beautifully crafted post from beginning to end. I feel enriched – such a great feeling, thank you. I will look out the Alexandria Quartet. What an extraordinary story of how you came by it.
How nice of you to visit, Susan. I will say that you happened to drop by when I had one of my favorite/best pieces posted. The quality here varies a bit, but I do try never to bore my readers. As so often happens, the smallest life experience can take time to show its relevance. When an experience is not only relevant (as for blog fodder) but also fun, it’s a win-win. I’m glad you enjoyed this — and I suspect you’d enjoy Durrell’s writing, too.
Once upon a time, I was a voracious reader. No book was safe.
Then, life began constructing speed bumps. Reading became a case of hiccups for which there seemed to be no cure.
It should be a crime to possess books one has not read. Thank goodness it is not, else I would be serving a life sentence.
The next best thing to reading great literature is reading an essay about great literature crafted by a talented writer.
From the outset, your essay held me in thrall. I was at the City, on the veranda, feeling Hemingway-esque. I could smell the mold as it rose from the boxes of books you rifled through. By the end of your story, I was sated. Thank you.
I do not know Durrell. I shall.
My efforts to explore nature are encapsulated in your title as each trip feels as if I am “standing on the threshold of imagination”! The view is overwhelming.
I’ve always been a reader myself. In fact, my reading habits led to a change in cereal brands when I was in grade school. Forbidden to read at the breakfast table, I read the cereal box until I had it memorized. Then, I asked for a change from Raisin Bran to Corn Flakes; my parents indulged me without realizing what was going on.
I fear we’d be in the same cell block if they could convict for the crime you mentioned. I’ve culled my library a good bit, but I can be tempted. I have learned to try books via the library when I can, purchasing only if it’s one I want to read or consult on a regular basis.
Speaking of thresholds and imagination, my last book purchase certainly stirred my imagination. Have you read One More Warbler by Victor Emanuel? I found a used copy in excellent condition at Abe Books for about seven dollars; writing like his is just another way to explore the natural world.
Linda, I apologize for overlooking this site. I’ve been blessed with reading from your other blog, but I certainly enjoyed my time here today. A writer without imagination isn’t a writer of real literature.
Oh, heavens. There’s no need for an apology. There are several people who read here regularly who never visit Lagniappe: at least, that I know. This was my first blog. I started Lagniappe after I started roaming around with my camera, and realized I didn’t want to turn this into a photo blog. Some friends said I was crazy to run two blogs, but it’s worked out all right. I’ve posted here less often in the past couple of years, but I’m going to try to get back to a once-a-week routine again.
Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for affirming my belief that imagination is a key to good writing — and to life itself, perhaps!
Linda, I appreciate you taking time to share more. Blessings to your continuing imagination.
As the kids at Chick-Fil-A say, “My pleasure!”
This really was an engrossing story, on so many levels. Thank you for sharing your efforts, you’ve really opened my eyes.
Well, thank you! I love to travel, and one of the primary reasons is to meet the many interesting people in the world: like the ‘professor’ who introduced me to Durrell. Someone asked me once if I wasn’t afraid to travel alone. I laughed, because one of the first things I learned is that I’m never alone when I travel. There are people everywhere willing to share conversation, open doors, and tell fascinating tales.
With all the books I have here, I do not own a Greene or Durell. I’d best get on it. This was an excellent post!
Thank you very much. I’ve read more Greene than Durrell, but enjoy them equally. Greene’s fiction is somewhat different and more varied, but a browse at the library or bookstore might suggest one you’d like.
Linda, thank you introducing me to two new authors that I did not know: Graham Greene and Lawrence Durrell. I would love to jump into their stories, but where do I have the time to do that now??
Every time I read your posts, I am so impressed with your writing. You write beautifully…each word carefully chosen and fluid writing. Love it.
Thank you so much! I enjoy writing, and of course it pleases me when my readers enjoy what I come up with. My next post here will be somewhat different — a little poetry, but also one of my favorite songs from childhood, that your kids might enjoy. Here’s a hint: do you have robins in California?
Ahhhhhh, I don’t know what it could be from the robin hint. I’ll just have to wait for your post.
Nice…looking forward to it.
Have a great start to the week Linda!
As always your writing is inspired and well crafted. As I read it I thought of your comment on Alessandra’s blog and then saw that confirmed in your comment to Steve. Sadly, my reading attention span is just a few minutes before I realize I have no idea what I have read and then put the book down in frustration. Stupid virus. I used to read for hours rather than minutes. I say this because long ago after reading one of your posts which dealt with a Graham Greene novel I purchased said copy but have not read a page and am fairly sure I’d get lost in the wonderfully chosen and constructed words. That sometimes happens here as well. Your writing is so deep and finely structured that I admire it even though right now I remember little. The reason for this late comment is my saving it to read a few times. I will do so again.
I have a related issue. I’ll often remember a phrase or a paragraph that I’d like to quote, but have no idea where I came across it. Even worse is wanting to go back to a blog that’s no longer active, but not being able to remember the name of the blog or the blogger. Do you remember Andy Hooker, the British photographer who published under the name Lenscaper? I wanted to link to his blog for someone, but it took me two days of searching to finally unearth it.
Beyond all that, one of the reasons I struggle as I do with Russian literature is my own inability to keep the names straight. Having to go back again and again is frustrating; I can imagine it’s even moreso for you. That said, I’m honored you’d make the effort to come back and give it another go — and I’ll do my best to keep my writing comprehensible!
I do remember Lenscaper but am not sure I ever knew his name.
I would imagine that there could be several languages that would be a challenge to remember. Greek, the various Slavic tongues and of course the multiple languages found in India. I recently installed some skylight shades for a couple whose last name contains no vowels. When I asked the husband how to pronounce his name he said Trzpt, just like it’s spelled. Actually I guess it could seem obvious but I learned a long time ago that it’s better to ask and not mangle.
I wouldn’t want you to change anything about your writing. I am sure to most it is very comprehensible. I just need to read slower. Maybe I’ll even give “Our man in Havana” another try.
Here’s an interesting tidbit about Andy Hooker. His forebears included Sir William Jackson Hooker, the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, and Sir William’s second son, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, who took over at Kew Gardens after his father’s death. Andy’s dad was quite a botanist himself, and the two of them used to walk all over England in search of plants. When not botanizing, Andy climbed mountains: the real deal, around the world. Quite a guy.
Here’s a taste of his mountain life.
Sometimes the advent of the internet does help with the frustration of knowing a phrase but not the source. Such things as merely a phrase typed into a search bar will bring up things that contain it. I took a Russian literature class in college and understand about the names. Kind of wish I’d been older when I took that class…very rich…yet my background in philosophy was quite thin. I had a problem with the name thing and many turning back of pages with Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude…the generations…
I’ve always had trouble with Russian literature for the same reason, and put down Marquez fairly quickly: not only for the names. I went back to Marquez a couple of times, but magical realism apparently isn’t my thing. I’ve been willing to stick with the Russians, and have been well-rewarded because of it, but still, it requires a different kind of effort to begin appreciating their work.
There is something that keeps you going back with Russian literature. I mostly recall last names like Turgenev and his book Fathers and Sons, Chekhov, Gogol..Dead Souls I think…and Tolstoy (Countess Tolstoy amazing in her own right)….but my lasting favourie is Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bratsk Station. Now I can’t recall if Yevtushenko was part of my class or something later just remember The City of Yes and the City of No as a favourite poem.
Yevtushenko is one of my favorites. He wrote a good bit of “occasional verse” that sometimes seemed of dubious quality to me, but of course translation may have affected that. In any event “The Heirs of Stalin” seems remarkably relevant to our current situation in this country.
A beautiful post Linda!! As others have said so well crafted, such a joy to follow along, and put me in the mood for reading I haven’t been in in some time.
A mood for reading should be nurtured! I had let reading slide a good bit once I began roaming around with my camera. Between actually being in nature and spending time processing photos, reading and writing took a back seat. Now, I’m getting back in balance a bit, and enjoying my reading again. I am doing a good bit of re-reading, or picking up books from authors I’ve appreciated in the past. Much of what passes for good literature today just doesn’t interest me; I usually find recommendations from friends a better guide than the NY Times best-seller list.