I am amazed by how different the first three novels of Durrell's ALEXANDRIA QUARTET are from one another. JUSTINE, the first, is a highly subjective account, by a writer drunk on words and sensations, of sexual intrigues among a small coterie in Alexandria in the later 1930s. BALTHAZAR, the second, adds other points of view and offer longer vistas to show the same entanglements in a rather different light. The third, MOUNTOLIVE, embraces many of the same characters over the same period of time, but its texture is entirely different, reading much more like a normal novel. Although Darley, the original narrator, makes occasional appearances, this book abandons first-person narrative entirely. In a further move towards objectivity, it focuses on a professional diplomat, Sir David Mountolive, who is appointed British Ambassador to Egypt at about the time the overlapping action begins. But the book begins several decades earlier, building up Mountolive's personality, showing the man of feeling behind the professional neutrality of his facade. As a much younger attaché at the start of the novel, he became the lover of Leila Hosnani, the mother of powerful brothers Nessim and Narouz, who are as important to this book as they were to BALTHAZAR. Leila's friendship, continued through the years by correspondence, is a powerful force drawing Mountolive back to Egypt, but ultimately a liability when he has to act in an official capacity towards the end.
Seen in its own terms (and it almost does stand on its own), MOUNTOLIVE is a political or historical novel rather than a romantic one. But it requires some knowledge of the European presence in the Middle East. By the end of the First World War, Britain essentially administered both Egypt and Palestine. By the time of these novels, Egypt has been granted independence, although Britain still wields great influence in its affairs, but the British mandate in neighboring Palestine will remain in force until 1947. And even within Egypt, Alexandria is a special case, where European influence is almost more important than Arabic. The leading figures in the novel, as in Alexandrian society, are not primarily Moslems, but Coptic Christians together with some Jews and numerous expatriates. The potential tensions between these various groups, only lightly hinted at in BALTHAZAR, become the mainspring of the plot of MOUNTOLIVE, which takes on elements of a spy story. Once more, this new perspective casts a new light on everything that we had seen before, giving an added real-world dimension to its characters.
The greater time-span of this novel means that we can see events through to at least a provisional conclusion. The first two-thirds of the book are brighter, more inspiring, than anything in the tetralogy so far. The major characters ride waves of passion, inspiration, ambition, determination. But almost all these bright starts come up against limitations, if not outright failure. The miracle is that this trajectory does not make MOUNTOLIVE depressing. Durrell's writing is a fine as ever, but now it is active rather than static; he seems less concerned with philosophy and description, more with character and action. In particular, the book is structured around a number of two-person encounters, each distinctly different from the others, exquisitely well observed in terms of the interplay of character, and often taking surprising turns. Not even the desert ride in BALTHAZAR, for instance, can match the drama of Nessim's final confrontation with Narouz. None of the sexual activity in JUSTINE can touch the sad bedroom encounter between Pursewarden and Melissa, whose very failure proves so pivotal to the plot. And at the very end of the book, as the characters find themselves trapped in situations of their own making, Durrell returns to his earlier virtuoso style with a vengeance, creating an atmosphere of nightmare that propels the action towards a climactic tour-de-force, even while sounding the knell of earlier hopes.
But there remains the promise of the last book, CLEA, to move the action forward and provide a true ending. The painter Clea has appeared in all three books so far as a touchstone of balance and grace. If any of her qualities infuse the book that bears her name, Durrell must surely achieve his own kind of benediction.