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NA306112 - DURRELL, L.: Mountolive (Abridged)

Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell



Mountolive is the third volume of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. Here he deals with Mountolive, the young British diplomat coming into contact with Egypt, and with Alexandria — an experience central to his life. Characters from the two earlier novels — Nessim, Justine, Narouz, Pursewarden, Melissa — are present once again, but the central theme is of isolation. Again, all speak on the ubiquitous subject of love — which is different for every participant and viewer, and offers endless potential for variation. Characters are imposed upon by their surroundings, and again that chiefly means the city of Alexandria, which has so many sides and so many voices. Solutions to life, love and experience compound more mysteries than they solve; even death is contingent and tentative.


Mountolive has an effect on every other character, and in turn their lives impinge powerfully on him. A junior of exceptional promise in the diplomatic service, he goes to Egypt to improve his Arabic. He is attached to the British High Commission, and carries a letter of introduction to the Hosnani family. This brings him into the rambling old-fashioned house, built upon a network of canals and embankments close to Alexandria, where he falls in love with Leila, the wife of the old and crippled Coptic squire, and also mother of Nessim and Narouz. Nessim is the handsome son, educated in Europe, and a banker; Narouz is a peasant farmer, whose appearance is marred by a harelip.


Mountolive leaves Egypt, and his career takes him to many distant countries. Meantime, through her engaging and brilliant letters, Leila transforms their affair into a close friendship. He longs to see her again, and eventually returns to Egypt as the British Ambassador. But by now Leila has been cruelly marked by smallpox, and she refuses to meet him.


In this volume of the Quartet, political themes grow stronger. What is the truth behind Nessim’s real political maneuverings? What really underpins his relationship with Justine? As this emerges and the story moves to its dramatic conclusion, various mysterious incidents from the previous novels start to be made clear, Pursewarden, Melissa, Pombal and Balthazar all return to the narrative.


Mountolive thus brings out the political dimensions of the Quartet. In Germany, David Mountolive has seen the beginnings of Hitler’s influence, and watched the movement of Europe toward the Second World War. The resonance of these events reaches into Egypt and Palestine, where the dilemma of the victimized Jews will unfold on top of the Arab world. It is also a story of diplomatic routines and intrigues, developing the texture of the sequence as a whole toward its outcome in the final volume to follow.


Lawrence Durrell was born in 1912 in India. When he was ten, the family returned to England and he went to school in Canterbury and then took many jobs, ranging from racing driver to a post in the Jamaica police. He eventually persuaded his family to move to Corfu: these years were recorded by his brother Gerald in My Family and Other Animals (1956) — it was like living ‘ in one of the more flamboyant and comic operas,’ he notes. During the 1930s he lived in Bohemian Paris and was friend and collaborator of Henry Miller. Later he spent much of his time as a journalist, teacher and diplomat in the Middle East.


He began writing early and published an unsuccessful first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, in 1932. A second, Panic Spring (1937) appeared under a pseudonym. The third, The Black Book (1938) was a powerful erotic work published in Paris. He became noted as a poet and wrote travel books, plays, critical works and a children’s novel.


In 1957 he published Justine, the first volume of his ambitious The Alexandria Quartet, which made him famous. Balthazar and Mountolive

followed in 1958, Clea in 1960. Appearing at a time when realistic novels were the norm, this exotic and experimental work was both a critical and popular success. The setting is Egypt and particularly Alexandria, the period immediately before the Second World War. The plan was experimental and elaborate: four novels are interwoven and contain the same characters — couples who come together and part as love grows and then wanes.

Lawrence Durrell published many other novels, including Tunc (1968) and its sequel Nunquam (1970), and The Avignon Quintet, consisting of five novels published between 1974 and 1985. His last book, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence was published the year he died, in 1990.


Notes by Elizabeth Bradbury

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