Friday, 28 August 2015

The Clue to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet

A clue to understanding The Alexandria Quartet.
I can think of several instances where a writer has written one thing and this has been misunderstood by an editor who has changed it to mean something else.  Or where a writer has made a mistake and nobody has noticed so that it has become enshrined as authentic.  Or the printer has made the mistake with the same result.  

Critics and academics usually have no idea about the process of producing a book and all the mishaps that happen along the way.  Typographical errors become the subject of almost religious speculation. They find mysteries where there are none or invent theories which obscure the plain facts. 

They also ignore the truth that writers are craftsmen, rather like carpenters, and their instinct is never to throw anything away; bits and pieces might come in handy if glued on at a suitable place later.  Or you can always pretend that a rounded corner was meant to be a rounded corner even though it was meant to be cut square. 

Environs of Alexandria from Aboukir to Mariut.
This comes to mind because of some strange lines in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.  In this first example from Justine Nessim is recalling with a sense of richness his childhood home in Aboukir to the east of Alexandria.  (The page numbers are for the individual Faber volumes and for the one-volume Quartet.)

'He had begun to harbour feelings which would not yield to analysis. The periods of intoxication were followed by others in which he felt, as if for the first time, the full weight of his loneliness: an inner agony of spirit for which, as yet, he could find no outward expression, either in paint or in action. He mused now incessantly upon his early years, full of a haunting sense of richness: his mother’s shadowy house among the palms and poinsettias of Aboukir: the waters pulling and slithering among the old fort’s emplacements, compiling the days of his early childhood in single condensed emotions born from visual memory.' [Justine  158/130]

Ancient wine press in the Mariut region.
But in the next volume, Balthazar, Nessim says his real and richer childhood was not at Aboukir, where in any case he spent only a few years, but elsewhere.  

'The two brothers now mounted their horses and started slowly along the network of embankments and causeways which led them over the lake with its panels of cultivation. Nessim always loved this ride for it evoked his real childhood — so much richer in variety than those few years spent in the house at Aboukir where Leila had moved for a while after their father’s death.' [Balthazar  69/253] 

Lake Mariut
This real and richer childhood home is not anywhere near Aboukir to the east of Alexandria, but at Karm Abu Girg, where the Delta meets the Western Desert in the region of Mariut (ancient Mareotis). 

'The Hosnani fortunes were deployed in two directions, separated into two spheres of responsibility, and each brother had his own. Nessim controlled the banking house and its ancillaries all over the Mediterranean, while Narouz lived the life of a Coptic squire, never stirring from Karm Abu Girg where the Hosnani lands marched with the fringe of the desert, gradually eating into it, expropriating it year by year.' [Balthazar  66/251]

Uncovering the desert past.
So why did Durrell change Nessim's real and rich childhood home from Aboukir to Karm Abu Girg?  

In moving from Justine to Balthazar, Durrell has dropped one place in favour of another.  Clearly the decision was not preconceived in Justine; he was forced to go out of his way in Balthazar to try to explain away the change.  

Oddly, I am not aware that any critic has noticed this change from Aboukir to Karm Abu Girg.  But the person who understands why Durrell made that decision would understand how and why he wrote The Alexandria Quartet.  The clue lies in Mariut and the name Karm Abu Girg. 

Wild grass in the Delta.
For more on this click here.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Palmyra: Vue Générale

Wish you were here.
One of our great achievements in recent years has been the narrowing of our world, the growing number of places we can no longer visit, that are even being destroyed. 

Looking at this old postcard of Palmyra made me think that soon this is all we will have left.  Old postcards of all the places we can no longer go to - too dangerous to see or no longer there because they have been blown up by people more serious about history and culture than ourselves.