If 1957 marked the end of Durrell’s lifelong struggle to make ends meet— publication of the Quartet permitted him to move into a house he bought with his third wife in the French village of Sommières, where he lived until his death in 1990— something else ended in that season. The eight novels he wrote after the Quartet, including an inchoate set of novels he dubbed the Avignon Quintet, were tepidly received, disappointing his hopes—and not just his—that lightning would strike a second time. Perhaps his hunger was gone, or the creative well was dry, leaving only self-caricature. It’s also possible his public lost patience. The Alexandria Quartet is a tour de force, but a little Durrell goes a long way.
Memory and distance throw light on what The Alexandria Quartet was a half century ago—a dying burst of romance in the heyday of realism, an appeal to credulity on the eve of so much skepticism, a bold experiment in form that in only a few years literary experimentalism would render almost pallid. But the books do bear rereading for the same reasons, as a sweet remembrance of things from not so long ago. “Art occurs at the point where a form is sincerely honored by an awakened spirit,” Durrell once aphorized. By his lights and mine, The Alexandria Quartet remains a work of art.
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