No single imagination can truly own a city, so when we speak of Proust’s Paris, Joyce’s Dublin, Musil’s Vienna and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, we are really clearing a space in our minds where specific happenings and feelings may be identified and reconvened. It is these novelists’ pressing need to set their narratives down in some palpable place, almost as aliens colonizing a territory, rather than a compulsion to celebrate their country or fictionalize an already famous vicinity that leads to their iconic inventions.
This is especially the case with the four novels that make up The Alexandria Quartet – Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea – published in quick succession from 1957 to 1960. It had not been Durrell’s original intention to carry the story over so long a span, but once begun, he found he had an irresistible impulse to complete the full trajectory of a long-fostered obsession. Alexandria became the mise en scène of his masterpiece, if not by accident, at least fortuitously. To state this is not to question the powerful presence of the city throughout the novels. But Durrell’s creative instinct appears to have hit on Alexandria as the right domain for his long-anticipated magnum opus because it had become highly familiar to him during his wartime exile and, more importantly, because an Alexandrian woman had entered his life at a critical point.
more from the TLS here.