The characters in this story,” writes Lawrence Durrell at the start of Justine, the first novel in his Alexandria Quartet, “are all inventions.” Then he adds five stunning words: “Only the city is real.” For someone like me, born and raised in Alexandria after the Second World War, it is difficult to believe that Durrell’s city could ever have existed.
Traces of the Alexandria he knew during the early 1940s, when the British and European presence was pervasive, had almost entirely disappeared from the Alexandria I knew in the 1950s and mid-1960s, when Egyptian nationalism was speedily expunging all remnants of the West. Many of the theatres, cafés, hotels and parks that Durrell named in The Alexandria Quartet were still there, but even to a teenager it was obvious that they had acquired a sagging, old-world charm that was fast withering as Europeans left or were expelled.
The multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-everything city, housing, in Durrell’s own words, “five races, five languages, a dozen creeds, five fleets… and more than five sexes” was already gone. It was only after my family’s expulsion from Egypt, on a beautiful spring day in Rome in 1967, that I finally started to read The Alexandria Quartet. Sitting on the Spanish Steps, I began Justine, the first novel, and was totally transfixed. I couldn’t tell whether it was Durrell’s style or the untrammelled lovemaking of his characters that drew me back to a city I had never really known – or even thought was worth knowing – and that I was suddenly rediscovering, belatedly, through someone else’s eyes: its sinuous and exotic corners, its streets looming with erotic pleasures.
There were so many things that I recognised. The Alexandria I’d known was filled with interesting people who were kind, learned and loved high culture, and yes, many led what were called double lives. Justine, Melissa, Clea, Balthazar, Scobie, Nessim – surely all of them existed; I could see them now. That night in Rome, in my bedroom, I must have read half of Justine. It was a Friday night. I was 16 and for the first time in my life I ached for my city – real or unreal, I didn’t care. If it had to be Durrell’s city instead of mine, so be it. “The city will follow you,” said Cavafy. I thought that, in Rome, I had forgotten Alexandria. Not true. It would never leave me, nor I leave it.
The irony is that the city in Durrell’s quartet needn’t have been Alexandria at all. Take out the resonant names of the tramway stops, beaches and parks, and it could easily have been swapped with Venice, Istanbul, Jerusalem or Hong Kong. These are all cities that have witnessed the passage of so many settlers and been trundled and overwritten so many times that they are no longer lodged in the present or defined by one identity. If part of them faces the world beyond and things to come, their backs are turned to a past that, like the desert, is a landlocked hinterland that won’t go away and whose dust seeps right back in at night when no one’s looking and then sits on their conscience. The tussling between the two sides is tireless, thought-tormented, and ultimately sapping.