Tuesday, 26 July 2005

Lawrence Durrell: Mountolive (1958)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1958 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1302

The third novel of the Alexandria Quartet may cover the same events for a third time, but it is quite different from both Justine and Balthazar. Mountolive moves away from the first person narrative by a young poet (whose name, we learn, is Darley, significantly similar to Durrell). It is replaced by a third person tale which mainly follows the point of view of Mountolive, a much older man and British ambassador to Egypt just before the war - a man of huge influence after Egypt had been virtually a British colony for much of the preceding half century. The earlier novels concentrated on Darley's affair with Justine, wife of wealthy Coptic merchant Nessim. While this is almost incidental, Mountolive had a similar affair with Nessim's mother while he was a young man, and this is where this novel begins, with what is effectively a long prologue. However, though the memory of this time is still strongly emotive to Mountolive, his concern with Justine and Nessim is more political, for they are suspected of working with Zionist groups in Palestine in anti-British, anti-Arab terrorism there.

This overtly political side to the plot, which almost puts Mountolive into the thriller genre (the style is too slow moving to allow this), is new in the Quartet. Even the Antrobus stories, which are set in the diplomatic corps, have nothing of this sort (being mainly concerned with humour derived from protocol disasters). However, Durrell witnessed at first hand some of the debacles attendant on the dismantling of the British Empire (his experience in Cyprus being documented in Bitter Lemons), and it is not surprising that a book which appeared at the same time as the Suez Crisis, even if not set at the time, should bring to mind some of the political chaos of the period.

In the last fifty years, John le Carré, Len Deighton and a host of imitators have made careers as thriller writers through books about betrayal and how it feels to suspect a friend. Durrell does much the same, in a way, though his characters have no desire to investigate; they want to find out as little as possible, in the hope - and belief - that the suspicions will prove to be groundless. (This inactivity is one of the main reasons that Mountolive can never be classed as a thriller.) This, of course, also gives an insight into the events at the time a few years before the book was written, the days when the treachery of Philby, Burgess and Maclean became known.

As Justine (who was not a native Egyptian) is partly a symbol of Alexandria, so Nessim's mother in her turn is something of a symbol for Egypt as a whole. In this respect, Chapter XV, in which Mountolive finally meets Leila again, is really the key to the novel. The reality is that Leila's beauty, so vividly remembered, has been ravaged by small pox and age, to the extent that even close up he does not recognise her. The meeeting is immediately followed by a deliberate attempt on the part of Mountolive to re-establish the romantic mystique of Egypt in his mind - Leila's symbolic role is apparent even to the other characters in the novel.

Mountolive and Darley also have symbolic roles to play - Mountolive is British involvement in Egyptian affairs, and Darley is the literary interest in Alexandria. Once you begin to see characters as having wider significance, it is hard to stop assigning such roles to them; the answer is of course to always think about whether doing so adds to the interest of the novel. Characters like Pursewarden and Melissa only have parts to play in relation to Darley or Justine, so even though they are more important characters in terms of the Quartet as a work of fiction, they are not really symbols in the same way as the ones already mentioned.

The earlier novels both have interesting endpieces, as does the final part, Clea; Mountolive has none at all. This has the effect of underlining the finality of the novel: this is the last re-examining of these events (Clea picks up the story of the main characters again some years later), and there is no useful purpose in another collection of bons mots or impressionistic notes; Durrell no longer wants the reader to constantly re-evaluate what has gone before. In some ways, Clea is the end-paper to Mountolive, as well as rounding off the whole Quartet.

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